As two conservative professors, we agree that right-wing faculty members and ideas are not always treated fairly on college campuses. But we also know that right-wing hand-wringing about higher education is overblown. After interviewing 153 conservative professors in the social sciences and humanities, we believe that conservatives survive and even thrive in one of America’s most progressive professions.
First, conservative professors are not helpless victims — they have become quite skilled at navigating the progressive university. About a third of the professors we interviewed said they concealed their politics prior to earning tenure. Of course, being in the closet is not easy. (One particularly distressed professor told us: “It is dangerous to even think [a conservative thought] when I’m on campus, because it might come out of my mouth.”) But it’s also a temporary hardship, since nearly all the conservatives whom we interviewed planned to emerge from the ivory tower’s shadows after gaining tenure. Once tenured, conservatives are free to express their politics and publish research that reflects right-wing interests and perspectives. As one put it to us: “I don’t mind causing trouble now.”
This finding should remind us that the tolerance of the university does not rest entirely or even primarily on the social psychology of professors. It is supported by the institution of tenure, a fact that should give pause to those conservative thinkers who advocate its abolition.
Second, the vast majority of conservative professors we spoke with said the right-wing campaign against the university overstates its politicization. Yes, these professors acknowledge, too many disciplines and subfields — including sociology, literature and modern American history — are “unsafe spaces” for right-wing thinkers. The conservatives who enter those fields need thick skin, which is partly why conservatives usually avoid them altogether. (As one conservative historian put it, “If you’re a conservative, there [are] such huge no-go zones.”) But professors on the right also say that major swaths of the social sciences and humanities are riven more by methodological and theoretical divides than by political ones. Political science, for example, has been badly divided between supporters of quantitative methods and those who favor “softer” qualitative approaches, uniting liberals and conservatives in both camps.
And however bad partisan polarization becomes, some fields may always be immune to it. As one professor of ancient history noted, “We’re all in agreement that those [ancient] societies were politically extremely unpleasant.” Economics is especially untouched by political biases, dominated as it is by technical, methodological concerns. One economist told us that his work environment is so depoliticized that he was a colleague of Ben Bernanke for 15 years without knowing his political leanings: “I didn’t find out until he was selected to be [the chairman of George W. Bush’s] Council of Economic Advisers that he was a Republican. I just didn’t know.”
Third, conservative professors do not say the university is implacably hostile to their ideas and values. In fact, about half the professors we interviewed began drifting toward conservatism while in the academy itself. While some recoiled against the perceived excesses of leftist students and faculty members, conservative professors more commonly moved right because of positive experiences. Some took undergraduate courses in economics that exposed them to the virtues of markets. One such professor remembered taking an economics class during the energy crisis of the 1970s: “Now I understood why I was waiting in line to buy gasoline. It was like the scales falling from my eyes.” Others began to drift rightward after encountering conservative students for the first time. As one professor who grew up in progressive Brooklyn recalled: “It was really eye-opening once these [conservative] arguments were presented to me in a non-insane way.” Other professors moved to the right through their research. One historian, for example, emphasized the influence of studying conservative subjects as a graduate student: “I think the sheer fact of studying conservatism makes you take it more seriously.”
For these professors, the university is not an adversarial institution — it is the birthplace of their conservatism and intellectual identities. As one literature professor told us: “The university has really given me my life. It’s a very wonderful place.”
Conservatives even report close friendships with colleagues far to their left. “I love my colleagues, we love each other very much,” one literature professor told us. “They . . . joke with me and say, ‘Oh, I heard you’re in love with Michele Bachmann’ or ‘You’re in love with Sarah Palin.’ ” A conservative history professor reported that his best friend is a leftist historian — who sometimes jokingly introduces him by saying, “Meet my friend, he’s a right-wing fanatic.” Friendships are possible across the partisan divide in the academy partly for the same reasons the U.S. Senate has historically been a friendlier place than the House — it is a small, aristocratic institution with a tradition of civility and deliberation.
Thus, many of the conservatives we interviewed feel surprisingly at home in universities — often more so than in the Republican Party. This is not because they are moderate Rockefeller Republicans. (Only a minority of the professors we interviewed, for example, support same-sex marriage.) Instead, conservative professors are troubled by the populism that has swept the GOP in recent years, embodied by the tea party and some of its intemperate candidates. Unlike many of their progressive colleagues, conservative professors are leery of mass movements promising to remake America; they express a strong preference for established elites with long political résumés. As one typical professor complained to us, “There has to be some actual respect for expertise.” With the ascent of Donald Trump, the chasm between conservative professors and rank-and-file Republicans has undoubtedly grown larger still.
We have no interest in slighting the challenges conservatives face in academia. They remain more poorly represented there than all current targets of affirmative action, and some studies suggest that their numbers are falling. There is bias, too: In one study by George Yancey, a sociologist at the University of North Texas, for example, some 30 percent of sociologists acknowledged that they would be less likely to hire a job applicant if they knew she was a Republican. Yancey found that 15 percent of political scientists and 24 percent of philosophers would discriminate against Republican job applicants, and at least 29 percent of professors in all disciplines surveyed would disfavor members of the National Rifle Association. He found that professors are even less tolerant of evangelicals, partly because that identity is a proxy for social conservatism.
This prejudice has professional consequences for right-leaning academics. Scholars Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter found that socially conservative professors tend to work at lower-ranked institutions than their publication records would predict. In addition, a study of elite law schools shows that libertarian and conservative professors publish more than their peers, which suggests that conservatives must outshine liberals to reach the summit of their profession. The finding is especially striking given that other research suggests it is more difficult for scholars to publish work that reflects conservative perspectives.
We have seen some evidence of this bias firsthand. But like most of the professors we profile in our book, we also feel gratitude to the progressive scholars who mentored us — as dissertation advisers, letter writers, morale boosters and book reviewers. They are what one of our subjects called “cosmopolitan liberals,” and they make it possible for conservatives like us to succeed in academia.
The answer is not to segregate conservative professors at schools like Grove City College or Liberty University, which most conservative professors regard as academic Siberia. Instead, more should be done to make the mainstream university an inclusive place. In their frequent homages to diversity, schools should stress their support for political pluralism; every time an invitation to a conservative speaker is rescinded, they do just the opposite. Additionally, liberal professors should temper their preference for like-minded colleagues by considering the virtues of viewpoint diversity. That case is being made more forcefully than ever at Heterodox Academy, a new initiative created by New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Universities might even experiment with having visiting professors of conservative thought, as the University of Colorado is doing.
And, finally, movement conservatives should deescalate their rhetorical war against the progressive university. Such polemics, after all, may inadvertently solidify progressives’ troubled rule over academia by discouraging young conservatives from becoming professors.