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Creating Conservative Universities Is Not the Answer

Increasing the ideological diversity of higher education as a whole, while decreasing it within individual institutions, would bring us closer to a fundamental and permanent political separation.

Students on a college campus
Jonathan Drake / Reuters

“Academics, on average, lean to the left. A survey being released today suggests that they are moving even more in that direction,” began a study released in 2012. By 2014, another study reported, the ratio of liberals to conservatives among American college and university faculty was 6 to 1 nationwide, and 28 to 1 in New England. Still more recent research suggests that the overall national trend may be moving further to the left. As Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College recently learned, even just pointing out these tendencies can land you in trouble with students and peers.

So if you’re a conservative scholar who cares about the American academy and wants to participate in it, what are you to do? One recent suggestion: Start your own university.

In National Affairs, Frederick M. Hess and Brendan Bell make the case for a new university hospitable to conservative thought:

What is needed, then, is a place where serious scholars can have the space to pursue questions and subjects that don’t fit the progressive orthodoxy at today’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. We need an incubator where promising young intellectuals could pursue their research without being forced to conform to the prevailing ideology, and where they can find the scaffolding—employment, funding, networks, and publication outlets—to enable them to achieve independent viability. What is needed is an ivory tower of our own.

Hess and Bell frame their proposal in largely constructive and unresentful ways. We might note that their express concern is not to enforce a conservative orthodoxy, but to free scholars from obeisance to a progressive one (“without being forced to conform to the prevailing ideology”). Later in the essay, they write, “Though there is no doubt that conservative thought is unwelcome in the academy, it is a mistake to imagine this is the product of a concerted, organized effort to expunge it. The issue is not one of conspiracy but a matter of rhythms, routines, and behaviors that add up to what those on the left might, in another context, term ‘implicit bias’ or ‘progressive privilege.’” The reluctance to invoke a vast left-wing conspiracy to explain the disparities is welcome, in the way that the reluctance to invoke vast conspiracies to explain anything is generally welcome.

And later still, they make an important distinction: “The aim is to create an incubator—not a sanctuary. Talented graduate students and junior faculty who might be marginalized elsewhere would have an opportunity to find accomplished senior colleagues eager and able to mentor them—allowing them to develop the kind of body of work that would give them a meaningful shot at success anywhere in academe. The goal is to spawn scholars and public thinkers equipped to thrive in other academic institutions and to contribute to the public discourse.”

What Hess and Bell are trying to do here is steer between the Scylla of being insufficiently different from existing universities and the Charybdis of imposing another set of political orthodoxies that merely mirror the existing ones. It’s not easy, and few conservative critics of the academy have managed it.

For instance, Warren Treadgold of St. Louis University recently published a book titled The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education, in which he called for a university that is “traditional in character but not specifically ‘conservative’ in politics”—which sounds good. And yet, in a recent blog post, Treadgold wrote about the need for such a new university to “hire the right people,” and described those people in this way: “From what I know of the best conservative scholars, if they were hired and supported at a leading conservative university, they would be delighted to produce research combating multiculturalism, radical feminism, identity studies, the diversity doctrine, the idealization of victimhood, socialism, sustainability, and postmodernism.” It’s hard for me to see how a university composed of such people would not be “specifically ‘conservative’ in politics,” though I suppose that would depend on how you define conservative.

But what I find more concerning about Treadgold’s model university is how self-consciously polemical he wants it to be, how strongly he wants it to define itself by what it opposes. He warns, in martial language, of “moderates afraid to combat the leftist ideas that have devastated higher education,” and avers that “only a conservative research university could free conservative scholars to combat leftist ideology.” I think Hess and Bell do a much better job of emphasizing what such a new university would be for: academic freedom, the freedom to explore potentially conservative ideas without fear of reprisals from the guardians of unwritten—and perhaps, these days, actually written—orthodoxies.

But as Peter Wood points out in the post to which Treadgold is replying in his post, it’s impossible, in the current climate, to pursue that kind of freedom in a non-polemical way. One cannot, in fact, steer between Scylla and Charybdis—one of them will get you. Wood agrees that “multiculturalism, radical feminism, identity studies, the diversity doctrine, the idealization of victimhood, socialism, sustainability, and postmodernism” are “forces that cannot be excluded by a university simply deciding that we won’t give those doctrines a place in the curriculum. Those doctrines will be imposed, welcome or not, if the university doesn’t make the decision from the outset to oppose them root and branch.”

But if a university decides ab initio to exclude such ideas, then what becomes of academic freedom? Wood clearly shows the double bind: “The new university will have to compromise its commitment to the liberal arts and open inquiry from the very start. It cannot be ‘open’ to the ideas that will destroy it. But if it is not open to those ideas, it cannot be a truly liberal institution.”

