Colleges and universities today manifest a paradoxical combination of remarkable success and abject failure. Vast resources and extensive funding for research have made our system of higher education the envy of the world—but its extraordinarily ideological homogeneity corrupts its contribution to American society. In their relentless liberalism, not only do our institutions of higher education fail to train liberal leaders capable of governing a pluralistic nation, the intolerance they foster stokes the fires of the culture wars.
Ideally, college and universities provide a world set apart, an “ivory tower” where debate and argument can take place at a remove from the usual pressures of power politics and economic competition. Needless to say, the ivory has never gleamed a spotless white. Donors, legislators, trustees, and fee-paying parents have all sorts of economic and political interests that inevitably exert influence. Meanwhile, even as they complain about these sorts of nonacademic pressures on university policy, the professors quietly maintain preferential faculty hiring for their spouses and preferential admission for their children. It turns out that there’s nothing about the academic life that exempts us from the consequences of the fall.
In spite of original sin, however, it’s not hard to picture American universities playing a positive civic role. The relative leisure of the college classroom provides opportunities for wide-ranging analysis and discussion of different visions of human flourishing, political arrangements, and policy options. Professors with different political views and cultural sensibilities share a common commitment to academic rigor, and this unifying culture of inquiry should allow them to mix it up on occasion in public debate without triggering ideological alarm bells. The same holds for invited speakers, endowed programs, and research centers.
In such a setting—which, I emphasize, is not hard to imagine—students would see reasoned debate at work. The various political outlooks on offer could be scrutinized, and even those who disagree might find themselves understanding why well-meaning people end up supporting policies, positions, and programs that are (to their minds at least) mistaken and ill considered. Encountering smart, well-informed, and well-spoken people who think differently about the world does a great deal to promote the development of a critical mind.
The gain is not just intellectual. We live in a gloriously pluralistic society. Thankfully, our political class gains its power from representing rather than dictating, and the most successful among them know how to broker deals and create coalitions across real but often bridgeable differences. In a healthy democratic culture, we don’t need cultural and political therapists or conflict resolution experts to manage our political differences. Instead, we need intelligent partisans who struggle to realize their competing visions of the common good, but do so with a sober recognition of their own limitations, as well as an appreciation for the intelligence and good intentions of their opponents.
The civic function of higher education is therefore obvious. A serious intellectual encounter with alternative views of morality, culture, and politics—an encounter given flesh and blood on a campus populated by faculty who carry forward these alternatives—prepares the mind for intelligent partisanship. If a liberal, for example, knows why a conservative opposes government run health care or abortion, he has the basis for discerning common ground on the margins of these disagreements, and perhaps on other issues as well. At an even more basic level, the liberal will find it difficult to simply pigeonhole conservatives as greedy, ignorant, and mean-spirited.
Unfortunately, this does not happen in higher education. As civic institutions, our colleges and universities have become closed communities of the like-minded. Conservative ideas are never engaged but only ignored and dismissed.
The raw numbers are shocking. As a 2007 study by Neil Gross at Harvard and Solon Simmons at George Mason shows, the professoriate has become ideologically homogeneous. Once we strip out the natural scientists, who rarely weigh in on cultural and political issues, the percentage of self-described conservatives in academia drifts down to around 4 percent of all faculty. Data from elite universities indicates even fewer. As Louis Menand reports in a recent book about some of the challenges facing higher education, The Marketplace of Ideas, the number of social science professors at elite universities who voted for George Bush in 2004 was so small that it came to a statistical value of 0 percent. Humanities professors? Zero percent.
The trends have nuance. Gross and Simmons observe that younger faculty continue to be overwhelming liberal, but less ardently so. Nonetheless, the overall picture is clear. As a student or professor or anyone else who has a passing acquaintance with higher education knows, American higher education is a closed shop. There are of course exceptions—Pepperdine, University of Dallas, Hillsdale, and others. Moreover, most schools have one or two courageous, articulate conservatives like Robert George at Princeton. But for every exception there are thousands who fall in line according to the ruling ideology of academic: an establishmentarian liberalism eager to accommodate the more extreme views on the Left, but (with the notable exception of departments of economics) unwilling to tolerate representatives of mainstream conservatism.
