Affirmative Action for College Professors? No, But…

Thank you.  After discussions here and in real life, I’ve changed my mind.  I thought we needed affirmative action for conservative college professors, but now I agree on a different solution.

The other day, I wrote that our campuses needed more ideological diversity. Not, as some commentators have argued, mainly to provide a richer intellectual climate. Nor to be fair to conservative intellectuals. Rather, for me the compelling issue was that many students—conservative students—felt like fair game for both fellow students and professors.

Too many students, I thought (and think!) feel as if their conservative beliefs—especially religious beliefs—are the butt of jokes. They do not feel included; they do not feel like valued members of the campus community. That is not acceptable.

But following Jonathan Haidt’s advice for colleges to “actively seek out non-leftist faculty” won’t help.

Rather, we need to use existing mechanisms on campus to ease the problem.

Let me start by laying out some of the things I am not talking about:

I am not saying that students from some conservative religious backgrounds shouldn’t have their worlds shaken up by what they learn in college. For example, if students come from a young-earth creationist background, as David Long has argued, learning mainstream science will come as a profoundly disorienting experience. Colleges don’t need to protect them from that experience.

I am not saying that students should be allowed to perpetuate anti-minority attacks under the name of fairness. As some schools have experienced, “white student union” groups have argued that they, too, should have the right to be exclusive campus communities. Colleges don’t need to protect this sort of faux equality.

But colleges should protect students—even conservative students—from the sorts of ignorant, ridiculous, hateful talk that they are commonly exposed to. Let me give some examples of the kinds of thing I am talking about.

Example #1: Here in the Great State of New York, we’re divided over a recent gun-control law, the SAFE Act. It limited gun ownership in significant ways. One student told me that the subject came up in one of his classes. It wasn’t the main subject of a lecture or anything, just some side-talk that went on as part of a class discussion, the kind of talk that is a common part of every class. The instructor, according to my student, said something along the lines of, “Only total hillbilly idiots oppose the SAFE Act.” My student was a gun owner, from a family of gun owners and opponents of the SAFE Act. He didn’t say so, but I can’t help but think that the instructor’s comments made the student feel shut out.

Example #2: I was giving a talk a while back about Protestant fundamentalists and their educational campaigns. I’ll leave the host university anonymous. After my talk, one audience member shouted out a question, “What’s WRONG with these people!!??!” Many heads nodded and people giggled a little. I was flummoxed.   I couldn’t believe that such an intelligent person could simply lump together all conservative religious people as “these people.” I couldn’t believe that other audience members found such a question unremarkable. I wondered what someone in the audience would feel like if he or she was a fundamentalist. I don’t think he or she would feel welcomed. I don’t think he or she would feel like part of the campus community.

In situations like that, I think the main culprit is faculty ignorance. Too many of us have no idea about the numbers of conservative students we teach. Too many of us assume that the intelligent people in our classes agree with us on questions of religion and politics. Too many of us assume that any anti-conservatism or anti-religious jokes will be enjoyed by all our students.

I plead guilty myself. As I learn more and more about conservatism and religion, I realize how woefully ignorant I have always been. I worry that some of my off-hand comments in the past made some students feel unwelcome or insulted.

That’s why I think we need to do a better job of spreading the word.   Many of our campuses already have sensitivity-training classes. Why don’t we include conservative ideas? Why don’t we help faculty members recognize that they will be teaching students of all sorts of political and religious backgrounds? Why don’t we educate them about the beliefs of people who are very different from them, people who will likely be in their classes?

Of course, it won’t change the minds of people who really don’t want to change. I know there are some professors out there who consider it their job to belittle conservative ideas. Some academics take a positive glee in subjecting religious conservatives to hostile intellectual attack, hoping to educate them out of their unfortunate backwardness.

To some, that might be enlightenment. If it means subjecting vulnerable students to browbeating at the hands of their fellow students or even of their professors, it’s not the right sort of enlightenment.

Affirmative action for conservative professors isn’t the answer. It won’t work and it doesn’t even address the central problem. Colorado has struggled to fit in its token conservative intellectual. More important, as Neil Gross has argued, hiring on campuses is not really squeezed in a leftist death-grip. Rather, left-leaning types tend to be overrepresented among those who go into academic work in the first place.

