Should Conservatives Lead Secret Lives?

Passing on the right is dangerous and generally illegal driving.  But a fair number of people do it anyway.  The title Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn’s new book, Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, combines the image of the careless driver with the other transgressive meaning of “passing.”  Conservative professors can now pass by concealing their political identities the way Coleman Silk, the classic professor who is the central character in Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain, “passes” as Jewish to conceal his African-American origins.

Racial passing has a storied history in the United States.  It evokes a two-edged response:  some admiration for the trickster who successfully evades racial obstacles to social advancement, combined with disdain for the individual who turns his back on his own kind for the sake of getting ahead. It is a complicated deceit for the person who does it, since it often means concealing from oneself important parts of one’s own identity, and perhaps betraying friends and family.

Related: Social Psychology, a Field with Only 8 Conservatives

Thus, when Shields and Dunn playfully put the word front and center in the title of their book, it signals trouble ahead.  And indeed the trouble comes.  As many reviewers have already noted, their core theme is that conservatives can get along just fine in academe provided they wait until after they get tenure before they reveal their conservative views.  This is troubling in several ways, not least in its seeming validation of the unfair obstacles that conservatives must endure along the way.  It is troubling in more subtle ways too, including its implicit endorsement of the pathological tactic of passing.  Train up a generation of conservatives to believe that prudence requires them to hide their views for more than a decade of graduate study, post-grad appointment, and tenure-track positions, and you train up a generation imbued with the intellectual habits of timidity and excessive deference.  Elsewhere in the academic archipelago this has a name, “internalized oppression.”

Why do we need a book counseling conservatives to love their mistreatment?  What good is it to tell conservative scholars to bear with it, because at the end of the day, you will be rewarded with freedom? It is a freedom that is in fact wasted on many of those who eventually get it.  By that point in their lives, many faculty members have achieved hard-won acceptance in their departments and professions which they are not about to put at risk.  They are enmeshed in relationships with senior colleagues on their political left and they know that, at most, they can from time to time dip a toe in the waters of dissent from progressive orthodoxy.

As the head of The National Association of Scholars, I talk frequently with conservative scholars who express views like this: untenured scholars scared stiff they will be identified as having non-progressive views, and tenured scholars scared of being labeled their campus’s “conservative professor”—a category always assumed to be singular.

Related: Why So Few Conservatives in Higher Ed?

In that light, I don’t welcome Shields and Dunn’s book. It strikes me as profoundly cynical and likely to damage the effort to summon from young scholars the courage they will need to change American higher education for the better.

But it would be unfair to paint the book as only that.  They have done good research and have many pertinent observations.  Their evidence for their conclusions comes from interviews with 153 professors in economics, political science, sociology, history, philosophy, and literature, all of whom self-identified as “conservative” or “libertarian.” They found their subjects by networking outwards from faculty members who had published in journals such as The Claremont Review of Books.  That gave them a list of 249 “confirmed conservative professors.”  Over the course of ten research trips, they were able to conduct in-person interviews with 153 of these at a total of 84 colleges and universities.

Those numbers may strike some as small, but in fact that’s an impressive accomplishment. Shields and Dunn recorded and transcribed these interviews and kept track of the relevant categories.  Political science provided the largest number of interviewees:  25 percent of the total.  Sociology the fewest:  nine percent of the total.  The academic ranks of the respondents, however, tell the largest story.  Full professors accounted for 53 percent of the respondents, and associate professors accounted for 27 percent.  So 80 percent were in tenured positions.  Another 4 percent were “emeritus,” i.e. retired from a tenured position.  Only 8 percent were in the pre-tenure category of “assistant professor.”   The remainder were visitors and adjuncts, off the tenure track.

Translation: 127 of those 153 were protected from the most serious career consequences that can follow from being identified with non-liberal positions on current issues.  Nonetheless, Shields and Dunn have concealed the identities of all but one of them.

Shields and Dunn frequently acknowledge pertinent realities.  They write, for example, that “Conservatives are least welcome in field where they are most needed.” But each such zig is followed by a zag.  The very next sentence following that acknowledgement is the declaration that “the right-wing critique of the university is overdrawn.”  It’s overdrawn because a privileged and adroitly disguised few have created “niches” for themselves within the university.