Why academia is so relentlessly homogeneous is a difficult question to answer. Menand offers some jejune observations in a few short, half-hearted paragraphs. Liberals, he observes, are more critical and thus attracted to academic life; conservatives want to make more money in lucrative professions. He even makes the bizarre suggestion that “there may be fewer institutional havens for left-wing intellectuals than there are for right-wing intellectuals, so liberals tend to congregate in universities, conservatives elsewhere—in foundations or, during the years of the Bush administration, in Washington.” The sociological ignorance behind such a statement boggles the mind.
Anecdotal evidence suggests a more plausible answer. There is widespread blackballing of conservative job candidates in the hiring process, and an atmosphere of intense hostility discourages conservative undergraduate and graduate students from going forward in academia. Consider one topic of controversy in the public square. Although voters consistently reject same-sex marriage, it’s hard to think of a single elite school where a published argument against same-sex marriage, no matter how nuanced and responsibly argued, wouldn’t mobilize powerful faculty members to block an appointment. And they would almost certainly succeed, as indeed they have on countless occasions involving this and other issues.
Discussions about causes aside, the bizarre social reality is plain to see. A 2009 Gallup poll indicates that 40 percent of Americans identify themselves as conservative or very conservative. Twenty-one percent call themselves liberal or very liberal, while most of the rest describe themselves as moderates. The academy, meanwhile, tilts overwhelmingly to the left. George W. Bush was the first president since Ronald Reagan to be elected by an absolute majority—and that majority is statistically absent from elite universities, and barely present at the rest. The conclusion is irresistible. Our present academic culture continues to churn out good scientific research, but as a civic institutions our colleges and universities have become profoundly and dangerously perverted.
In my adult life I have experienced something few suspected possible when I was a young college student in the late 1970s and early 1980s: the success of conservatism as a governing philosophy. It has shown itself to be the source of compelling new ideas, as well as capable of building a capacious coalition in the Republican Party, a coalition that has elected Presidents in recent decades who can work with leaders from both parties to pass legislation and chart national policy.
As a professor for twenty years, I have come to see that the success of conservatism may indirectly owe a great deal to our distorted academic culture. Today, American liberalism is perhaps fatally hobbled by a fossilized outlook and parochial arrogance. These qualities are unfortunately encouraged by the civic failure of higher education. Of course conservatives can be aggressive, arrogant, and small-minded. We’re human. But few conservatives are so insulated from reality as to imagine that no thinking and well-intentioned person could disagree. After all, most of us had professors in college whom we respected—whom we admired and to whom we were devoted—but whose political views we thought wrong-headed. Sadly, never needing to encounter sophisticated representatives of conservative ideas while college students, many liberals are sorely tempted to treat those who oppose them with a patronizing critical hauteur—clinging to their guns and religion, as then candidate Barack Obama said in an unguarded but surely honest moment.
It’s not good for America to have a major political party and important elite institutions dominated by people trained to ignore—or worse, sneer at—the conservative ways of thinking that motivate most Americans. The civic failure of higher education has contributed to this sad state of affairs, and, unfortunately, there are no signs that it will change. Although he likes to fashion himself an outsider of sorts, formerly of Columbia and now at Harvard, Louis Menand is an archetypical member of our academic establishment. He gave his book on higher education an ironic title: The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. Marketplace of Ideas? American colleges and universities run a monopoly business, not an open marketplace. Like most of the academic mandarins, who by and large are academic specialists rather than political ideologues, Menand shrugs his shoulders and leaves things as they are.
R.R. Reno is senior editor at large of First Things.