Conservatives on Campus: Myths and Realities

McCabeJosh McCabe 
Wellesley College

What is the reality conservative professors and students face in contemporary American campus life? That’s the question at the center of a panel discussion, Conservatives on Campus: Myths and Realities, recently hosted by the Freedom Project at Wellesley College. Hoping to eschew the usual polemics on the topic, the event brought together three outstanding scholars – Amy Binder, Neil Gross, and Jon Shields – who have recently conducted research and written books on life for conservatives in academia.

Binder, whose book (co-authored with Kate Wood) looks at how campus environments shape young conservative activists, discussed how comparative research helped her uncover key differences in the particular style of engagement employed by conservative students. A provocative style (think affirmative action bake sales) dominated the campus of the large state university they studied while a “civilized discourse” style dominated the smaller elite university they studied. According to Binder, these differences do not stem from the intensity of conservatism on each campus nor can the provocative style be attributed to the rise of the Tea Party movement. Instead, it is the school’s organizational structure that determined which style was dominant among activists. On large campuses where most students are unconnected to each other and to their professors, activists feel alienated and victimized. This, Binder argues, “gives them license to provoke.” In contrast, the provocative style was seen as inappropriate at the smaller elite school where students were socially integrated with their peers and professors. There, conservative students saw civilized dialogue as the only proper way to engage people.

If she was right, Binder told the audience, then the solution to the problem of political polarization on campus (and perhaps beyond) might be institutional rather than individual. University administrators should try to generate campus cultures that “foster a tolerance for ideological pluralism” by creating a sense of community – even on large campuses. Inclusivity would help channel political differences into a productive dialogue between peers rather than an adversarial relationship between strangers.

Whereas Binder focused on students, both Gross and Shields shifted attention to the politics of professors. There was a surprising amount of consensus in their descriptive analysis. Both argued that academia does indeed lean heavily to the left in most fields, but contrary to the most dramatic conservative indictments of higher education, it is still possible to thrive as a conservative professor in academia. They diverged in pinpointing the source of the academy’s dearth of conservatives though.

Gross, whose book ponders the question of why professors are so liberal, offered an interpretation based on the idea of political typecasting. Because the profession developed during the progressive era, he argued, it started out disproportionately left-leaning as progressive reformers filled the ranks of faculty in universities. Professors gained a reputation for being left-leaning as a result. This has led young conservatives to shy away from pursuing a vocation in academia because they perceive themselves as not fitting in there (in much the same way nursing has been typecasted as feminine, making men feel uncomfortable pursuing that vocation). Political bias or explicit discrimination among liberal faculty, according to Gross, has not played a major role in accounting for the lack of conservatives. Instead, conservative self-selection into other occupations accounts for most of the gap.

Shields, whose book (co-authored with Joshua Dunn) looks at how conservative professors navigate the sometimes rocky waters of liberal academia, took issue with Gross’ dismissal of idea that liberal faculty can be hostile to aspiring conservatives. While most professors care little about the political leanings of their colleagues relative to other divisions (i.e. methodological battles over the value of quantitative and qualitative work), he discussed his finding that one-third of conservative faculty hide their political beliefs prior to achieving tenure for fear of reprisal as well as previous research that found more than a quarter of sociologists admit to being less likely to hire a candidate they knew identified as Republican. While calling on conservative pundits to end their longstanding war on the academy, Shields also called on his liberal colleagues to be more openly supportive of political pluralism in their departments.

Whether it is the result of mundane self-selection or active discrimination by faculty, the public perception of sociology as a leftwing discipline can have adverse consequences for the perceived legitimacy of our research. Clearly, a number of factors affect whether the discipline holds influence but having a reputation for being ideological can unnecessarily close doors if policymakers instinctively shrug us off as partisans. Fostering a reputation for political pluralism helps establish our legitimacy as social scientists.

The video of the event can be seen here.

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One thought on “Conservatives on Campus: Myths and Realities

  1. Great to see more work on this topic, but there are some clear limitations with the current state of the field here.

    The Binder-Wood argument suffers from choosing CU and HU as the two case comparisons. If they had gone to large state schools in more conservative states (rather than a notoriously liberal town in a relatively liberal state), I suspect that the level of conflict would have been much lower or reversed with more liberal groups acting more combative. Looking at a more “liberal” small private college–say, Amherst or some other LAC–would also probably undercut the institutional argument as well given recent events there. Binder deserves great credit though for pioneering and encouraging more work in this arena.

    Although Gross is too optimistic about the lack of substantive bias, Shields is also too positive as well. There’s a huge survivorship problem with talking to current conservative professors, particularly tenured ones who have already passed the main hurdle facing them in the academy. There are plenty of filters–some more obvious than others–to encourage/force conservatives to go elsewhere at various stages of the academic ladder, but none of these researchers have really looked at these in much depth. Gross did look at this somewhat with his field experiment on graduate program inquiry emails, but that wasn’t quite getting to the roots of the problem.

    There are two directions that I’d suggest going forward: first, more of a focus on the specific barriers to conservatives in undergrad and during graduate school, especially in finding mentors who will support them and their research topics as well as funding and internal/external recognition for their projects (the role of IHS and other conservative/libertarian organizations here is quite interesting). Second, I would be very interested in seeing more survey and experimental approaches asking current college students about career paths (including academia) to see the effects of different frames, stories, and/or life events on the desire to go into academia. There’s something to Gross’ argument about self-selection, but there’s also the way that conservative students experience academia as undergrads that might affect their decision of going into academia.

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