"And to your right you'll see our token conservative...."

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Imagine If Conservatives in Academia Could Safely 'Come Out'

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”
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A few days after the 2004 election, Gabriel Rossman went for a job interview with the UCLA sociology department. Rossman was finishing a doctorate at Princeton, and his research on how ownership affects mass-media content was a good fit for a school in the entertainment capital. He got the job as an assistant professor.

But he also got a warning about academic culture. At a dinner following his day on campus, two of his future colleagues started ranting about George W. Bush’s re-election. One called it “a referendum against the Enlightenment.” Rossman smiled and nodded, never letting on that he’d cast his ballot for Bush.

Rossman’s story appears anonymously in "Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University," just published by Oxford University Press. He agreed to break cover because, he said, “I have tenure.” In an interview, he noted that staying in the intellectual closet doesn’t require actively lying, merely letting colleagues assume that everyone shares the same political views.

For the book, political scientists Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., who are themselves on the political right, conducted detailed interviews at 84 universities with 153 conservative and libertarian professors from six disciplines — economics, political science, sociology, history, philosophy and literature. Participants also completed a formal survey.

Unlike the many conservatives who attack the academy, Shields and Dunn believe in its scholarly mission, and they maintain that right-of-center professors can flourish. "Right-wing hand-wringing about higher education is overblown," they write in a recent op-ed drawn from the book, declaring that "conservatives survive and even thrive in one of America’s most progressive professions." Many of those they interviewed expressed love for their institutions. "The university has really given me my life," a literature professor told them. "It’s a very wonderful place."

Unfortunately, this happy portrait of thriving conservative scholars depends heavily on economists and professors old enough to recall the Carter administration. Unless left-wing academics come to value, or at least tolerate, political diversity, the study portends a bleak future for intellectual inquiry in the humanities and social sciences.

Only the economists interviewed routinely expressed the conviction that their political convictions were irrelevant to their professional advancement and to the standards of research quality. (The authors seem surprised that right-of-center economists spoke highly of Paul Krugman’s scholarship, if not his New York Times columns.) Economics is also the only field Shields and Dunn studied where professors’ partisan affiliations mirror the general public’s. Marxists are more common in the social sciences and humanities than conservatives.

The modern academy pays lip service to diversity. Yet as a "stigmatized minority," the authors note, right-of-center professors feel pressure to hide their identities, in many cases consciously emulating gays in similarly hostile environments. "I am the equivalent of someone who was gay in Mississippi in 1950," a prominent full professor told Shields and Dunn. He’s still hiding because he hopes for honors that depend on maintaining his colleagues’ good will. "If I came out, that would finish me," he said.

More often, conservatives follow Rossman’s strategy, hiding their views until they’re safely tenured. "Nearly one-­third of professors in the six disciplines we investigated tended to conceal their politics prior to tenure," write Shields and Dunn. The number rises to nearly half when you exclude economics.

The pattern has also worsened in recent decades. Among those over 65, only 7 percent hid their politics before tenure, compared to 46 percent of those under 45. Without the young economists, that number would look even more extreme.

In their op-ed, Shields and Dunn downplay the common pre-tenure deception as "a temporary hardship." But the dishonesty corrodes the mission of the university. For instance, a political scientist at a research university told the authors that he wouldn’t assign works by Friedrich Hayek in his political economy class before he was tenured. His fears of political ostracism thereby deprived students of exposure to an influential 20th-century thinker.

Right-of-center scholars also learn not to ask research questions that might suggest the wrong political views. A historian told the authors he’d decided not to write his dissertation on the history of supply-side economics, because he feared the mere choice of the topic might reveal his deviance. So a significant movement in American political and intellectual history went unexamined.

Conservatives can safely study ancient history but not modern American history, economics but not sociology. Literature, largely a politics-free zone until the 1980s, has become hostile territory. When a literature professor suggested that his department could increase enrollments by teaching Jane Austen, he told Shields and Dunn, one colleague "got very upset." She said "that this was just a way of catering to the prejudices that students learned in high school, and after that she never spoke to me at all," the professor reported.

When scholars do venture into forbidden territory, or get politically unpopular results, they face stricter scrutiny than their peers. For empirical work, observes Rossman, reviewers ask "Must we believe this?" rather than "Can we believe this?" Quantitative methods do at least provide an accepted, apolitical basis for making one’s case. For historians and literary scholars, a leftist spin is all but required, with apolitical work often deemed boring. Shields and Dunn cite a literature professor who is a permanent adjunct despite a long record of publications. When he asked a colleague what was wrong with his vita, he was told, "It was a nice resume for 1940."

Shields and Dunn put a positive spin on their results because, like many of their subjects, they want to encourage others on the right to pursue scholarly careers. Research and teaching benefit from a variety of political lenses, they argue. The paucity of conservative professors also gives liberal scholars a misleading picture of the American right, reinforcing the idea that conservatism is incompatible with intellectual rigor. Liberal academics picture Rush Limbaugh rather than an intellectual peer.

To the contrary, most of those interviewed expressed what the authors call a “Madisonian” political philosophy: “It is a political vision that values the discovery of common ground over ideological purity, learned elites over charismatic leaders, and reasoned appeals over passionate exhortations.” If institutions of higher learning refuse to make a place for scholars who share this vision, they will not only stifle inquiry. They will also deprive themselves of vital allies when the inevitable backlash comes to pull them down.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net