This is rather like saying a few stray wildflowers have survived in the 2,000-acre industrial-scale mono-cropped farm.  We wish those wildflowers well, but what we would really like is some greater diversity in the planting.

There should be no need to pass on the right. In either the sense of traffic management or the sense of concealed identity.  Shields and Dunn know that and more than once call on liberals and progressives to welcome conservatives into the faculty.  They know too that this counsel is unlikely to be heeded, and their last words of counsel go instead to “conservative outside the university” not to complain too loudly about “intolerance” on campus because doing so discourages young conservatives from pursuing academic careers.

My own response differs.  I would rather that anyone who is daunted by the obstacles conservatives face choose a career outside the academy.  What we need are people willing to dismantle those obstacles by challenging them head-on.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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23 thoughts on “Should Conservatives Lead Secret Lives?

  1. Look, should the Left gets its glorious Marxist revolution history shows the rulers get rid of the traitors first then the lawyers then the useful idiots.

    Leftist academia is all useful idiots. Good luck to them.

  2. The worst nightmare for liberals is vocal conservatives. Liberals live in a bubble. They mostly agree with each other and support each other. Conservatives live each day with the scrutiny of liberals trying to knock down their ideals. They learn to defend them, they learn to argue them, they actually learn to believe, after finding the flaws in each liberal argument, they are right.

    So, in short, should Conservatives lead a secret life? Hell no, they should live a sincerely visible life and force Liberals to defend their thoughts. I doubt liberals can defend their thoughts, outside of the liberal bubble.

  3. I taught in a law school for over 30 years. In my field as the faculty grew more concentrated on the left the quality FELL. After all every one of the top ten/top ten graduates could make 3 or 4 times his or her teaching salary with a bit more harried work environment and a few more hours. Luckily I got tenure early and was in a field rich (double meaning) with real life consulting opportunities. So I stayed on because I hated advancing positions I knew were wrong on behalf of people I didn’t respect. Besides, I learned that I preferred influence over wealth.

    As the campus “conservative”, I had every wrong thinking student sent to me for counseling. If fact many students were no more “Conservative” than I but they had working B.S. detectors (a feature that the Left detests). They, like I, were subject to the narrowest of intellectual litmus tests – miss 1 correct thought and fail. Most were not the stereotype conservatives but rather folks who believed America could never afford to be Heaven and that the Constitution means what it says.

    I was very lucky not be in the Liberal Arts faculty. And to have tenure. At least the law faculty believed in the broadest version (Nazis in Skokie) of free speech so they had to defend me to be true to their own leftist principles. Ha, ha.

    But as to new hires, my faculty would never have hired me IF they knew I wasn’t 100% Leftist. And they never made that error again.

    So the advice to hide your true beliefs is correct in practice no matter how detestable the people are who make it necessary. Yes, I say people -you, Professor Affluent – because there is no “system” only a bunch of narrow minded bigots making bad decisions. Oh, the horror, you called a colleague a bigot. Well, I gave been called worse. And I took a lot of your money for decades. See the smile?

  4. I just received an email from a Ph.D. student whom I had invited to comment on a controversy on his campus. His reply: “As a PhD candidate, I believe it better to keep a low profile at this time. My committee is supportive of my work on ***** and my advisor noted the lack of academic freedom being accorded to ****** It truly is a sad day when we can no longer engage crucial ideas because of the radical orthodoxy of those to rail against ‘privilege’ and ‘racism.'”

    Nothing unusual here. I understand the doctoral candidate’s apprehensions. Shields and Dunn do too. The difference is that they see nothing particularly amiss in his having to hide his views to finish his degree and start his career.

    1. Peter,

      Even though you don’t like the book, we do appreciate your review of it. We think that for those who read it there is plenty of evidence documenting both the double-standards that apply to conservative faculty and the harmful consequences caused by a lack political diversity.

      However, where do we say that there isn’t anything amiss about having to hide your views? We can certainly disagree with what the best strategy is to deal with left wing domination of the university but we don’t say that that it is not hypocritical or unfair for conservatives to have hide their views. Just because we do think that it might be prudent for some to do so, and many conservative professors as you say think so too, doesn’t mean that we are whitewashing the university’s sins. Personally, I suspect more conservative could be more forthright and not be punished but I don’t know their circumstances.

