The Plight of College Conservatives

The question isn’t whether the world of higher education in America is biased against conservatives (professors and students), but how much so.  Is there just a smidgen, so it’s not worth listening to complaints about it—or such a massive amount that it verges on a national crisis?

A recent article published in the American Association of University Professors’ magazine provokes me to consider the question. Political science professor Matthew Woessner (of Penn State-Harrisburg) writes that his research indicates that conservative professors like himself don’t fare nearly as badly as he had assumed. He also doubts that the dominance of professors who have strong leftist views has much of an effect on the beliefs of students.

I’ll examine his arguments about the faculty first, then his arguments about students.

To begin with, Woessner concludes from polling data that the overwhelming majority of Republican and conservative faculty members are “successful, happy, and prosperous.” Only 2 percent of all faculty say that they have been treated unfairly due to their politics and 7 percent of the conservatives believe that discrimination against those who hold “right-wing” views is a “serious problem” on their campuses. That’s just about the same percentage as liberals who say that discrimination against “left-wing” views is a problem.

Those are small numbers, but why shouldn’t they be zero? If we were discussing the problem of rape on campus, someone who replied that it really isn’t something to worry about because it’s very rare would be pelted with rotten tomatoes. Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where freedom of inquiry and the exchange of arguments are cherished.

Professor Woessner is not saying that we should be supine about cases such as that of Theresa Wagner, who has made a strong case that she was turned down for a position at the University of Iowa Law School because faculty members did not want to have a conservative around. His argument is that we might discourage conservatives from trying to secure academic positions by making too much of those instances where there is evident bias against applicants who dissent from leftist orthodoxy.

I can’t agree. Keeping people out because their political and philosophic convictions aren’t to the liking of the incumbents is just as bad as keeping people out because their religious convictions are disfavored. When academics turn thumbs down on applicants or mistreat current faculty members on account of their politics, that should be denounced loudly. It may be infrequent—and if the percentages given above are accurate, it’s not all that infrequent—but political bias against conservative and libertarian professors should not be downplayed.

Another issue Woessner takes on is why there are relatively few professors who hold “right-wing” views. His answer boils down to differing personal choices. Conservative students, Woessner writes, tend to place a higher value on “securing a comfortable salary and having time to raise a family” than do liberal students. Therefore, liberals are more apt to enter doctoral programs and that’s why we find a large ideological gap at the end of the pipeline.

If true, that would be an exculpatory explanation, but I think there is more to it than simply a difference regarding life aspirations.

Professor Daniel B. Klein argues (with Charlotta Stern) that we find so much leftist “groupthink” in the academic world because most of our professiorate comes through a rather small number of Ph.D. programs (at the elite research universities) and since those departments are dominated by leftists, few students who are not leftists make it through to enter the competition for faculty openings.

Suppose that a college graduate who holds conservative/libertarian views is considering an academic career in sociology, believing that her understanding of the world could lead to important sociological insights. She’d like to create and disseminate knowledge and does not think that an academic career would be at odds with her goals in life.

But here’s the problem. Sociology departments at the prestige universities are known to be redoubts of leftism. Their members are often (not always, but often) aggressive proponents of government solutions to social problems and hostile to arguments that previous government solutions are in fact responsible for the problems being as bad as they now are. 

Our student, knowing that the academic terrain is likely to be extremely forbidding unless she keeps her philosophy in the closet, might very well conclude that pursuing the Ph.D. isn’t sensible. By the same token, if the members of, say, Princeton’s Sociology Department, have to choose between an applicant who exudes enthusiasm for their outlook and one who seems to be less “collegial,” they’re apt to prefer the former.

So if our student does go on to earn a doctorate in sociology, it will probably be at one of the non-elite universities and she is more apt to wind up working in a think tank than securing tenure on a university faculty.

What about students? Complaints that those aggressively leftist professors are making life miserable for conservative students and turning others into ideological clones of themselves have been around for many years.  Woessner doesn’t think there is really much to be concerned about, though. He points to research finding that students’ partisan orientations shifted only a tiny way towards the Democrats and quotes his wife (and co-researcher) who says that “students aren’t sponges.”

He writes, “when students perceive a gap between their political views and those of the instructor, students express less interest in the material …and tend to offer the instructor a lower course evaluation….(S)tudents do not passively accept disparate political messages but tend to push back against faculty members they perceive as presenting a hostile point of view.”

Undoubtedly that is sometimes true. Woessner himself recounts an instance when he, as an undergraduate, encountered a sociology professor who harangued the class on the evils of Reagan’s economic policies. When the professor noticed him cringing at her lecture, she asked him to explain his thoughts. He did so. “To her credit,” he writes, “she listened attentively” but “had never heard a spirited defense of conservative economic policies….”

In that case, Woessner pushed back. Maybe some of the other students benefited from the enlightening exchange in class. The trouble is that often there aren’t any students who push back. Indeed, the fact that Woessner’s professor had never heard such a defense suggests that to be the case. The majority of the students in most classes are unlikely to entertain doubts about a professor’s stance and the sort of harangue Woessner describes will merely reinforce students’ existing ideas.

Whether professors pushing their personal opinions is widespread or fairly rare, it’s a bad practice—one that’s contrary to the AAUP’s founding declaration on academic freedom that they should not “provide students with ready-made opinions, but train them to think for themselves.” Professors who harbor animosity toward the free market and use their classrooms to lambaste something they don’t understand are abusing their positions and wasting their students’ time. Neither should be tolerated.

In short, I think that the politicization of the academy is a more serious problem than Professor Woessner does. But is there a solution?

I think so. The solution to the problem of politicization is the looming “unbundling” of higher education that will occur when students find that they can “hack” their degrees by taking the best courses available online. (That idea has been advanced in quite a few books recently, including Richard DeMillo’s Abelard to Apple.) Instead of having to choose among a few sections of sociology or history taught by the faculty at the college where the student is enrolled, he’ll be able to shop online for the best courses available. There will probably be plenty of advice as to which ones are good and which ones to avoid, just as with music recordings.

As for the professors, having a prestigious academic post—or even any at all—won’t be so important. Teaching online, to paraphrase Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. , will be judged by the content of its character rather than by the prestige of the professor’s institution. We may see the rise of “free lance professors,” an idea raised by Troy Camplin.

Whether you think conservative professors and students are treated terribly today, or not too badly, I suspect that conditions for them—and for students—will improve in the not-too-distant future.