Back in 2010, University of Illinois, Chicago, Professor and former
Weatherman radical Bill Ayers gave a presentation on Public Pedagogy at the
American Education Research Association annual meeting. Ayers, then a member of
AERA’s governing board, made the claim that he, Bill Ayers, was really not a
terrorist. Ten of the first 11 sentences in the talk abstract were in the first
person singular, before Bill Ayers switched gears to say that really, any
violence Bill Ayers might have encouraged merely came in response to the evils
of the U.S. government.
Leading a real social scientist to wonder, how on earth can one peer
review this “research,” or rather me-search? Bill Ayers has got to be
the world’s leading expert on Bill Ayers, so how can anyone else be qualified
to review his work on himself? And
anyway, what is Bill Ayers doing on the American Education Research Association governing board? Or have Bill Ayers studies become a distinct
subfield alongside such areas as teacher quality and psychometrics?
The standing-room-only talk got a great reception, only to show that
AERA desperately needs some conservatives to point out when the emperor has no
One of us saw the same thing this spring at AERA, when a panel
degenerated into a revival meeting on how all right-thinking people back
affirmative action, and should fear satanic Supreme Court moves to trim it
back. The panel was all big-name, and the clear impression an assistant
professor might take away is that publishing anything questioning affirmative
action would not be a tenure-winning move. The single audience member who had
the temerity to question whether unionized public school systems fail to
educate disadvantaged minorities was politely ignored.
Academia Needs Conservatives
The obvious lesson is that one or a few conservatives, isolated and
ignored, just won’t do. AERA and academia in general, need a critical mass of
conservatives to keep the liberals and radicals honest, or at least less out of
touch with reality. Otherwise, the Bill Ayers and Ward Churchill types of
profit-seeking prophets may rule the roost.
Conservatives may not need academia, but if academia is to survive, it needs
conservatives—even though it may not always welcome them. In the edited
volume The Politically Correct University, an essay by Dan Klein and
Charlotta Stern sums up results from numerous surveys showing that even in the
most “conservative” disciplines liberals outnumber conservatives by a wide
margin. Klein and Stern show that Democrats and Marxists outnumber Republicans
and libertarians by 3-1 in Economics, more than 5-1 in Political Science, 10-1
or more in History and English, and well over 20-1 in Sociology and Anthropology.
Exacerbating the imbalance, whereas Democratic faculty hold policy views well
to the left of Democrats in the electorate, academic Republicans are more
moderate than the typical GOP voter. That makes sense, since campus conservatives
hear frequent counterarguments from their peers–their mainstream colleagues
do not. And at the elite universities with the most impact on the
national conversation, conservatives have even less of a presence.
So how can conservatives survive in this often indifferent and sometimes
downright hostile environment? From the
research and our “lived experience,” we suggest several lessons for
the budding right of center academic.
Publication Is the Coin of
1. Pick your field carefully. Some fields like Sociology,
“Womyn’s Studies,” and the various ethnic studies are simply
conservative free zones unlikely to change.
On the other hand, Economics, Political Science, and, to some degree,
Law and Education, remain reasonably open to ideological diversity, and between
them offer conservatives opportunities to study a wide range of social
2. Do quality, focused research. In most academic fields, C. If you research well, you can and will
succeed. That said, it makes sense to avoid research on controversial issues
until your career is established. (See note on affirmative action above). Make
sure you are established as a righteous academic before people see you as a
3. Don’t come out of the closet
until the time is right. Republican academics, like gays
of yesteryear, often have secret signals to signify when they have met kinsmen
in foreign territory, such as asking if one is in NAS, or saw that great essay
in Minding the Campus or the Weekly Standard. Liberals and radicals have no idea what these
questions mean, but we know. It is
probably smart to lay low in this fashion. Don’t come out to one’s colleagues
until you are sure they can handle it—perhaps not even until after tenure.
4. Don’t self-segregate. It’s perfectly natural for members of besieged minority to form
enclaves, where they can work and socialize in safety. Just as black kids might
lunch at the “black table,” as Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum
writes in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, so
conservatives face temptations to hang out with others of “their own kind.”
While isolation brings some degree of safety, self-segregation prevents
conservatives making a positive impact in higher education by diversifying the
intellectual debates with academia. This is not wise. If you are going to work
at a university, then work at a university, among conventional liberals. Being
exposed to their actual views rather than parodies of their views may make you
a broader and better person. Over the long term your presence might broaden
them as well.
5. Don’t be fanatical. Don’t turn everything into a
political battle. Understand that even in relatively ideological fields; most
of what goes on in research, teaching, and university life generally has little
to do with partisan battles over entitlement spending, same-sex marriage, or
military interventions abroad. Within academia, conservative and liberal
professors often find common ground in their struggles to improve the quality
of higher education. Learning to look past superficial political differences is
a life skill useful both in and out of higher education.
6. But do be positive. If you see every possible slight or misfortunate as proving political
bias, you will become an annoyance rather than a colleague. Instead, give peers
the benefit of the doubt, as you would want them to do for you.
7. That said, keep your bags
packed. For professors of all stripes, though perhaps
more for those on the right, some departments and whole universities can be
thought of as “publish or stay” sinkholes. Make sure that you have
published enough so that, when confronted with ugliness, you can walk out the
door to a better position. As we
conservatives know all too well, markets can set us free.
In short, universities need conservatives, not because there is
something inherently lacking in a liberal ideological perspective. Rather an
educational institution cannot succeed unless it provides students with a
comprehensive worldview that includes faculty from both sides of the
ideological continuum. To succeed in liberal academia, conservatives must be
bold, strategic, and good natured. Ironically, by fighting to remain a part of
the academic world, conservatives aren’t simply promoting their unique
worldview, they’re reinvigorating higher education. Without a spirited debate,
academia becomes a repository of liberal dogma, rather than an institution
devoted to a search for Truth.
Robert Maranto (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the 21st Century
Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of
Arkansas, and with others has authored or edited 11 books including The Politically Correct University (AEI,
Matthew Woessner (email@example.com) is
an Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Penn State
University, Harrisburg. He is the co-author of The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics,
and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education (Rowman and
A longer version of this argument was published as “Diversifying the Academy:
How Conservative Academics Can Thrive in Liberal Academia,” PS: Political Science and Politics 45: 3
(July, 2012), 469-74.