I’m Convinced: We Need More Conservatives on Campus

[Update: For new readers, this conversation has evolved since the post below.  In short, I’m not convinced anymore.  I now think there are better, more practical solutions to this dilemma.  Check out the developments here.]

My eyes were opened a few years back. I was offering a senior seminar in the history of American conservatism. Several students—some of whom eventually took the class and some of whom did not—came to my office and said something along the lines of “Thank God we finally have a conservative professor!” When I explained to them—sympathetically but clearly, I hope—that I was not actually conservative myself, students had a variety of reactions. Some were deflated. But another common response convinced me that Jon Shields and Jon Zimmerman are right.

Shields Passing on the Right

Time for more affirmative action?

Shields has made the case again recently that college campuses need to recruit more professors who come from conservative backgrounds. He reviews the available research and concludes that conservatives are victims of explicit, intentional bias. As a result, there are far fewer conservative professors than we need if we want to have truly diverse campuses.

Years ago, Zimmerman made a similar argument. Like me, he’s no conservative himself. But he thinks universities need to be more inclusive places, more representative of our society’s true diversity. The best way to do that, he argued, was to reverse the trend toward intellectual homogeneity among college faculty. As he wrote back in 2012,

Race-based affirmative action has made our universities much more interesting and truly educational places, adding a range of voices and experiences that hadn’t been heard before. Hiring more conservative faculty would do the same thing.

I’m convinced, and not just because Jon Zimmerman is the smartest guy I know. The things I heard from my wonderful students told me that something was indeed wrong with our current set up.

When I told students that I wasn’t conservative myself, many of them told me something along these lines: You may not be conservative personally, but at least you don’t make fun of me or belittle me for being a conservative.   At least I can be “out” with my conservative ideas in your class. In most of my classes, I feel like I have to keep my ideas to myself or I will be attacked by students and teachers alike.

Yikes!

Please correct me if I’m off base, but isn’t that EXACTLY the problem that our campaigns for campus inclusivity have been meant to address? I know some folks think this notion of affirmative action for conservatives is a travesty, an insult to underrepresented groups that have faced historic persecution and discrimination. I understand that position and I agree that conservatives as a group cannot claim the same history as other groups.

But is there anyone out there who would want a campus climate in which students were belittled and attacked for their ideas?

Even if we want to do something about it, however, it is not at all clear how. As Neil Gross has argued, there is not really a liberal conspiracy when it comes to hiring professors. Rather, there has been a more prosaic tendency for people to go into fields in which they think they will be comfortable.

Maybe we could look to Colorado as a guide. They have had a conservative affirmative-action plan going for a while now at their flagship Boulder campus. How has it worked?

In any case, I’m looking forward to Professor Shields’s new book, scheduled for release next year. It promises to share the data gathered from 153 interviews and other sources. Maybe it will help us break out of this logjam.

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7 Comments

  1. With the ongoing racial/gender tension we see on campuses today, I’m not sure how this would work. Students seem more interested in avoiding having their emotions trampled on than embracing diversity in the marketplace of ideas. Not a bad idea, though.

    Reply
  2. Agellius

     /  November 24, 2015

    “Even if we want to do something about it, however, it is not at all clear how.”

    True. You could decide to enact hiring preferences for conservative professors, but how how would you identify them as conservatives in the first place? Making all applicants take a quiz on political preferences seems like a bad idea. Besides, undoubtedly people would game the system, claiming to be conservatives in order to get hired — you know, sort of how conservatives now have to pretend to be liberals in order to get tenure. ; )

    Reply
    • Ha! The point is well taken. Perhaps the cure would be worse than the disease. If we don’t want a kind of affirmative action for conservatives, then I’ve got an alternative suggestion. Let me run it past you as a card-carrying conservative: Do you think it would be a good idea to add conservatism–especially religious conservatism–to mandatory diversity training programs for college faculty? I have been flummoxed by the stunning ignorance my colleagues and I have shown toward our conservative students. And it’s not just us. Maybe a training session in WHY some people think same-sex marriage is a bad idea might help some faculty members speak less harshly to students. (?)

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  November 24, 2015

        On further reflection, I doubt that forced instruction on conservative viewpoints would do much to change the attitudes of faculty who are inclined to “speak … harshly to [conservative] students.” It seems to me that zealous liberals are very much like zealous fundamentalists, in that they consider the propagation of liberalism, and opposition to conservatism, to be moral imperatives. It’s not just correct to be liberal, it’s righteous; and conversely, conservatives are not just mistaken, they’re bad. What good would it to do try to instruct such people in conservative arguments against abortion and gay marriage, without addressing the underlying tendency to intolerance and judgmentalism?

        How to solve that problem is also hard to say. Maybe some kind of psychological testing is needed during the interview process, to weed out zealots? That way, even if liberals remained a majority among the professoriate, at least they might tend to be more tolerant and opeminded liberals.

        Another thought is just for the college to institute a strong policy of tolerance of alternative viewpoints – and emphasize strongly that this includes ALL viewpoints, even those that are opposed to liberalism. Maybe there could also be a training component to the policy, where professors must practice the do’s and don’ts of engaging alternative viewpoints respectfully. You could teach it. : )

  3. Agellius

     /  November 24, 2015

    First, I’m not really a conservative, though I have been one (after I was a liberal). But I do feel that I understand them, and certainly find conservatism friendlier to my Christianity, so I enjoy playing devil’s advocate on its behalf.

    To answer your question: I love the idea. And not just conservatism, but conservative Christianity, which deserves as much understanding and respect as Islam, Hinduism, etc.

    However, I’m not familiar with how universities are run. Who would make the decision to do this? Would the chancellor or the president of the university be able to impose this on his own initiative, or would the faculty senate have to vote on it or something?

    My point is that getting universities to do this has gotta be like pulling teeth. Do you propose to somehow persuade college faculties that they ought to do this of their own free will? Or do you have some idea for coercing them into it?

    Reply
  4. There’s a big difference between “being a conservative” and “coming from a conservative background.” I think if you scratch the surface a little, you find academe is full of the latter who suppress, mute, or react against that past.

    I don’t know how you would define “conservatives” today when the so-called “liberal” party is less liberal than the conservatives of the 1970s. I think it is probably a meaningless identity based on talk show opinion positions relative to selected topics like same sex marriage. Talk about academic labor and proper compensation of teaching assistants and adjuncts — watch your academic liberals turn into spirited apologists for management, labor and economic ideas.

    Same sex marriage is not really a good measure of right wing credentials either by the way. It’s divisive with religious and social conservatives as well as libertarians who identify as conservative. Due to “conservative background” and lifelong embeddedness I am well aware of the reasons why SSM is thought a “bad idea” as a matter of public policy, but these have to do with prejudice, misinformation, junk science, and theocratic ideas. I feel I can explain reasonable conservative positions where they exist, but opposition to SSM as a matter of public policy is not one.

    Reply
  1. Affirmative Action for College Professors? No, But… | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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