We should prepare ourselves to welcome religious and ideological diversity just as we do other forms of diversity. We should ask instructors to attend sensitivity workshops that include a variety of ideas. Why do some creationist students believe in a young earth? Why do some religious traditions emphasize a continuing difference between proper roles for men and women?

The goal is not to avoid teaching ideas that might be startling or uncomfortable for students. In a geology class, young-earth creationists will hear that the earth is very old. A class on feminist theory will certainly shake up some students steeped in patriarchal thinking. But we can convey that information in a way that insults and belittles our students, or in a way that does not.

To me, the choice seems obvious.


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.


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.

Who Do You Talk To?

Birds of a feather and all that.  We tend to cluster around people like ourselves, don’t we?  This is more than just a social quirk, though. It seems to be a basic requirement of culture wars: All of us spend more time talking to people who tend to agree with us.  We are made more confident that all right-thinking folks agree.  When it comes to academics and intellectual life, this basic truism might have devastating consequences.  But is it true?  Do you ever/often/sometimes/always talk with people with whom you have fundamental culture-war disagreements?

I respect your right to disagree!

I respect your right to disagree!

Academics have a well-earned reputation for ivory-tower insularity. For the past century or so, as I found in the research for my new book, conservative critics have blasted academics time and time again not only for being biased, but for being unaware of life outside of their cloisters.

Renowned historian Gordon Wood, for instance, took to the pages of the conservative Weekly Standard recently to accuse his colleagues of a failure to communicate. The academic echo chamber had become stifling. As Wood put it,

College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

Wood’s charges elicited a flurry of outraged responses, and, for the purposes of full disclosure, I should say that they struck me as a strangely curmudgeonly diatribe from such a prominent personage. Our personal politics aside, however, more scholarly inquiries have backed up Wood’s charge that too many academics are out of touch with reality.

In her study of elite academics, for example, Elaine Howard Ecklund found them to be jaw-droppingly ignorant of general trends in American religion. Many professors had no idea even of the vital religious practices going on at their own elite universities.

And, as Neil Gross argued in Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservative Care?, the professoriate tends to perpetuate its own leftist biases. Not by scheming cadres of devious commie professors, but simply by creating an atmosphere that tends to attract like-minded left-leaning people.

If it is true that elite social scientists are really skewed toward a particular political perspective, and if it is true that many academics are woefully ignorant about the very social realities they purport to study, it must shake our confidence in any “expert” testimony. And, when that’s the case, the reassuring bromides of our close culture-war allies can seem all the more convincing.

To my mind, the only remedy is for each of us to find out more about people different from us. To talk with people with whom we disagree.

Of course, for blog-readers, I guess this is preaching to the choir. Bloggers tend to consume all sorts of other blogs. Creationists might read the Sensuous Curmudgeon. Scientists might read the BioLogos Forum and Around the World with Ken Ham. Conservative Christians read Jerry Coyne, and Professor Coyne might read Agellius’s Blog.

Do any of us do this in real life, though? Does anyone have regular conversations about culture-war issues in which we share fundamental disagreements? We all have an uncle, mother, or neighbor who might differ from us on these issues, but we often politely avoid such impolite topics.

Or is that just me? Do YOU talk to lots of types of people with whom you disagree?

Ah Ha! Proof of Liberal Profs!


Everyone knows college professors are a liberal bunch, right? A new study from Harvard University, a school just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, seems to confirm this beloved stereotype. But is it really proof?

First, some background. As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, the notion that the professoriate skews liberal is a deeply held culture-war notion. Conservatives decry it, even pushing through a mandatory conservative chair at Colorado University. Even perspicacious liberal thinkers worry about it. Historian Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University, for example, has suggested that true intellectual diversity requires some sort of affirmative action for conservatives.

It is not a made-up phenomenon. As Neil Gross argued in his new(ish) book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, there really does seem to be a tilt toward liberalism in higher-ed faculties. Not because liberals are smarter (sorry, liberals), and not because conservatives suffer from discrimination (sorry, conservatives), but because historical patterns have pushed more liberals into the profession.

