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Two Blind Sociologists and an Elephant

A new study on conservative activism at universities is confused but not a hack job.

The easy criticism of a book like Becoming Right is that it falls into the “conservatives in the mist” genre, in which liberal academicians and journalists venture forth into the world of heartland conservatism, Tea Party ferment, or in this case right-wing campus activism only to find their biases confirmed.

Some have already accused this book of a similar hackish approach. Yet the label doesn’t quite fit. The thesis here is fairly limited, and the authors, UCSD sociologist Amy Binder and Ph.D. Student Kate Wood, are reasonably fair toward their subjects—though one wonders why they feel the need to put phrases like “politically correct” and “Austrian economists” in scare quotes.

Binder and Wood are out to discover why different campuses give rise to different styles of conservative activism: “Something is happening on college campuses such that provocation prevails in the Western Public system, whereas civilized discourse dominates at Eastern Elite University.”

The bulk of their research consists of interviews with about 90 conservative students, alumni, and their relatives on two different campuses, a selective Eastern private school and a large public flagship university in the West. But we aren’t allowed to know which ones, because the institutional review board (IRB) at the Eastern school wouldn’t allow it. The authors were required to “obscure the identifying characteristics of our two universities, which we accomplished by commingling the actual attributes of the two universities we studied with the attributes of two peer institutions of each,” and the institutions actually described are “composite school profiles.”

This anonymity grates against the thesis of the book—that different schools breed different conservatives—which suggests that campus conservatism isn’t easily reduced to “Eastern” and “Western” styles. But tenure boards expect scholarly writing, and this approach allows the authors to take up the mantle of the scholarly interpreter without telling us exactly what they’re interpreting.

I’ve confirmed with former UCSD students that Binder and Wood spoke with several students there—I suspect that’s the Western one. About the Eastern private school, I have no idea.

The somewhat Rorschach-like presentation of the research has led to a number of divergent takeaways. A reviewer in the New Republic suggested that the more confrontational Western style of conservatism has echoes in the Tea Party’s supposed takeover of the GOP. A reviewer for the Manhattan Institute suggested the more intellectual Eastern Elite style of discourse was evidence those students had been “tamed.” Even in the book’s conclusions, people see what they want to see because the Eastern/Western dichotomy does so much of the conceptual heavy lifting. The basic problem is that one could make similar observations about Eastern and Western conservatives all the way back to Buckley and Goldwater, yet provocateurs like Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza both wrote for conservative newspapers at “Eastern Elite” schools.

New freshmen at Western Flagship, feeling anonymous and overwhelmed, are said to seek solidarity in right-wing groups that then take an oppositional pose against the school’s administration, whereas the Eastern students identify more with their peers, leading them to be less skeptical of their professors’ liberalism and lending their activism a more genteel touch.

The book’s demographic findings are mostly unsurprising to anyone familiar with the conservative movement. Catholics at large public universities tend to be evenly split between political ideologies, whereas Catholics at elite schools tend to be conservative. Despite their political views, evangelicals tend to eschew conservative activism. Parents of conservative freshman at elite schools tend to have less prestigious careers and tend to be slightly less educationally accomplished than those of the general student population.

Binder and Wood would have been familiar with some of these facts if they had dipped into the deep reservoirs of scholarship on academic liberalism and the conservative reaction to it. But aside from a few references to Neil Gross—a sociologist who wrote a book entitled Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care?—they pretend it doesn’t exist:

the intimation animating the conservative critique—that students perceive that their colleges and universities are engaged in a massive program of liberalization—is questionable on a couple of counts. This is not just because no real scholarship of student perceptions has yet been conducted but also because it ignores the fact that there is considerable institutional variation in the field of higher education

Seymour Martin Lipset is not cited in Binder and Wood’s book, but I would refer them to his Student Politics, which came out in 1967. The long-running debate over the role of the university might have been worth sketching out somewhere in Becoming Right, not just because it would have been interesting to read the authors’ own views on it but because that debate is central to the conservative critique of academia. Instead, Binder and Wood adopt a bogus ahistorical neutrality. This is how they regard the views of the students they’re studying:

It can be a tricky business to analyze interviewees’ worldviews when those worldviews are highly contested, such as the idea that because the large majority of university faculty identify as politically liberal (an empirical fact…), liberal views inexorably taint the classroom (an asserted claim that some conservatives hold steadfastly while others dispute it).

