Professors, Think Tanks, and Chicken Flocks

In the war of ideas, the Right holds a weak hand for the simple reason that it has minimal access to America’s 20 million college students. Yes, Heritage, the Manhattan Institute, and other right-leaning organizations can publish brilliant, wonkish papers, but this reach pales in comparison to the countless airheaded, lefty professors who indoctrinate thousands of impressionable youngsters every year. One only needs to observe the outcomes of today’s ideological strife to confirm this unpleasant imbalance.

This is all so obvious, and one would think that conservative think tanks would at least try to enter the collegiate marketplace of ideas by recruiting college professors to hear their messages and eventually bring them to students—that they’d at least do something more than just mail professors unsolicited policy papers or sponsor newspaper op-eds. Not so. University faculty, with scant exception, are MIA in the world of right-leaning think tanks.

This partly reflects the think tanks’ pay-to-play business model. It’s expensive to participate in this world, where meals and conferences typically cost several hundred dollars or more. Alas, professors are notoriously cheap, especially if there is no immediate professional benefit from, say, attending an AEI lunch versus networking at a disciplinary meeting. Why pay $1,500 to hob-nob with non-academics? What’s more, on many campuses, attending said lunch can be a guilt-by-association career liability. With these prices and risks, it’s hardly surprising that think tanks attract so few professors to hear their sermons.

But beyond the financial and professional disincentives, conservative organizations face a more formidable obstacle: the pecking order. In a nutshell, a professor who arrives at a conservative-sponsored event invariably loses status, a process identical to inserting a newcomer chicken into an established barnyard flock hierarchy. This recent arrival may be a brilliant, distinguished specimen, bedecked in glorious plumage, but he will be pecked at by the others and forbidden to reciprocate. This is true even if the meal is free. And the pecking order is hard-wired into human nature. That the business folk who attend think tank events often have a low view of “pointy-headed” intellectuals hardly helps.

Let me be more specific. Think tanks rely on regular, often yearly donations, not student tuition, government subsidies, and endowments. Nor do these organizations come cheap—top administrators are well paid; meetings and meals require expensive venues and staffing. It is thus perfectly rational for think tanks to treat members according to their generosity. Pay the membership minimum and receive a free magazine; donate mega bucks and attend private dinners with dignitaries. Further, think tanks hire staff to schmooze with attendees, functioning like top restaurants—big-tipping regulars sit at prestige tables and receive fawning service, while hoi polloi dine near the kitchen door.

Most academics will find this sudden loss of status painful and irreversible, unless, of course, they are willing to shell out $25,000 to sit at the head table for a dinner honoring a GOP functionary rambling on with a canned speech.

[Related: “Free Speech vs. Discussing Free Speech”]

To top it all off, what counts as academic currency—a sharp intelligence, a mastering of the arcane, a long vita, disciplinary awards, and similar academic accomplishments—counts for little in the think tank’s social whirl. Yes, you may be a renowned expert on international affairs, but if you pay the minimum for a ticket to the annual dinner, you may well be seated at banquet hall’s cheap seats with donors trading pictures of grandchildren. Nobody wants to hear your insightful application of Hans Morgenthau’s theories to the current Middle East. This is light years from one’s home turf, where students must pay attention to your pearls of wisdom. And who needs the hotel’s rubber chicken, to boot?

Don’t believe the claim that think tanks are a refuge from oppressive campus orthodoxies and thus should naturally attract free-thinking professors. An academic who believes that he can speak freely by escaping the campus thoughtcrime apparatchiki is mistaken. The choice is between two different orthodoxies, not between the stifling dogmas of the academy and an unbridled marketplace of ideas at a Harvard Club luncheon.

Academics may well be frustrated by their intellectual encounters with those they meet at think tank events. Attendees who’ve made fortunes in the “real world” are rarely able to discuss complex issues by citing scholarly research or make references to eminent theorists. More likely, think tank-ers (including mega donors) will invoke some general principle (e.g., enhanced competition will cure America’s educational short comings) and will perhaps add some anecdotal evidence.

This divide in intellectual currency can rarely be bridged, and those earning handsome livelihoods in the “real world” will resent being criticized for their naïve views. All in all, then, why should a professor venture to where his arguments, often viewed as long-winded, fall flat? Better to remain on campus where colleagues and students will appreciate long-drawn-out erudition.

This divide between think tanks and the academy helps explain why universities have so easily embraced intellectual and political insanity. Where is the counterattack? Certainly not from right-of-center think tanks. Heritage, AEI, and the like have long been asleep at the wheel, oblivious to the rise of identity politics, the social construction of everything, the belief that science is racist, and all the rest. Had anybody been monitoring campus intellectual life thirty years ago, academics could have explained how pernicious postmodern gobbledygook and racial preferences were infiltrating departmental hiring and undermining intellectual standards. The same goes for the emergence of academic specialties that are nothing more than grievance-mongering. Today’s think tank speakers alarmed at campuses’ ideologically infused raving and ranting are decades too late. The academy’s Cassandras never had a chance to sound the alarm.

Yes, preaching the message to affluent, middle-aged lawyers, finance types, and assorted retirees may be a sound business model to keep right-of-center think tanks solvent, but it is, sadly, a side show in today’s ideological battlefield. It’s rearguard resistance at best, since these messages will go nowhere. The real battle today occurs on campus, where the Left enjoys near-unencumbered access to scores of suggestible youngsters. What else explains the rise of woke capitalism and the one-sided mass media?