      But I do have a couple questions for you. You say, “As the head of The National Association of Scholars, I talk frequently with conservative scholars who express views like this: untenured scholars scared stiff they will be identified as having non-progressive views, and tenured scholars scared of being labeled their campus’s “conservative professor”—a category always assumed to be singular.” But then you also conclude with “I would rather that anyone who is daunted by the obstacles conservatives face choose a career outside the academy. What we need are people willing to dismantle those obstacles by challenging them head-on.” When you hear from the faculty in the first quote, do you always give them the advice in the second quote? If not, why not?

      Thanks again for your review.

      1. Dear Josh,

        Coming late to your comment. I missed it before. I agree that your book provides “plenty of evidence documenting both the double-standards that apply to conservative faculty and the harmful consequences caused by a lack political diversity.” You have added something to the growing list of studies that capture the bias against all who stand outside the progressive orthodoxies on campus.

        “Where do we say that there isn’t anything amiss about having to hide your views?” Nowhere. But the unspoken conclusion hangs over many passages. For example, “For the vast majority of closeted conservatives, tenure presents a new birth of freedom,” (p. 85.) This sentence follows a passage in which you and Jon Shields explain that you have no way to estimate the number or percentage of “closeted conservatives.” So how could you that the “vast majority” of them look on tenure as “a new birth of freedom.”

        Having spent a good many years as someone eager to welcome the newly tenured and now “free” professors into the world of open debate of ideas that are outside the range of what is permitted under progressive orthodoxy, I can testify that this phenomenon is exceptional and rare. Faculty members who attempt to advance by hiding their views seldom change their habits after getting tenure. For one thing, they quickly realize that further promotion and emoluments might be at risk if they revealed their true views to the people who promoted them.

        You ask whether I counsel untenured faculty members to run the risks of challenges the obstacles head-on. Yes, if I see some evidence that the person has the self-respect to take on the fight. No, if it looks like the person has already begun to rationalize the caterpillar fantasy of emerging one day as a butterfly after years in a cocoon.

  5. “What we need are people willing to dismantle those obstacles by challenging them head-on.”

    That sounds really courageous. What you are saying is that you want some unknown (large) number of young academics to challenge the liberal establishment and ruin their nascent careers in the (foolish) attempt to defeat leftism in academia. Why should a young professor commit career suicide to further your political agenda? They need to make ends meet, and put food on the table.

    Worse, you excuse the established, tenured, professors’ reluctance to come out of the conservative closet for fear of complicating established “relationships” with senior colleagues.

    In sum: the careers and ambitions of junior academics should be sacrificed on the altar of your political agenda, but tenured professors are excused from taking a stance because … they have achieved professional success by courageously staying in the closet for so many years?

    It is a tragedy that would-be professors are faced with this dire situation. But it isn’t up to the powerless aspiring professors to fix the problem. It is up to the established, tenured professors on the left and on the right to stand up for free speech and academic freedom for all.

    1. I have no disagreement with your diagnosis, Mr. Baker.

      As to your prognosis, unfortunately it will require that the established professors be mounted. On unicorns.

    2. The people most able to “dismantle those obstacles by challenging them head-on.” would be the legislators who control the budget for state universities. They are outside the academic system of reward and punishment and they can make diversity of opinion a condition for budget increases or even budget maintenance. Most states have multiple state universities and money can be redirected from less cooperative campuses to more philosophically diverse institutions. Or more of the education budget can simply be shifted from state universities to community colleges to teach welding or other useful skills.

    3. Or for the customers to step in and say “enough is enough.”
      There are only two colleges in this country who do not receive Federal funding — and they’re both quite conservative. Every other institution, public or private, lives on Federal funds and couldn’t exist without them.
      Hence you have a center-right country funding an academy that is to the left of Bernie Sanders (*so* far to the left that Sanders would be considered “the token Conservative” in many academic venues). One underlying principle of representative democracy is that the people pay for what they want, not what they don’t want.
      OK, it’s time for the people’s representatives to demand that all viewpoints be equally represented and tolerated in academia. While this would be viewed as abolishing academic freedom, the left has already done that — there no longer is any pretense of academic freedom in the fascist ivory gulag.
      Or maybe to simply take a step back and let it all implode on it’s own accord.