An article in the Harvard Crimson describes the political donations of the faculty. Turns out, those faculty members who give money to political parties tend to give almost only to the Democrats. In the Arts & Sciences faculty, the majority tipped a whopping 95.7% in the direction of the Democratic Party, compared to a measly 3.7% who gave to the Republican Party. Things were a little more balanced in the Business School, with 36.7% of donations going to the GOP. In some departments, such as the Graduate School of Education, a Brezhnevian 100% of donations went to the Democrats.

Should we worry?

If we hope for a system of higher education that pushes students to think critically about a range of issues, should these numbers cause us to consider home-colleging our students? Both for us liberals and our conservative colleagues, is it time to think about creating a better sense of real intellectual diversity on college faculties?

I think not, for a couple of reasons. First, as both the Crimson article and Professor Gross’s book insist, a tilt toward the Democratic Party does not equate with a rigid groupthink. From the history of the culture wars, we can see proof that conservatives do very well in schools dominated by liberal faculties.

Leading young-earth creationist Kurt Wise, for example, studied under the vehemently anti-creationist Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard. Both scholars reported a cordial and productive relationship. Dr. Wise is not alone. For generations, leading conservative scholars, intellectuals, and pundits have done just fine in schools with liberal-leaning faculty. From William F. Buckley Jr. at Yale to Dinesh D’Souza at Dartmouth, nerdy conservatives thrive in elite colleges.

Perhaps the explanation can be seen in the work of sociologist Amy Binder. Binder and a colleague studied conservative students at two elite colleges. Binder argued that conservative students are certainly shaped by their environments. But at both a large western public flagship college and an elite eastern one, conservative students honed and shaped their conservatism, rather than being groomed away into liberal ideologies.

More important, perhaps, is the fact that almost nobody actually attends the elite colleges that culture-war punditry focuses on. Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Colorado, Brown, NYU…perhaps the faculties on these schools tip heavily in a liberal direction. But very few students go to these schools. Of the young people who go to college, many more of them go to less-fancy places.

My hunch—and I’d love for someone to get some numbers to back this up or refute it—is that the faculty at less-elite colleges tends to be more politically and culturally conservative. From the field of teacher education, I have heard anecdotes that suggest it’s true.

The Crimson article gives us some proof, but not about higher education. Rather, all we see is that Harvard faculty tip liberal. Harvard may have plenty of influence, but it doesn’t actually do much. Though the alumni might bother people with their smug self-satisfaction, there really aren’t too many of them around.

So ARE Colleges Liberal?

H/T: Andrew Hartman

Among some conservatives, it is a simple truism that American colleges have swerved dangerously to the left.  But have they?

We’ve reported lately on news from the National Association of Scholars, who reported that universities had been taken over by liberal bias.  And news from Colorado, where conservative politicians pushed a program to bring a real live conservative scholar to the Boulder campus.

Conservatives insist on it.  But do college campuses really lean left?

In a recent review for The American Prospect, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen offers concrete answers from Neil Gross’s Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? 

Turns out there are more registered Democrats among the professoriate than among the general public, 51% versus 35%.  But “liberal” doesn’t necessarily track evenly with “Democrat.”  A more interesting 8% of professors identify as “radical.”  Gross concludes that some 50-60% of professors can fairly be identified as “liberal,” compared to 17% of the general public.

Gross concludes, however, that this liberal lean does not turn American universities into doctrinaire re-education centers.  Professors tend to sort out their political from their professorial interests.  As Ratner-Rosenhagen puts it,

Why Are Professors Liberal provides evidence that college does not make students more liberal. Rather, time at the university gives students analytical and rhetorical resources to strengthen the political leanings they had when they entered. While it is true that college graduates tend to be more liberal than those their age who didn’t attend college, college-goers tend to be more liberal than their non-college-going peers. So it’s a wash.

As Ratner-Rosenhagen writes, the book offers a careful and moderate set of conclusions sure to anger both liberals and conservatives. Sounds like it is worth a read.