Persecution and the Conservative Academic

Do conservative academics suffer persecution?

NYU professor of history and education Jonathan Zimmerman recently called for affirmative action for conservative college professors, even though, Zimmerman insisted, such professors hadn’t suffered from historic discrimination.

That hit a nerve.

Writing in the higher-education blog Minding the Campus, a publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute, Ronald Radosh called foul.

Radosh took exception to Zimmerman’s insistence that liberal professors like himself were not the “wild-eyed Marxists” many conservative pundits had accused them of being.

Radosh disagreed.  “NYU,” Radosh wrote, “is most egregiously guilty of precisely such a bias. Their own history department is dominated by precisely those types, and some of the institutes and centers they have established have gone out of their way to make that crystal clear.”

Radosh complained that his career had suffered for purely political reasons.  At George Washington University, for instance, Radosh claimed that he had been subjected to questions mainly “about my politics, and not about my approach to history or how it should be taught.”  At another school, Radosh said he was buffeted in a job interview with a series of “hostile questions” about his views on Cold-War spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

In the end, Radosh concluded that most history professors discriminate actively and self-consciously against conservative academics.  As Radosh wrote,

“The reason such professors will not hire conservatives is precisely because they do not want ‘other right-leading students’ to ‘follow them, into the academic profession,’ as Prof. Zimmerman hopes they will once conservative professors are hired. Does he really think people like Marilyn Young and Linda Gordon at NYU want anyone to challenge the ideological hegemony they now hold over molding students’ minds?”

Other sorts of conservative academics have long claimed to suffer from similar persecution.

The case of Teresa Wagner, for instance, still bubbles along.  Wagner had applied for jobs at the University of Iowa’s law school.  She was one of five finalists, but was passed over for the most desirable tenure-track job.  Was it due to prejudice against Wagner’s loud-and-proud conservative activism?  Wagner had made no secret of her pro-life and traditional-marriage stances.

One unique element of Wagner’s case was the existence of a smoking gun.  Unlike most hiring-discrimination cases, Wagner was able to produce a document that seemed to make her case.  Associate Dean John Carlson had written in an internal email, “Frankly, one thing that worries me is that some people may be opposed to Teresa serving in any role in part at least because they so despise her politics (and especially her activism about it). I hate to think that is the case, and I don’t actually think that, but I’m worried that I may be missing something.”

That email made Wagner’s case complicated.  A group of jurors agreed that Wagner had been treated unfairly.

These conservative claims of academic persecution are nothing new.

Creationist Jerry Bergman collected cases of such discrimination in his 1984 book The Criterion.  Bergman, who claimed to have been denied tenure at Bowling Green State University in the early 1980s due to his creationist beliefs, described the stories of academics such as Clifford Burdick.  Burdick was allegedly refused his PhD at the University of Arizona in 1960 for including a consideration of divine creation as an explanation for discrepancies in the fossil record.  Bergman argued that such attitudes had no place in a university setting.  Firing a creationist for speaking to students about his or her beliefs, Bergman argued, would be like “if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’”

Even further back, anti-evolution leader T. T. Martin complained in 1923 that the universities had been taken over.  “We sent our young men to the great German universities,” Martin lamented, “and, when they came back, saturated with Evolution, we made them Presidents and head-professors of our colleges and great universities.”

Of course, the academic politics of evolution are much different than the politics of communism, which are different from the politics of abortion.  I think it is safe to say that a mainstream school will be more open about its discrimination against a creationist than against a neo-conservative anti-communist or a traditional-marriage supporting legal scholar.

However, Professor Zimmerman’s claim that conservatives have not been the subject of historic discrimination still rankles among conservative academics of various backgrounds.  One of the most closely treasured beliefs among conservative intellectuals, after all, is that American universities have been largely captured by a totalitarian and essentially anti-liberal left.


Zimmerman: Give Us Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors

Jonathan Zimmerman of NYU has offered a bold proposal: Let’s have affirmative action for hiring conservative college professors.  Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Zimmerman suggested such a program would go a long way to increasing the intellectual diversity of college life.  Zimmerman argues as a liberal Democrat, but one interested in promoting true liberal diversity.

As Zimmerman points out, one US Supreme Court justice’s argument in favor of traditional racial affirmative action,

“included the observations of a Princeton graduate student, who stated that ‘people do not learn very much when they are surrounded only by the likes of themselves.’

“That’s exactly right. And it’s also why we need more right-leaning professors, who would accelerate the intellectual variation that Bakke imagined. 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.” 

Zimmerman makes a compelling argument.  I’m all for authentic intellectual diversity, especially on a university campus.

But there are a couple of points that must be added.  First of all, as we’ve noted, at least one prominent public university has initiated a program to bring high-profile conservatives to its famously liberal campus.  As critics have pointed out, that program has some of the worst elements of tokenism and political engineering of intellectual life.

More important, the heavy tilt toward political liberalism Zimmerman denounces may not be so heavy at non-elite campuses.  Zimmerman notes the profound bias in favor of Democratic election donations among faculty at Columbia, Brown, and Wisconsin.  He notes that none of his NYU colleagues seem to tilt Republican.  But what about at the schools that actually teach most of the country’s college students?  David Long’s provocative ethnography of creationism at a large public university suggests that a substantial proportion of faculty at those schools embrace deeply conservative religious values.

So let’s get a little more specific: What we really need is something beyond a few token conservative faculty.  Just as with racial affirmative action, we need to create intellectual and institutional spaces where conservative scholars can thrive, not just survive.  And we need this specifically at the nation’s top schools, places that can set the trend for other colleges and universities.  Like Professor Zimmerman, I don’t speak as a partisan.  I’m no conservative.  But I do agree that a truly diverse environment is a compelling goal of higher education.  In order to learn about the world, students must be surrounded with people who come from different backgrounds, with different ideas.  Hiring faculty with a wide diversity of ideologies would promote that goal.