My own conservative credentials are dubious enough that I might not be acceptable at such an institution—or so I think, living and working as I do in Texas. (On the other hand, if I were at Sarah Lawrence … let’s just say that at Sarah Lawrence I would be, as the saying goes, seen as rather to the right of Attila the Hun.) But I think I have some experience that might suggest a way out of the bind that Peter Wood has rightly identified.

That way out will require some conceptual adjustments, and a willingness to learn from institutions that have had to deal with similar issues. I am thinking of religiously based colleges and universities; I know something about them because I have worked for them all my adult life (after being educated in public institutions). The adjustments begin with reconsidering what we mean, in an academic context, when we talk about “freedom” and “openness.”

Often over the years, I have found myself quoting a passage from an essay by Stanley Fish titled “Vicki Frost Objects.” Fish, taking up his occasional role as legal scholar, was reflecting on a fundamentalist Christian who protested that her local public school was “indoctrinating” her children in secular thought. In the process of explaining why the usual way people think about this kind of conflict is wrong, Fish made a telling point:

What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the divinity of Christ and a so-called nonideological school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (Christ is not God or he is). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.

What Fish helps us to see is that academic freedom is a concept relative to a given faculty member’s structures of belief. As someone who believes that Jesus is Lord, I feel very free when I’m teaching at schools that let me say that, even in class. If I were a socialist atheist, I might be rather uncomfortable. If I were a socialist atheist, Sarah Lawrence might be a better fit.

With respect to the issues under discussion here, the real difference between an explicitly Christian school such as the ones I’ve taught at, or a Jewish institution such as Yeshiva University, and a school such as Sarah Lawrence is this: The religious schools are explicit about their commitments; Sarah Lawrence isn’t. No Sarah Lawrence job announcement is likely to contain the sentence “Conservative Christians”—or Jews, or Muslims, or even atheists, probably—“need not apply.” But then, it doesn’t have to, does it? Especially after l’affaire Abrams.

The general conclusion to be drawn here is simple and straightforward: Academic freedom is always constrained in multiple ways. It is constrained by law; by a given discipline’s sense of its own professional standards and practices; by a given university’s sense of institutional mission. (This is one of the main reasons Jonathan Haidt’s straightforward contrast between two types of universities, Truth U and Social Justice U, doesn’t really match the conditions on the academic ground.)

Fish’s point doesn’t render academic freedom illusory or insignificant—indeed, in my experience it has been vital, because at several points in my career, I have written essays that angered influential donors to the institutions where I worked, and if I had not had the protection of tenure, I might have lost my job. Or, more likely, if I had not had the protection of tenure then, fearful of reprisal, I wouldn’t have published those essays in the first place—even though I believed very strongly in what I wrote.

Nevertheless, academic freedom remains constrained. If you make social justice (as it is typically defined) a key component of your institutional mission, then you will deny employment to people who think social justice (as it is typically defined) is a load of hooey. And if, at the level of institutional mission, you think that social justice (as it is typically defined) is, if not necessarily a load of hooey, then at best a highly debatable concept, then you will deny employment to people who insist that they know what social justice is, that you can find it on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter feed, and that its core principles are not up for discussion.

There is, therefore, no need for people who want to found a conservative university to insist that their principles do not put them at odds with a commitment to academic freedom. Their principles, like those of every university, will require a partial and mission-limited commitment to academic freedom; they will differ from the Sarah Lawrences of the world not in that they have limits, but in their openness and honesty about those limits.

To be sure, those commitments create problems. What happens if someone hired to teach free-market economics at a conservative university reads Thomas Piketty and becomes a socialist? Presumably the same thing that happens to a professor at a Christian college who loses his faith in Jesus, or a professor of social justice who finds her eyes opened to new and different truths by a close reading of Atlas Shrugged. It’s a problem. But it’s a problem for all universities, not just conservative or Christian ones.

So the academic-freedom issue is something of a red herring. The larger issue that proponents of a conservative university must face is that of intellectual diversity. Were a few conservative universities to pop up, we might indeed see a net increase of intellectual diversity in American higher education taken as a whole, taken as a single entity. But we would surely get even less intellectual diversity than we currently have within any given institution. This would not be an altogether unappealing future for people, like me, whose stated positions on religious and cultural matters make them unemployable in perhaps 98 percent of American colleges and universities. But would it be good for the country as a whole?

It is easy to foresee, after this institutional fissiparousness, a future in which children attend ideologically monolithic high schools, pass from there to ideologically monolithic colleges, and afterward go on either to ideologically monolithic graduate programs or to ideologically monolithic workplaces. All of which would bring Americans several steps closer to a fundamental and permanent political separation. People would go through their lives never seriously confronting alternatives to their most cherished beliefs—and, yes, that happens all too often already, but that surely is no reason to press still harder on the accelerator that would take us to that particular future. One can see the appeal of a supposedly (though surely only temporarily) more peaceable future, but that would be a very sad way to see the American experiment come to an end.