Credentials, But Not Community, for Conservatives in the Academy

People like to tell a few stories about academic conservatives. Within the progressive left, one story is about the influence of corporate interests and “neoliberalism” on the university. In their view, academia is consumed by market forces.

That view, in my opinion, is vastly mistaken. Universities rely on a combination of tuition, state funding, and grants to keep the doors open. Rather than operating as for-profit firms, university activity, such as teaching and research, are determined by workers—the faculty—not by shareholders. The “neoliberal” framing of the universities also ignores that most professors and administrators lean left far more than the general population. For progressive critics of the university, conservative faculty members are a symptom of a more general degeneration of the university.

The counter-narrative, pushed by some conservative media outlets, is that conservatives are a beleaguered minority. According to critics, armies of leftist professors punish upstanding conservative students for their views. They give low grades to essays written by conservative students who disagree with Marxist instructors, and rampaging hordes of leftist professors hound anyone who dares to disagree with a politically correct orthodoxy.

Those conservative outlets point to genuine examples of leftist extremism as evidence that the entire system is rigged against them. That view is also in error. Much of academia doesn’t care about a student’s political views; their chemistry TA doesn’t. Research on academic conservatives, such as Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr., finds that academic conservatives tend to find their department friendly. And of course, if academia really hates conservative students, why do millions and millions of people manage to graduate from college and go on to great careers?

Even though this narrative is misleading, it contains kernels of truth that we can use to understand the academy’s politics better. The issue is that higher ed’s critics, on the left and right, conflate two things: the university as a credentialing system and the university as a community.

In other words, the university, like any other social institution, has many arms and they can move in different directions. My argument is that the higher education system does well for conservatives as a credentialing system, but not as a form of community.

On one level, higher education is a credentialing machine. Its main job is to identify people who can be fruitfully employed in work that requires strong analytical skills and scientific training, such as medicine, public health, engineering, and the law. The humanities serve this purpose, too. The ability to understand literature or philosophy and complete extended course work acts as a de facto signal of employability. When the left complains about “neoliberalism,” they are often complaining about this sort of job training. They resent the fact that higher ed is connected with, and serves, the wider economy. Still, they are correct in that a vocational ethos is very much a part of the university.

The need to reliably certify people for highly desirable and important jobs works to the advantage of everyone in the university, including conservatives, libertarians, and other academic minorities. A university that takes on the role of gatekeeper must evaluate their students primarily on demonstrated skill and hard work. In this way, the university makes it possible for many people to obtain a credential in a fair and just manner.

In the 20th century, Jews, Asians, and immigrants stood out in the professions because they were judged on grades and test scores, not their backgrounds. Women are now extremely common in the legal profession and medicine. Media scandal-mongering aside, conservatives benefit greatly from this system. Note that Republican appointees to the courts usually have Ivy League credentials, as do notable conservatives in other fields. Higher education is more than happy to award credentials to students, regardless of political opinion.

On another level, higher education is a community. It’s about shared thoughts, feelings, and friendships. It’s about spending years in the same department as others. It’s also about tacit assumptions about missions and priorities. In this respect, there is indeed a misalignment between campus conservatives and the rest of the academy. In the academy, there is a gross imbalance between the affirmation of progressive values and everything else.

In the academy, there is a gross imbalance between the affirmation of progressive values and everything else.

That affirmation can be seen in many ways. For example, most social science instructors will readily discuss the challenges of living in a market economy, but it is much less common to find instructors who talk about how market economies have raised billions of people out of poverty. Another telling example comes in the form of prestigious awards, which often represent what a community valorizes. For example, the most esteemed academic award in the United States is likely the MacArthur award. It is notable that the MacArthur award, to the best of my knowledge, has never been awarded to any academic or activist who is known for promoting conservative or libertarian policy ideas. Similarly, leading book prizes, such as the Pulitzer or National Book Award almost always go to books that have progressive points of view.

The issue is not that progressive, or leftist, writers win prizes—they certainly should. Rather, the nearly complete absence of other perspectives among prize winners belies a limitation of vision.

The ultimate test of whether one is truly a member of the community is if the community comes to your defense in a time of need. For me, the ultimate example happened a few years ago when critics attacked the Freedom Center at Wellesley College. Housed at one of America’s most elite liberal arts colleges, the Freedom Center was founded by sociologist Thomas Cushman to foster a conversation about liberty, broadly understood. I was invited (and compensated) as a speaker there and attended two workshops where speakers defended and attacked freedom. At one point, the Freedom Center even invited a speaker critical of the Koch Foundation, one of the center’s main donors. Political scientist Alexander Hertel-Fernandez spoke on how the Koch’s funding translated into Congressional influence.

However, when the Boston Globe wrote a highly critical article on the Center and its funders, the academic community, for the most part, did not defend Cushman or the Freedom Center.

The main issue was that New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer was offended when the Center’s director said he would not invite someone like her to speak. As the Freedom Center’s assistant director wrote in National Review, it was not because he wished to suppress her views, but because her work is highly polemical and adversarial, rather than scholarly. If the administration truly valued the Freedom Center as part of its community, it would have quickly brushed aside the media coverage and simply said, “Wellesley professors can invite who they see fit speak on campus. That policy applies to the Freedom Center as it does to any other unit.”

Normally, a university would not allow a newspaper to guide its academic decisions. Instead, the university administration decided to conduct a review to “overhaul” the Center. Thankfully, the Freedom Center continues with different staff, but being the subject of a spurious review and “overhaul” is a highly stressful and painful experience for everyone involved.

Incidents like the Freedom Center controversy are infrequent, but they send a message to the broader society about higher education: Higher education may take your tuition dollars, and give you degrees, but the community is more exclusive than you might think.

Fabio Rojas is a professor of sociology at Indiana University, Bloomington and is the co-editor of Contexts: Understanding People in Their Social Worlds.