Do American Universities Discriminate Against Conservatives?

Two scholars discuss the ups and downs of life as a right-leaning professor.

Blue Jean Images / Corbis

“I don’t think I can say it too strongly, but literally it just changed my life,” said a scholar, about reading the work of Ayn Rand. “It was like this awakening for me.”

Different versions of this comment appear throughout Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr.’s book on conservative professors, Passing on the Right, usually about people like Milton Friedman and John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Hayek. The scholars they interviewed speak in a dreamy way about these nerdy celebrities, perhaps imagining an alternate academic universe—one where social scientists can be freely conservative.

The assumption that most college campuses lean left is so widespread in American culture that it has almost become a caricature: intellectuals in thick-rimmed glasses preaching Marxism on idyllic grassy quads; students protesting minor infractions against political correctness; raging professors trying to prove that God is, in fact, dead. Studies about professors’ political beliefs and voting behavior suggest this assumption is at least somewhat correct. But Shields and Dunn set out to investigate a more nuanced question: For the minority of professors who are cultural and political conservatives, what’s life actually like?

Finding out wasn’t easy, in part because so many conservative professors are—as they put it—closeted. Some of the people they interviewed explicitly said they identify with the experience of gays and lesbians in having to hide who they are. One tenure-track sociology professor even asked to meet Shields and Dunn in a park a mile away from his university. “When the sound of footsteps intruded on our sanctuary, he stopped talking altogether, his eyes darting about,” they write. “Given the drama of this encounter, one might think that he is concealing something scandalous. In truth, this professor is hiding the fact that he is a Republican.”

I spoke with Dunn and Shields about life as a conservative professor on an American college campus. The conservation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Emma Green: What do you actually mean by conservative?

Joshua Dunn: Whoever thinks they’re conservative.

Jon Shields: American conservatism is kind of a coalition against liberalism that includes different camps. One of our colleagues put it well: American conservatives are united by two self-evident truths—Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer.

Conservatives are held together by a common enemy, so they don’t always share common philosophical foundations or similar policy ambitions. We thought about conservatism in a big-tent way that would include libertarians and cultural conservatives and fusionists and foreign-policy hawks—a broad range.

Green: If anything was a common theme among all the different camps you describe, it’s distaste for mass culture—a populist conservatism. Even those conservative professors who are warm toward the Tea Party are warm with a condescending edge. Was there anybody you encountered who really does have empathy for the sort of mass movement you see with, for example, Trump?

Dunn: I can’t think of anyone who we interviewed who would be a Trump supporter. I do know of conservative academics who are Trump supporters—I think just two.

Shields: A lot of the people we interviewed at least liked the fact that the Tea Party seemed to be conservative. They seem to want conservative ends: They’re concerned about budgets and deficits and taxes and the Constitution. I suspect they would dislike Trump much more because not only is he a populist—it’s not even clear that he’s a conservative. He’s a narcissist.

Dunn: Certainly the libertarians are really alarmed by Trump—his hostility to free trade, closing borders, limiting immigration. Those things would make libertarians want to light themselves on fire.

Green: You isolate a lot of area studies and identity studies: Women & Gender Studies, Africana studies, fields that focus on race and intersectionality issues. You say in your book that even moderates wouldn’t be welcome there, let alone dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Why do you think it is that conservatives aren’t welcome in those fields—or, perhaps, why aren’t conservative academics interested in those fields?

Dunn: With some of them, there’s a political orientation built into the field itself, so that’s what excludes conservatives. If conservatism doesn’t line up with the orientation, then conservatives aren’t going to be welcome and are not going to be fit. But I don’t know that it’s the case that conservatives aren’t interested in sex and gender or race.

Shields: It’s good not to think of intellectual interests as static, that you’re born with and have this collection of intellectual interests. Our interests in different fields are cultivated within the university. To some degree, conservatives start marching down different paths early on: They’re much more likely to gravitate toward the natural sciences as undergraduates; they’re much more likely to gravitate toward economics. Maybe to some degree they’re more interested in those things, but they may also be alienated by the way other topics are presented. And there’s good evidence that’s the case: There’s a survey that was done at the University of Colorado which found Republicans much more likely to feel uncomfortable in the classroom in the social sciences.

“I worry that the left and the right are telling young minorities they can’t succeed in the university because it’s hopelessly bigoted.”

Green: In recent student protests, one of the messages we’ve heard most clearly from students is that their universities haven’t grappled deeply enough with questions of systematic discrimination and inequality. As you’ve suggested, the main academic disciplines in which scholars are grappling with these issues are dominated by one set of frameworks and one set of political ideologies. Do you think conservatives have ways of grappling with racial and gender-based discrimination in novel, scholarly ways?

Shields: Liberals do tend to teach courses in areas that are politically touchy and sensitive—they’re more likely to teach courses on race or gender. In some ways, conservatives have been much more sheltered from the recent political storm [on campuses]. When you look at the heads that are rolling around the country, they’re liberal heads, not conservative ones. Conservatives are much less likely to be called to the dean’s office because they said something that a student found offensive, for example—they’re teaching microeconomics or ancient history.

Dunn: We’ve had some very high-profile protests, but I don’t know that there’s been an outpouring of anger everywhere, and even where there has been anger, I’m don’t know that it represents a significant part of the student body. I think some of these protests have gotten more attention than their numbers suggest they should receive.

Shields: I worry that both the populist left and the populist right are telling young minorities that they can’t succeed in the university because it’s hopelessly bigoted. In both cases, it’s a distortion.