With no historical context or attempt to reckon with critiques more persuasive than those of college students, it’s hard to disagree. The authors would probably say such a discussion is beyond the scope of the book, but the corollary to that is a refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of any conservative arguments.

Most professors may keep their political views out of the classroom. But the conservative complaint goes well beyond biased professors and involves curriculum, administration, and the allocation of student fees. Today one can get school credit for joining a sex club but most college graduates don’t know much about the Declaration of Independence.

By far the biggest problem with Becoming Right is how dated it already is. The authors write that the Bush administration “was in place during most of our data collection.” The students surveyed likely found themselves defending a president responsible for two unpopular wars and a governing record that ran counter to their own beliefs about the role of government. Antiwar activism was very popular on college campuses at that time and echoed the student movement against the Vietnam War. Today, on the other hand, it’s the left that’s been largely silent about abuses of civil liberties and executive power, and the student antiwar movement evaporated with the election of Barack Obama. Whether the discourse is confrontational or civilized, where college conservatives were once defending a big-government Republican, their liberal peers are now having to defend extrajudicial drone assassinations.

Right-wing campus activism nationwide has changed substantially since the bulk of these interviews were conducted. The biggest difference has been the rise of the liberty movement, starting in 2008 when Young Americans for Liberty spun off from Ron Paul’s presidential campaign and Students for Liberty was founded. The former now has more than 300 chapters in this country, and the latter has around 750 globally (though that number includes many affiliated YAL chapters).

Since it’s expected of journalists, if not academics, this seems like a good time to disclose my own background. I benefited from the support of one of the three national conservative organizations that Binder and Wood highlight, the highbrow, or higher-brow, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which partially funded the newspaper I wrote for in college. The main reason I’m reluctant to dismiss Becoming Right out of hand is that much of its analysis, though somewhat obvious to someone intimately familiar with the subject, is perceptive. The thesis that different schools engender different styles of conservative activism seems anecdotally true and important, though Binder and Wood are blind to one of the important reasons why.

If you don’t think college campuses have a liberal bent, you’re also likely to ignore the fact that they often govern themselves in ways that are illiberal and damaging to the institution in the long-run. As Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) documents in extensive detail in his book Unlearning Liberty, colleges are not friendly places for free speech, and it’s conservatives and libertarians who tend to do the hard work of liberalizing them. Sometimes they’re even successful, as in forcing the retirement of the president of a Georgia public university who expelled a student for exercising his right to protest the construction of parking garages. The former president recently had to pay $50,000 in damages, thanks to FIRE’s work.

The notion of students as participants in shaping the university must be somewhat foreign to Binder and Wood, who sit on the other side of the faculty-undergraduate divide. And to be sure, it’s probably not a dominant “style.” But it’s a vision that refutes the caricature of college conservatives as merely pawns of broader political forces, and it also offers an alternative to the attention-seeking careerism that pervades the conservative movement. Dinesh D’Souza is quoted extensively in Becoming Right as exemplifying a style of “highbrow provocation” in his days as a “renegade conservative” (his words) at Dartmouth. Now he peddles conspiracy theories about the president’s alleged anti-colonialism. He is the face of right-wing activism—but perhaps not its body. Most college conservatives have more modest goals and go on to behave far more decorously in their careers. If Becoming Right has a strength, it’s in making the case that conservative students are shaped more by their personal experience than by movements and ideologies.

[Update: Robert VerBruggen says it’s the University of Colorado at Boulder for the Western one, and Harvard for the Eastern:

The book centers on two universities, “Western Flagship” and “Eastern Elite,” and also addresses some of Western’s satellite campuses. The authors confess that concealing the schools’ identities was not their preference: The review board at Eastern Elite made anonymity—for both schools, apparently—a requirement of talking to their students.

However, it’s simply impossible to cover schools with any degree of detail while keeping their identities a secret—even if some specifics are changed, as they are here. Eastern Elite is Harvard, and Western Flagship is the University of Colorado at Boulder. I have tracked down sources to confirm these conclusions, but I first arrived at them by searching Google for details that seemed unlikely to have been made up.

We can confirm the latter too–an anonymous source forwards us this email dated January 17 from Jeffrey Kwong, a former president of the Harvard College Republicans, on their alumni listserv. Kwong is now a student at UCSD, but while he was at Harvard he had some interesting things to say about the sorts of organizations profiled in the book.]

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Jordan Bloom is associate editor of The American Conservative.