Conservatives in the Academy

In light of my post on Steven Hayward’s appointment at the University of Colorado, I thought it might be worthwhile re-posting some earlier thoughts on the general subject.  Here are some thoughts from a post of mine from 2003, prompted by this David Brooks column.

“LONELY CAMPUS VOICES”: Today’s David Brooks column struck a chord. When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I had several long discussions with my senior essay advisor about whether to pursue my PhD. My advisor, who was himself quite liberal, cautioned against it, largely because of my emerging, right-of-center political views. As he described it, succeeding in the liberal arts academy is tough enough as it is without the added burden of holding unpopular views. To illustrate the risk, he noted that one of his colleagues on the graduate admissions committee explicitly blackballed each and every candidate who had ever received financial support (scholarships, fellowships, etc.) from the John M. Olin Foundation because, his colleague insisted, the Olin Foundation only funded people who thought like they did, and Yale did not want any graduate students who thought that way. If I truly wanted to be an academic, he counseled, I was better off going to law school. While he didn’t know much about the politics of the legal academy, a law degree would provide a better safety net than a history PhD. In the end, that’s what I did.

My experience in the academy further confirms Brooks’ account. Most of the hostility faced by conservatives (and libertarians) is not explicit, and often not conscious or deliberate. In many cases, the subject matter and methodology of conservative scholarship is simply of no interest to those on the left (and probably vice-versa). At schools where there are no tenured conservatives, job candidates and junior professors may be left without a “champion” to help them navigate the process. The lack of right-of-center views at some schools may also make even moderate conservatives appear “kooky” or extreme. By the same token, it is clear to me that many conservatives in academia cry “wolf,” or seek to blame political opposition on their failure to succeed in a highly competitive environment. Contrary to what some believe, not every conservative’s failure to get tenure is the result of politics. Those that do succeed, however, will often work on faculties with few like-minded colleagues.

To conclude, I think the bias against conservatives is real (if overstated) in many parts of the academy, particularly the humanities. Nevertheless, careful and talented conservatives can succeed in the academy if they are willing to become “lonely voices.”

I would also endorse the arguments made by Professor Bainbridge here and here.

In sum, I think that the relative paucity of conservative and libertarian voices in the academy is the result of multiple factors.  Self-selection certainly plays a role, and (as David noted in this post) a completely neutral hiring process would be unlikely to produce anything resembling a “balance” of ideologies representing the public at large.   In addition to self-selection there is the problem that faculties tend to reproduce themselves, ideologically and otherwise.  This does not mean conscious bias is absent, but it’s hardly the only factor.

As for what to do, that’s the hard part.  I don’t think there need to be overt efforts to ensure the hiring of those with under-represented views.  There is no historical injustice to cure and no one has an entitlement to an academic job.  I also don’t believe all problems can (or even should) be solved.  Some cures are worse than the disease, and it would be disastrous were academic hiring subjected to governmental oversight (any more than it already is).  I also believe private educational institutions should be free to hire in line with their educational philosophies.  That said, I do think it is worthwhile to call out those who claim to be open-minded but do, in fact, discourage or discriminate against those with contrary views, even inadvertently.

I believe the academic environment is enriched by a range of voices and perspectives.  It’s difficult to teach students to be effective advocates without teaching them how to understand competing views and perspectives, and it’s hard to teach (let alone understand) competing views if one has little exposure or interaction with them.  I enjoy working in an environment in which there are many people with wildly different views of the world.  In fact, I often think it works to my advantage.  Insofar as there are more of “them” in my university and my field, I have a much better window into their approach to issues than they do to mine.  For this reason, I think it’s important to encourage a range of voices in the academy — and I hope I do my part toward that goal.  My lament is that, as judged by their actions, many self-proclaimed liberals don’t feel the same way.

[Note: the 2003 post above was partially lost in the archives, so I restored it with the help of the wayback machine.]

UPDATE: And speaking of intellectual diversity on campus, the Harvard Law School chapter of the Federalist Society will be hosting a conference on the subject next month.  The line-up of speakers is quite strong.  Details here.