I am unsure of how to overcome this obstacle of campus access, but I am convinced that it must entail energizing greater numbers of faculty, especially junior faculty, who often teach large groups of undergraduates yet to be fully marinated in the woke orthodoxy. Perhaps we should study the Communist Party for tips on recruiting top-rung university talent. It is no accident, comrade, that the CPUSA successfully recruited and then manipulated hundreds of fellow traveler-professors to spread the Marxist gospel—and did so without fancy events.


Image: Italo Melo, Public Domain

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

12 thoughts on “Professors, Think Tanks, and Chicken Flocks

  1. It was never about a battle of ideas. It was about consolidating control over narratives, by systematically excluding conservatives from faculty positions wherever one could.

    I kid you not. Please teach your think tank bros about the application of Kuhn’s theory to all social sciences and humanities, buttressed and intensified by Foucault’s conception of episteme. Knowledge is about power, the power to create and maintain a consensus over meaning and viewpoint. THAT’s what liberals and “progressives” believe (despite any whimpers or platitudes offered to the contrary), and that’s why an attempt at dialogue or to “reestablish a marketplace of ideas” in the the social sciences and humanities is a COMPLETE waste of time.

    Conservatives lost this fight long ago, when they either ceased to give a damn about hiring committees, or failed to put up a fight about them, starting 40 years ago. Their naivete about their political rivals, thinking that they would operate (and hire) in good faith and preserve the core norms of the university (a community of scholars) proved fatal.

  2. Amen, comrade Bob! It was clear the battle was lost after Robert Bork had transitioned from Yale Law to AEI or wherever he ended up. I imagine it was a pleasant life. But he ceased to have much of any influence.

    And comrade, your description of the “pecking order” is hilariously on-target.

    1. “Jews don’t count” and neither does this website.

      We need a single goal that will change everything within a year.

      We need a seat at the academic table. Lucky for you folks I have that goal. Our goal is an alternative CORE curriculum!

      If we can have our own CORE we can have the same access to the students as the leftist folks. That is all we need.

      Why will students flock to our CORE ? Because it is harder and more exciting.
      This is the same reason that the Marines always hit their quota.

      Our CORE will be four semesters of Western History i.e. the Columbia core plus 2. There will be one more course that covers the current time where the students will read Thomas Sowell and Eric Hoffer. And one course on public policy analysis. ( more on this later after you folks have recognized the greatness of this idea).

      Plus students will have to earn an EMT certificate so that when they go to help they will know something that will help.

      All we need is one state senator or one governor to run on this issue of choice. It is hard to argue with choice. We would have this if the candidate I supported had won the governors race in New Jersey. We came close.

      Does anyone know anyone running for state office who might be willing to make this issue the issue ? Glenn Youngkin ?

      Sincerely,

      George Zilbergeld

      1. This won’t work. You need systematic validity in the academic context. This is achieved by APPEARING to operate in a “neutral” department/faculty, at a respectable uni, even if your own work is partisan (as it that all your colleagues in reality, too). Creating an expressly partisan department, or partisan new uni, will just lead to academic exclusion by the liberal-left majority: no one will cite the department’s work, invite its members to conferences, etc. This furthermore entails that students will have sound market-based reasons to avoid matriculation in such a faculty/university if they wish to go on to grad school, seek employment in big blue cities, etc.

  3. Thank you Professor Weissberg for this thoughtful article. The cultural battle is NOT lost. The final outcome is our future and this essay, Minding The Campus, FIRE, N.A.S, Bari Weiss, Heather MacDonald, Turing Point USA, and MANY others are fighting this “WOKE” cultural dogma. This battle of ideas is not over. While campus access is very key, this battle does not have to rest exclusively with campus. Many students are fed up with the race, gender, ideology inflicting academia today. And they get this support and help from forums such as this and Professors with the courage to speak up like Professor Weissberg.

  4. William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    The falcons of the Left and the falcons of the Right are both intensely passionate as they circle in opposite directions. None can hear the falconer’s call to abandon their fighting faiths and commit to engaging in a free and fair marketplace of ideas. Moderates, huddled around the flickering fires of academic freedom and due process, intimidated by ubiquitous hostility, watch and wait… perhaps in vain.

  5. Trump understood something that neither the think tanks nor the GOP establishment does — all chiefs and no indians does not a movement make.

    You’d think that wealthy people would understand wealth and personal economics. Or even the concept of Return On Investment.

    The battle was lost 40 years ago — at the graduate school level. Most conservatives went directly into making money, leaving the few who did to die on the vine. We are now three generations into tenured radicals, with a fourth generation now in grad school.

    Academia is LOST…. Outside the hard sciences, there are no professors under the age of 60 who would be interested in anything that the think tanks believe in.

    The Communists understood that you start with the children. We need more people like Betsy DeVoss — rich people willing to get their hands dirty in the academic culture wars.

    If anything, the think tanks could hook up such persons with staffs that would support their efforts instead of sabotaging them. There are a lot of credentialed individuals who could be drawn in but don’t HAVE the $1,500, let alone the travel expenses.

    1. Right but this is unspeakable if you want to eat lunch in this town. Recall that Charles Murray when he was beginning the Bell Curve was at the Manhattan Institute. He left for Washington and a more congenial setting. Mega donors are not necessarily fans of the wide open marketplace of ideas. They pay the piper, so….

      All of this is so plain to see but unspeakable.

      1. I don’t think that the megadonors are getting what they are paying for — the think tanks write papers but aren’t effecting social change…

    2. Justin Morrill never intended to create think tanks!!!

      IHEs are supposed to be about TEACHING, not esoteric thought!!!

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