Green: Why do you say that?

Shields: I don’t think there’s evidence that there’s systematic bias [against racial minorities in higher education]. Political bias is much deeper and harder to root out of any institution. I think it’s partially because political bias is not an irrational prejudice. It also expresses an intellectual orientation. People find different kinds of questions interesting and certain interpretations more plausible than others. It’s not going to go away. That’s why you need a range of [professors’ beliefs] so that they can check one another.

But on the other hand, the populist right does tend to overstate the bias [against conservative professors] that does exist. Conservatives can succeed and make it in the university. There are things like tenure, which are very important and protect academic freedom.

“The focus on race, sex, and class—they call it the holy trilogy—seems to denigrate these great works.”

Green: There’s this fundamental tension in conservatism: this idea that you look backwards to understand now, that fast and quick revolutionary change is not what we’re looking for. Do you think this intellectual orientation has made it harder for conservative academics to take seriously race and gender as areas of study?

Shields: I think they don’t like the way those topics are studied. They don’t like the theoretical machinery brought to bear on them—things like intersectionality. Their critique of intersectionality would not be that it’s interested in gender and race—it’s this clunky machinery that doesn’t fit very well with the empirical world. It can’t explain why black men are doing so much worse than black women, or why women now get more college education and more college degrees.

Dunn: The literature professors we interviewed were interesting on this. For many conservatives, they view great works of literature as a source of wisdom that we should be grateful for and approach humbly. They think that some of the focus on race, sex, and class—they call it the holy trilogy—seems to denigrate these great works and minimizes them.

Green: You bring up the use of social science a lot in your book. How do you think professors on both sides should use social science in combination with their political beliefs? What are the boundaries around the responsible use of social science, especially in politics?

Shields: Data is not self-interpreting. Conservatives and liberals will find some different explanations for the same empirical results. That’s to be expected, and that’s good. And liberals and conservatives carry different kinds of wisdom with them.

It took sociologists a long time to come around to the view that two-parent families were good for children on average. One reason is that they thought that social institutions are inherently oppressive things: Traditional marriage is necessarily coercive, and it stymied our liberty and freedom and it was an institution that promoted gender inequality.

It wasn’t just some tribalism. They just didn’t have the sort of intellectual furniture in their heads. Conservatives have similar blind spots, too—I don’t mean to pick on liberals when I give this example. Politics will shape the questions we’ll ask, and it will shape our interpretations to some degree. On the whole, more pluralism is a good thing.

Green: You all talk, for example, about the Regnerus study, which studied children who are placed with or born to same-sex couples. Some people in academia might use this as an example of the irresponsible use of social science—some on the left would say this was a study that was poorly constructed and over-interpreted to create findings that lean in a certain direction.

Shields: Most scholars aren’t aware when they’re doing things in a biased way. I think bias creeps in in ways we don’t see. That’s what makes it difficult and tenacious: It’s not something social scientists consciously do for the most part.

Dunn: For conservatives, if they arrive at conclusions that are disfavored by the left, they’re concerned that they’ll be accused of irresponsible research, and that shuts off research itself. With Regnerus, I don’t know that many people would want to engage in the same kind of data gathering that he did, lest it lead to results that aren’t palatable to others in their discipline. Many people just stay away because it’s not “socially responsible.”

Shields: I think as social scientists we should avoid accusing each other of reverse-engineering studies. I think there should be a kind of culture of charity—we should assume good faith, not bad faith, on the part of our fellow colleagues.

“It’s important for conservatives not to think academia is just a ghettoized, worthless place that should be burned to the ground.”

Green: One thing that’s looming in your book is this notion that academic or scholarly work is a way of discerning “truth.” Perhaps social-science findings are so politically charged because they’re seen as a firm way of establishing truth, and if they don’t line up with the idea of history as a march of progress, then that is foundationally threatening to a progressive way of thinking about the accumulation of knowledge.

But you also allude to truth as something that can be found through this back-and-forth between conservative and liberal professors. How does this manifest in the academy?

Dunn: There does tend to be a kind of Whig history: There’s been this natural expansion of liberty, and if you look at the progressive movement, there were the good people, who were the progressives, and then there were those who try to obstruct them. It turns out that it’s much more complicated than that, and it’s only recently that scholars, economists, and historians have explored some of the darker parts of the progressive movement. The eugenics component of the progressive movement, for example, has largely been unexplored

I think that’s part of the problem with homogeneity. If you did have more political diversity in the academy, it wouldn’t have taken until now—the past 10 to 15 years—to be written.

Green: What’s the appropriate role for conservative scholars who speak as intellectuals outside the academy?

Shields: Thinks tanks have been an important platform for conservative ideas, but there are disadvantages to going that route for conservatives, because you can’t shape conversations and discussions from within the university. It’s important for conservatives not to think, well, we’ve got AEI and Cato and Heritage and Hoover, and academia is just a ghettoized, worthless place that should be burned to the ground. The university is important. There is a concern that too many conservatives will be siphoned off, too—they’ll say well, it’s a much easier path if you want to be an intellectual.

Green: Is it true that any professor who walks into a classroom wearing a bowtie is, in fact, a conservative?

Shields: Absolutely. No question. They just scream conservative. You can’t find liberals who wear ties anymore, much less bowties. Conservatives tend to dress up a little bit—they’re more formal.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a liberal professor in a bowtie. Have you, Josh?

Dunn: Not that I can recall.