“Forget what the right says,” the title of a recent Washington Post OpEd proclaims, “Academia isn’t so bad for conservative professors.”
The sub-title, “Right-leaning professors do face challenges on campus, but we can still thrive,” both reveals that the authors — Jon A. Shields, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, and Joshua M. Dunn Sr, associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado-Colorado-Springs— regard themselves as conservative and summarizes the argument of their new book, Passing On The Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University. “As two conservative professors,” they write, “we agree that right-wing faculty members and ideas are not always treated fairly on college campuses. But we also know that right-wing hand-wringing about higher education is overblown.”
The authors’ sanguine conclusions about the nature of conservative life in progressive-land rest on the wobbly foundation of their survey of and interviews with 153 conservative academics in the social sciences and humanities. For reasons I will discuss, that survey is far too rickety to support robust generalizations about conservative academics, but that does not mean its results are without value or interest — just as the fact that the plural of anecdote is not data does not mean that anecdotes cannot be revealing, instructive, and amusing.
Having decided to limit their focus to social science and the humanities, the authors further restricted their search for conservatives to six disciplines — economics, political science, sociology, history, philosophy, and literature. The effect if not the purpose of this restriction was to exclude a number of fields — they mention psychology, anthropology, education, and all the race/ethnicity/gender “studies” programs — where progressives are dominant and conservatives especially scarce or even virtually absent.
Next was the problem of deciding “who should count as a conservative.” Their solution side-stepped the difficult problem of definition, of deciding what principles or policy preferences are essential. “We simply decided,” they write, “to classify professors as conservative if they identified as such.”
That left the problem, however, of how to find the professors who so identified, and their solution was rather haphazard. They began by “culling names from right-wing journals and academic membership lists with distinct ideational profiles,” followed by asking professors culled from these sources “to help us grow our snowball sample by identifying other scholars that are likely to self-identify as “political conservatives or libertarians.”
The culled were in turn asked to identify others, who were asked to identify others, and so on, which generated “249 confirmed conservatives,” which in turn resulted finally in the authors conducting interviews with 153 self-identified conservative professors from 84 colleges and universities. The institutions are named in a table; the interviewees were not named, in part to protect those who were afraid of being outed. “Approximately a third of the conservatives we interviewed, for example, concealed their politics prior to tenure by ‘passing’ as liberals.” The comparison of conservatives on campus to gays in the closet was pervasive throughout the book, usually implicit but often explicit.
The resulting “snowball sample” of conservative academia was commendably interesting, easily justifying the effort of creating it and trying to cull observations of and about such an elusive minority group, but it does not have a snowball’s chance in hell of providing reliable generalizations about the lives of conservatives on campus. It comprised a collection of individuals that was both too small and too idiosyncratic in the situations and experiences of its members to support reliable generalizations.
I believe, in short, their net could have been cast wider (or the snowball allowed to gather more snow). Apparently no one on a popular listserv of conservative historians had been consulted, nor were a few prominent conservative historian friends of mine approached. In addition, books and memoirs, such as Paul Gottfried’s Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers would have added a dimension that is missing here.
Regarding the 153 conservative specimens who were collected by Shields and Dunn, here is their distribution by discipline:
Political Science 25%
On the face of it there’s nothing unreasonable about this distribution — though there’s also no reason to think it represents anything other than itself — but in one important respect it demands the Sesame Street query, “which of these things is not like the other?”
The answer, of course, is economics. “Economics,” the authors recognize, “is odd. Surveys of faculty consistently show that economists are far more likely to be on the right than professors of any other discipline…. [T]he discipline of economics is not plagued by partisan polarization.” Thus, unlike other interviewees, “the economists we interviewed do not feel discriminated against, nor do they ever feel the need to hide their political views.”
The authors found, for example, that 46% of of political scientists, 42% of sociologists, and 42% of historians but only 4% of economists among the conservatives they studied indicated they had concealed evidence of their politics before tenure. 36% of their economists, in fact, were actually in conservative-majority departments, compared to 0% of sociologists, 4% of literature professors, and 12% of historians.
The large proportion of economists in the sample — and even of political scientists, since that field also contains many with orientations such as behaviorism and rational choice that are “indifferent and sometimes even friendly to conservative points of view” — makes the authors’ frequent generalizations about conservative academics as a whole problematic.
What should one make of their finding, for example, that 36% of their respondents omitted information from their CV’s that might identify them as conservatives or libertarians? Does that number— masking what must have been much much lower responses from economists and higher responses from philosophers, sociologists, and literature professors — reveal anything useful about what it means to be a conservative in the humanities and social sciences in general?
There were other survey results that suggest the situations and experiences of the conservatives located by the authors’ rolling snowball method do not reflect those of most conservative academics. For example, I think it unlikely that 21% of conservative philosophers, 17% of conservative political scientists, and 12% of conservative historians actually work in departments that have a majority of conservatives.
The text of Passing on the Right is heavily salted with tables containing numbers similar to those I’ve quoted, giving the book an air of field-based social science research, but in fact its argument and conclusions rest all but exclusively on quotes from the authors’ interviews. That argument in a nutshell: academia itself, and the position of conservative professors in it, is much better than portrayed by “David Horowitz’s campaign and other right-wing efforts to scandalize the radicalism of higher education.”
The authors’ attempt to distance themselves from “right-wing critics” is a recurring theme, often in the form of snarky put-downs of critiques like Horowitz’s, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, or “the designs of conservative organization’s like the Koch Foundation.” Some conservatives, they regretfully acknowledge, “accept monies from the coffers of right-wing foundations,” as though that were somehow subversive of the mission of the university.
“While many on the right and left conclude that academia is not an appropriate career choice for conservatives,” Shields and Dunn write in their Introduction, “they do so without knowing very much about the right-wing thinkers who are already quietly making a living as professors.” Their book, they believe, “corrects that shortcoming by illuminating the hidden world of right-wing professors.”
The most illuminating word in that claim is an adverb: quietly. Although Shields and Dunn produce numerous quotes from conservative academics who “generally told us that the academy is far more tolerant than right-wing critics of the progressive university seem to imagine,” the weight of the evidence they produce seems to undermine their own rather rosy conclusions.
Consider, for example, the poignant beginning of Chapter 4, “Closeted Conservatives”:
We met our first closeted professor in a leafy park, about one mile from his prestigious research university. Though we found a secluded spot, our subject was edgy and spoke softly. When the sound of footsteps intruded on our sanctuary, he stopped talking altogether, his eyes darting about….
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. It is a secret he guards with great care.”
I have already alluded to the similarity of the situation of closeted conservatives to closeted gays. Another comparison, not mentioned by the authors, also comes to mind. Their title, Passing On The Right, obviously refers to blacks crossing over the color line and passing as whites, but another fraught racial situation may be an even more apt comparison: blacks under slavery who were allowed to work in the plantation house and later, during segregation, as servants, as long as they were on good behavior and “knew their place.”
Finally, in my view, Shields and Dunn sound far too much like Polyannas on the Right, but the best thing about their book — and it is a good thing indeed — is that they present more than enough evidence to allow readers to reach their own, and far different, conclusions.