Reflection and Response – Conservative Voices in Academia

(with contributions from Jacob Dwyer)

Academia, in general, and on an average, is considered to be liberal. There is a sense and, for some, proof that conservative ideas are not welcomed in academia.

Evidence is in the fact that you see fewer conservatives pursuing PhDs and therefore less of them as professors. There is an argument that hiring practices need to be changed to bring in more conservative professors as a way to upholding diversity goals. Conservatives argue that, as a population, they have been marginalized and discriminated by liberal academia and therefore need a safe space for their ideas to grow and flourish. Frederick M. Hess and Brendan Bell of the American Enterprise Institute advocate for a place that is free of “progressive orthodoxy.” They ask for this “Ivory Tower of our Own,” which would serve as an incubator to nurture intellectuals who will not be required to conform to the prevailing ideology. For decades now, there has been a growth of Christian colleges which can be highly punitive when it comes to academic freedom so, Bell and Hess advocate for a different and separate space – one that is free of dogma.

These opinions coming from the conservative camps undoubtedly makes many highly uncomfortable, and they argue that traditional ideas are incompatible with higher education. Why does denying climate change (a proven scientific fact) need space in academia? This group – comprising of the liberal academics – argues that most universities today have spaces where conservative ideas flourish. For example, some research centers in many universities are spaces for conservative ideas to flourish and in other cases, like at George Mason University, the Koch Brothers’ donation gave them a say in some hires in the economics department. Colleen Flaherty argues that this is in violation of academic freedom. What these arguments show is that the influence of conservatives in academia does not make them a marginalized group.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed notes that while faculty members with conservative views are in the minority on American campuses, they have still been able to find success and thrive. Jaschik also notes that students are not the ‘sponges’ the media may portray them to be. The 2012 book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives brings the spotlight to this phenomenon by conducting extensive interviews with self-described conservative students and research at two higher education institutions. Author of Becoming Right, Amy J. Biner, found that many students said the experience of studying in a liberal institution helped them shape their conservative views. “It made them clarify values and ideas about different issues or about what being a conservative means,” says Biner.

So where do the claims of bias come from then? According to a study by Darren L. Linvill and Will J. Grant, students who perceive bias tend to exhibit academic entitlement and higher orientation towards grades. This means that students who agreed with the statements, “It is the professor’s responsibility to make it easy for me to succeed,” and “I am a product of my environment. Therefore, if I do poorly in class, it is not my fault,” while also placing a higher value on grades than learning, were more likely to report bias from professors. While conceding that there are likely true instances of bias there, Linvill attributes most of this sentiment to competing perceptions towards academia between students and faculty, stating “[the] underlying issue may be one of poor communication, not bias.”

Concerns about bias reporting have taken a new turn. In 2016, Turning Point USA (partnership with Leadership USA) launched a new site called Professor Watchlist with a mission to document and expose professors who “discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” To learn more about this group, click here. Other similar groups also maintain lists of professors. Brian Howey reports that students are being recruited by right-wing groups to expose professors and that the American Association of University Professors routinely receives complaints of harassment from right wing groups like Turning Point USA, Campus Watch and others. Teaching ends up being a scary profession.

The narrative about conservatives voices in academia is one of polarisation. One group feels marginalized because of its beliefs and values, the other group believes it has to be superior either in the name of scientific knowledge, empirical evidence or values. The imbalance in power is not being argued; the argument is should both sides have an equal space.

Tristin Rogers arguing for Freedom of Speech says that while liberal institutions are constantly claiming diversity and inclusion goals they conveniently forget that the intolerance for conservative voices defeats these goals. If conservative students and academics are not allowed to express their views and fear reprisal, there is no genuine commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion he argues.

Sophie Alexander, as a senior in Kenyon College, Ohio writes of her experiences “I can only imagine though (how a conservative student would be attacked for their opinion), because I have never actually heard a conservative student voice a political opinion in a class discussion.”  The way conservative voices are shut down is to never to let them be spoken and her opinion is that civil discourse should be an important part of liberal arts education. Her point is well taken; it is possible to coexist. Read this article to see how Princeton University, although not equal in number, has a significant presence of conservative faculty and their voices inter-mingle with the liberal ones.

Additional Reading
Rethinking  the Plight of Conservatives in Higher Education
Creating Conservative Universities in Not the Answer
Advice for my Conservative Students
Forgotten Voices: Conservatism in Higher Education
Do American Universities Discriminate Against Conservatives

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