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.
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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.
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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.