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Conservatives in the Academy: It Could Be Worse!

Siberia (the non-academic version). Image via Shutterstock.

“Forget what the Right says,” the headline instructs me: things aren’t so bad for conservatives in the academy. Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr. write,

As two conservative professors, we agree that right-wing faculty members and ideas are not always treated fairly on college campuses. But we also know that right-wing hand-wringing about higher education is overblown. After interviewing 153 conservative professors in the social sciences and humanities, we believe that conservatives survive and even thrive in one of America’s most progressive professions.

Now, it’s true, they go on to say, that these thriving conservatives had to conceal their political views throughout graduate school, the hiring process, and their teaching careers up to tenure, and were only free to express themselves after getting tenure. (Perhaps Shields and Dunn did not interview conservative professors who failed to receive tenure.) And they admit that “being in the closet is not easy.” They further acknowledge that the faculty they interviewed agree that “too many disciplines and subfields — including sociology, literature and modern American history — are ‘unsafe spaces’ for right-wing thinkers. ”

Shields and Dunn also admit that conservatives

remain more poorly represented there than all current targets of affirmative action, and some studies suggest that their numbers are falling. There is bias, too: In one study by George Yancey, a sociologist at the University of North Texas, for example, some 30 percent of sociologists acknowledged that they would be less likely to hire a job applicant if they knew she was a Republican. Yancey found that 15 percent of political scientists and 24 percent of philosophers would discriminate against Republican job applicants, and at least 29 percent of professors in all disciplines surveyed would disfavor members of the National Rifle Association. He found that professors are even less tolerant of evangelicals, partly because that identity is a proxy for social conservatism.

And they note that “Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter found that socially conservative professors tend to work at lower-ranked institutions than their publication records would predict. In addition, a study of elite law schools shows that libertarian and conservative professors publish more than their peers, which suggests that conservatives must outshine liberals to reach the summit of their profession. The finding is especially striking given that other research suggests it is more difficult for scholars to publish work that reflects conservative perspectives.”

See? Conservative complaints about the unfairness of the academy are clearly wildly overblown. One question, though: if all this adds up to “not so bad,” what would “bad” look like?

Now, I understand what Shields and Dunn are doing here. They want to let progressives in the academy know that there are already conservatives in their midst, some of whom are quite decent people. And they want to encourage conservative academics to make the choice they have made to teach in “the progressive academy.”

But when they write “The answer is not to segregate conservative professors at schools like Grove City College or Liberty University, which most conservative professors regard as academic Siberia,” what they actually mean is that most conservative professors who have chosen not to teach in such schools regard them as academic Siberia. The viewpoint of conservatives who have chosen to teach in schools more hospitable to conservatism is simply not considered by Shields and Dunn. So they try to put the very best face possible on some very unpleasant facts, including facts their own research has uncovered.

There’s a lot to unpack here. More on all this in subsequent posts.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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