Conservatives in the Academy: An Endangered Species

Lyndon Johnson once observed that “If two men agree on everything, you may be sure that one of them is doing the thinking.”

Looking at the state of American universities today, perhaps we should extend President Johnson’s logic:  If a thousand faculty members agree on everything, are any of them really thinking?  The question is not just rhetorical, because if recent surveys of the professoriate are to be believed, there is a virtual unanimity of general political outlook among the faculty. This conformity of opinion has degraded intellectual discourse and impoverished intellectual debate on some of society’s most pressing questions from immigration to abortion to the war in Iraq.

One does not need to look far to see the practical results of this conformity. The disgraceful treatment recently accorded to Stanford’s Hoover Institution by the Stanford faculty when it appointed Donald Rumsfeld, a former Hoover overseer, as a visiting fellow, was embarrassing to all who care about academic freedom. The head of Hoover was summoned before an angry faculty senate to apologetically defend the appointment in a humiliating “show trial.”

During my own time at Stanford, I’ve been exposed to liberal groupthink on an almost daily basis.  Examples range from the comments of a distinguished political science professor who accused a senior Bush Administration official of treason (until backing down after I politely challenged him) to the daily slights and insults that many faculty (and students) hurl at conservatives to the presence of numerous generous “diversity” related Ph.D. fellowships at Stanford such as DARE (Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence) , which allegedly attempt to bring “diversity” to the professoriate– a diversity which explicitly includes both “transgender” students and “underrepresented minorities” but, of course, does not include conservatives.

While knowledge that university faculty held liberal views has long been commonplace, it is only in the last few years that social scientists have begun surveying and analyzing faculty political attitudes and affiliations in a rigorous way. And in many respects, the results of these studies confirm conservatives’ worst fears.

Research by George Mason University economist Daniel Klein on the political affiliations at Stanford and Berkeley faculty reveals an overwhelming political tilt towards Democrats and a virtual absence of Republicans, particularly in the social sciences, where faculty at such elite institutions play a key role in helping to shape the world view of future leaders. Another recent quantitative study led by Stanley Rothman of Smith College has shown that while scholarly productivity  is still the most important requirement for teaching at a top university, conservatives and religious Christians are systematically discriminated against in hiring.

Of course, journal publication itself in the social sciences suffers from political bias, with liberal academics serving as gatekeepers and defining not only what papers are accepted, but the very terms on which the scholarly debate takes place.  Given these institutional hurdles, it is scarcely surprising that Rothman found that conservatives who toil in the fields of academia long enough to get Ph.D.s are much more likely to find eventual employment outside of academia than are liberal scholars.  

Klein pegged the national ratio of Democrats to Republicans at 4 year universities at approximately 8 to 1.  But even these starkly imbalanced numbers substantially understate the extent to which passing a political litmus test is a virtual requirement for entrance into today’s elite social science faculty.  

According to Klein’s survey, the combined faculty of Berkeley and Stanford in anthropology, sociology, history, English, and psychology contained 214 Democrats and just 4 Republicans, a ratio more suggestive of a tenure-enforced cult than an academic discipline.  It was not mere idle rhetoric when Klein referred to faculty conservatives at Berkeley and Stanford as an “endangered species”. While University-wide ratios at Berkeley and Stanford were “only” 7.6 to 1 and 10 to 1 respectively, overall was the inclusion of survey results from the departments of engineering and the “hard” sciences.  But while politically liberal and conservative physicists will likely be similar in their approach to research and teaching, the scholarly approach of a liberal historian is likely to diverge dramatically from that of a conservative one.  In Berkeley and Stanford’s mathematics and engineering departments, arguably the fields least subject to political manipulation in the tenure process, the ratio was “only” 99 to 29, or roughly 3.3 to 1.  While even this represents imbalance, our social science departments would be dramatically different places if Republicans were outnumbered “only” 3.3. to 1.

  To decry the current state of affairs isn’t to say that we need a patronizing quota system in academia for conservatives.    But we could dramatically improve matters by working to bring conservatives into the academy rather than driving them away, as we do now.  In theory, I’d love to teach at a university after completing my Ph.D.  But given the institutional discrimination I’d face as a conservative along with the persistent pressure to hew to a liberal policy line, why should I even bother?  There will almost certainly be better opportunities for me outside the academy — ones in which I will not be punished for my beliefs.

Bringing a true diversity of viewpoints to academia would improve the research of both conservative and liberal scholars. As University of Michigan computer scientist Scott Page has shown, a group of agents with a diversity of opinions performs better on a variety of learning tests than a group of equally skilled agents with more uniform views. And as Solomon Asch showed in a series of famous psychological experiments, the presence of even one, or even better a few public dissenters against a given demonstrably false claim empowers other silent dissenters to express their views, views that otherwise might be silenced in intellectual conformity.  

The intellectual arrogance of the liberal academic establishment would be somewhat more tolerable if we looked back over the past century and saw that the professoriate had been correct about the vast majority of social and political questions of the day and society-at-large had been wrong.  But that is certainly not true: To pick one notable example, throughout the twentieth century, a significant percentage of university faculty eagerly embraced varieties of socialism and communism, and were thus on the wrong side of the 20th century’s central ideological struggle.   When Ronald Reagan correctly labeled the Soviet Union and “evil empire” he was an object of academic ridicule.  

In response to the academy’s liberal excesses, some alumni of prominent universities have attempted to exert a moderating influence on our elite universities, most notably at Dartmouth, where alumni successfully petitioned onto the ballot several conservative candidates , who were then elected to the board of trustees over the rubber-stamp nominees of the administration.  But these pioneers of accountable university governance are encountering tremendous institutional resistance as they attempt even modest reforms.  Our leading universities have utterly failed in what should be a core mission — to provide students with a wide variety of varying views (both liberal and conservative) on important subjects. While the tenure system ensures that little can be done to stop them, their self-congratulation will increasingly ring hollow as they talk among themselves in an ideologically pure echo chamber.