Why Are Conservatives Rare on College Faculties?

The old arguments about why there are so few conservative college professors got a new twist recently. Neil Gross, professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and Ethan Fosse, a doctoral student at Harvard, argued in a paper (available on Professor Gross’ website) that the key reason why few conservatives go into the teaching profession is that the stereotype of the job of a professor just doesn’t fit the image they have of themselves. Just as few men want to go into nursing because it’s viewed as a woman’s occupation, so do few conservatives want to go into the professiorate because it’s viewed as a liberal’s occupation.

The Pope Center asked a number of professors known to be conservative or libertarian in outlook to comment on the Gross/Fosse thesis. Here are their replies.

Michael Munger—Duke University

Some people have claimed that the lack of conservative professors is caused by the fact
that conservatives aren’t interested in being professors.

In other words, conservatives aren’t interested in things like history, literature, and the classics. Presumably, the idea is that conservatives just want to play golf and wear plaid pants and sweater sets in alarming colors.

This idea is absurd on its face: history, literature, classical education, and constitutional government are at the very center of the conservative ideal.
The people who claim “there aren’t many!” as an explanation for “there are none!” don’t really care about facts, or real arguments. They believe, as quite a few faculty have told me with straight faces, that expecting a history or English department to hire a conservative is like asking a biology department to hire a creationist.  Being a conservative, in many places, is just not intellectually respectable.

Jonathan Bean—Southern Illinois University

In 1995, I squeaked through to a tenure-track job because there were still older liberals who were open to people with differing viewpoints. Even then, the next generation of scholars in history and related fields was orchestrating a silent, effective purge of conservatives, libertarians and people of faith. The purge begins with graduate reading lists (you read Edward Said but never learn about Bernard Lewis; read Marx and never learn the name Hayek). I have seen job descriptions written to select the “right” people interested in gender studies or “critical race theory.” The shift to “diversity liberalism” has the stamp of accreditation bodies institutional mission statements, and is increasingly a requirement—call it a loyalty oath—that all faculty are expected to obey.

The leftist professoriate exhibits what Guy Alchon calls “doughnut skepticism”: all critical thinking is directed outward at the hated mainstream culture, particularly the business classes. There is little genuine self-reflection, in part because left-of-center scholars believe that they “are the other side” balancing out the (supposedly) conservative culture that surrounds them. It’s a paranoid and parochial style of academic politics that leads them to purge dissidents who disagree with their view of the world.

Is higher education a “hostile environment” for conservatives and libertarians? You betcha.

Burton Folsom—Hillsdale College

For sure, liberals breed liberals and likes attract likes.  Thus, the leftists on campus perpetuate themselves generation after generation.  The Gross and Fosse article goes into more variables, and some of those are probably important, too. Academics usually have modest life styles—no serious desire for a Mercedes or a beach house. Also, they must be loners to some extent. I can’t see, however, that there is anything in the professor’s job that makes it unappealing to conservatives and libertarians. 

Mark Bauerlein—Emory University

Although one is tempted to quibble with this or that contention in “Why Are Professors Liberal?” the ultimate conclusion to the study rings altogether true to me.  It is: “the professoriate, along with a number of other knowledge work fields, has been ‘politically typed’ as appropriate for and welcoming of people with broadly liberal political sensibilities, and as inappropriate for conservatives.”  Whether that reputation is deserved or not, it has an impact upon students with any ideological radar and they respond accordingly.  If they sense at age 19 that an occupation is uncongenial to their dispositions, they’ll drift elsewhere.  Thus a self-selection process reinforces the reputation over time.

The pattern is acute in academia, more so than in other professions. This is because students have sustained exposure to academic workplaces all through college; they see them up close, and they have direct dealings with the professionals. They don’t spend years learning in hospitals, courtrooms, labs, software firms, TV stations, etc., and so they can’t derive judgments of the “occupational politics” of medicine, law, and so on.  But in class they soon sense the values of their teachers (teachers are a lot more transparent than they think), and they learn what counts as good work and bad. As liberal and leftist values circulate freely from one class to the next, the impression hardens and conservatives steer clear.  After all, for even the successful ones, job security in humanities fields takes around six years of graduate school, a few years of post-doc and adjunct work, then six years as an assistant professor before that halo of tenure descends.  Would bright conservative students want to throw their 20s and 30s away on such a career gamble?

Mary Grabar—Georgia Perimeter College

Had Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse bothered to talk to conservatives in the academy or to the multitudes who left in disgust, they might have learned about the harassment, ridicule, censorship, and open discrimination we face. I would have told them about my experiences in graduate school, like being branded an ignorant Christian fundamentalist for simply pointing out the religious references in T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday.  A rhetoric professor, for my lonely defense of Socrates in the dialogues, suggested that I might even like the writings of “fascist” writer Richard Weaver.  That is how I often made my discoveries of the rich conservative intellectual tradition. 

While my colleagues proudly post photos from Obama and Biden signed, “Thanks for your help,” we conservatives tremble lest a hiring committee discover a letter to the editor on the Internet or our membership in the National Association of Scholars. Job descriptions do not call for our scholarship.  A colleague on a one-year contract was told he was not eligible for the permanent position because it was changed to one for a “gender historian.”

Even though I’ve learned to stay quiet during political discussions in the break room, I’ve received nasty emails from colleagues and former professors for my published columns.

William Anderson—Frostburg State

While self-selection might explain part of why college faculties are so left-leaning, it hardly provides a full explanation. One thing to keep in mind is that for all of the talk about “knowledge” and “cutting-end information,” higher education often is on the “cutting edge” of nothing. In many disciplines, being current on knowledge—or even being correct, for that matter—is not important. Where else but in higher education (and government) could something as fraudulent as “Keynesian economics” be considered “good” economics?

Higher education is not a profit-making entity (for the most part), and factors other than ability and know-how play large roles in hiring of new professors. One of those factors is political ideology, and since people are more comfortable being surrounded by others who think like they do, it is not surprising that many universities and colleges will hire people who are like the others. In other words, the whole thing builds upon itself.

Thomas Bertonneau—SUNY Oswego

The study by Fosse and Gross, aside from offering a circular argument (the academy is liberal because liberals—rather than conservatives—are drawn to the academy), runs counter to everything that I have observed in nearly thirty years of combined graduate-school and teaching experience at the college level. 

The professoriate is not merely liberal, it is radically left liberal in its basic assumptions and it is relentless in its determination to make itself homogeneously left liberal, if necessary by driving out difference.  Even where a majority of faculty members are, perhaps, not vehement in their like-minded attitude, the true believers tend to dominate the institutional structure and set the tone. The degree of hostility toward dissent would likely shock an outsider.

The most ridiculous claim by Fosse and Gross is that the political character of the academy can be explained in part by the fact that the scholarly life attracts people who have a “a high tolerance for controversial ideas.”  On the contrary: the academy is intellectually conformist and averse to actual controversy.  On every subject—from “global warming” to Darwinism to affirmative action to abortion—there is one permissible opinion.