  6. The reason no one challenges the obstacles head on is that at best, our numbers are so small that the challenge is met only with silence and ostracism. More commonly, it is met with dismissal at the first opportunity (orals, getting a dissertation director, getting a committe for the defense, the defense).

    1. I think you are only realistic, miraculous Associate Professor Bart. I understand Prof. Wood’s position–I hope I misunderstand it–to be that you are pusillanimous, and should be in another line of work.

    2. Professor Bart is right, but misses two important points.
      First, “dismissal at first opportunity” often occurs long, LONG, before those she mentions. It starts with the undergrad GP A and then admission to grad school. Then there is funding, advising & the cohort. The ability to have things to put onto your CV. The stuff she mentions and more, much more. And then if you manage to run this gauntlet, you’ll be dismissed for having spent too much time in doing it.
      The attitude the left had in the 1970’s, 1980’s & 1990’s was “they will die” — if they could prevent any YOUNG conservatives from ENTERING academia (while nurturing those who advocated their views), it would only be a matter of time before the existing conservatives all retired and/or died.
      They have largely done this, and are now largely the senior faculty & admin folks — and they forgot the lesson of the French Revolution — these are the folks who are increasingly afraid of their own students.
      So be it…
      I hate to say it but academia has become a total fraud.

  7. I believe that eliminating tenure would be for the overall good of students, institutions, and faculty. Your article impresses on me that removing the tenure hurdle completely might make the ‘academy’ a more attractive profession for conservatives knowing that your liberal colleagues no longer have that measuring stick to use. I think that tenured departmental faculty tend to arbitrarily raise and lower the tenure ‘limbo stick’ all the time and would do so on conservative faulty. Lose the stick!

    1. Unfortunately eliminating tenure would probably just result in the few reaming conservatives getting fired first. the only real solution is to have actual conservatives on the hiring/firing committees who can make any bias public, and preferably even have them have conservative/libertarian majorities. of course without having enough conservative professors, you would probably have to start it off by having some conservtive non professors on the hiring committees.

  8. ” Elsewhere in the academic archipelago this has a name, “internalized oppression.” ”

    Seems to be more like oppression defeated than internalized.

    ” What we need are people willing to dismantle those obstacles by challenging them head-on. ”

    And better there be a 5th column already in place, then there not be.


    1. You are proposing to slip people into the enemy camp with a Trojan Horse?

      Prof. Wood thinks it would be better for such halflings to tend non-academic gardens. I presume he regards such infiltration as insufficiently soldierly. Take The Anthill single-handed, says he, or come not back alive.

      I do hope I am not putting words in his mouth. I believe I am merely paraphrasing his position.

  9. If you’re passing to become a Conservative professor, then academic tenure panels who reflexively keep avowed Conservatives out are a modern day Bull Conner. They are the ultimate barrier that must be surmounted for these people to be able to tell the truth and have an honest academic career.

    They need to be named, rated, and for those acting as ideological gatekeepers to keep universities firmly on the left, shamed.

  10. Conservatives who challenge the liberal bias will spend many years becoming highly specialized ( as is the way in modern academia) and will finally be denied tenure and then must start a new career in the private sector with little to show for 10 or more years of their adulthood. Head-on, indeed.

      1. “a6z” has posted five times to this comment list, which indicates a level of attention to my article that deserves at least the author’s acknowledgement.
        The core a6z’s comments is that conservative scholars are wise to hide their views since meeting obstacles “head-on” is bound to result in failure.
        Not so. I have seen conservative scholars gun the tenure gauntlet many times. Some of failed; some succeeded. A great many of those who succeeded chose the strategy of presenting their views openly; a fair number of those who failed were closeted the whole time. The keys to success are having an indisputable record of scholarly excellence (excellence in teaching counting much less for conservatives) and a winsome attitude.
        Meeting opposition head-on shouldn’t mean taking a nasty or an overtly aggressive approach. It means being plain about who one is and what one believes.
        If you can’t do that before tenure, the chances are dim that you will ever do it. As for alternative careers for Ph.D.s, there are many satisfying options. I know quite a few people who have Ph,D.s, some of whom actually achieved tenure, but then chose to do something else with their lives. Going to graduate school and then deciding not to pursue an academic career is a perfectly good decision. The academy is not the only place in which you can lead the life of the mind or pursue scholarship.

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