Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University
by jon a. shields and joshua m. dunn sr.
oxford, 256 pages, $29.95
About ten years ago, a curious call for papers circulated for a panel at the annual Cultural Studies Conference. The panel was called “The Secret Lives of Conservatives,” and its organizer welcomed “papers considering a variety of issues and concerns,” including “hypocritical Puritanism,” “vast right-wing conspiracies,” “true evil beneath the compassionate, Christian front,” “sexual dysfunction in conservatives,” “Laura Bush's private life,” and, rather incongruously, “why nothing makes a difference.” (This was the mid-aughts, when Democrats feared they’d never win another presidential election.) The remarkable call for papers confirmed for me and my conservative academic friends that some of our peers thought we were sinister, dysfunctional, and conspiratorial subjects for pseudo-scholarly scorn.
In some ways, Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University can be understood as a Bizarro-World submission for “Secret Lives of Conservatives” panel, one that addresses the issues and concerns of the most secret conservative of all: the center-right academic, considered by many on the Left as an impossible hybrid, a centaur or satyr. But Jon Shield and Joshua Dunn’s study is more ethnographic than antagonistic, recording conservatives’ beliefs and behaviors from their perspectives rather than condescending to conservatives as adversaries. Shields, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna, and Dunn, a political scientist at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, interviewed 153 conservative professors in the social sciences and humanities and let these professors tell their stories in great detail. The fascinating book weaves together data and anecdotes, personal experiences and broad trends, to show the varied attitudes that conservative academics have toward their peers and their profession. And although it illustrates that conservative professors have chosen a difficult career that involves frequent alienation and unfairness, the book is much more than a list of grievances or a one-note plea for pity. It is a well-researched and compelling account of how and why professionals pursue their vocation despite a remarkably unwelcoming environment.
The professors whom Shields and Dunn interviewed hold nearly all of the same political opinions as non-academic Republicans. Many have low opinions of the modern GOP, however, believing that the party suffers from radicalism, anti-intellectualism, and “amateurish” presidential candidates who benefit from a seriously flawed nomination process. (And this was before the current presidential election.) The authors summarize research indicating that the negative attitudes about conservatives likely affect hiring, promotion, and publishing. This material, though interesting, can be found elsewhere (including in two recent columns by the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof). More original are the chapters that analyze the survival techniques of conservatives.
Shields and Dunn divide academic conservatives into two broad categories, based on their behavior: “closeted” and “open.” (The former term is unfortunate: Its direct comparison of the conservative academic’s situation to that of gay people is likely to garner resentment rather than sympathy from those who need to be convinced that bias is a problem.) “Closeted” conservatives hide their political views for fear of how their peers will react. They consider whether to lie about their beliefs or keep quiet about them, and they tread carefully through the minefields of politicized interview questions. These concerns creep beyond personal interaction and into research topics and classroom discussions. Tenure usually inspires conservatives to jump out of hiding, but not always.
Most “open” conservatives seek to confound liberal expectations by being friendly and non-combative. They engage in conversation, not debate, with their colleagues, whom they genuinely like. Other “open” conservatives do not interact with their colleagues, either because they don’t want to or because people avoid them. And of course there are the gadflies in bowties who “delight in their contrarianism,” the rarest of campus conservatives, who nonetheless attract the most attention—and cause the most embarrassment for their ideological brethren. Shields and Dunn conclude that despite these different approaches, all types of open conservatives have a greater struggle to get promotions, raises, and attention from hiring committees.
The authors also map regions of academia in which conservatives feel at home. There is of course the strange case of economics, in which the partisan breakdown corresponds to that of the general public. Libertarian professors, many of whom are in Economics departments, feel more comfortable in the academy than do their social-conservative peers—but they also “experience a deeper sense of political homelessness in America.” Other disciplines, including political science, philosophy, and even sociology, have fields of specialty that function as pockets of conservative refuge.
Shields and Dunn assure us that, despite fears of proselytization and brainwashing, liberal professors actually fail to indoctrinate their students on a wide scale. (The radical activism on campuses this past academic year makes me doubt the claim.) Still, some professors worry that their peers treat conservative students poorly, and the authors acknowledge that students should be exposed to a wide range of ideas. Shields and Dunn also illustrate that this bias has serious consequences for scholarship. Scholarly blind spots, and the basic lack of interaction with conservatives, mean that professors fail to prepare students “to grapple thoughtfully with” issues of importance to good citizens.
The book focuses more on describing the illness than prescribing its cure, though it does briefly offer some remedies. The most provocative suggestion concerns affirmative action: Stopping short of endorsing this policy, Shields and Dunn argue that if liberals are being honest about why affirmative action is good for minority groups, they should consider affirmative action for conservatives. A more realistic recommendation, because it doesn’t ask liberals to make room for Neanderthals, is for “conservatives outside the university [to] be careful not to overstate the intolerance inside its walls.” Academia has so few conservatives in part because conservatives scare each other away from it, and cede still more institutional territory to liberals. The metaphor of taking the ball and going home doesn’t quite fit, because conservatives leave the ball at the playground and the game continues without them.
Indeed, conservatives outside of academia seem intent on neutering higher education. Last year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker sent his state legislature a budget that deleted the following sentence from the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin System: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” Conservatives complain that the academy is dominated by moral relativists who deny the existence of an objective Truth, yet here was a Republican governor and soon-to-be presidential candidate making it official. (Walker’s staff said that this was a “drafting error.”)
One solution Dunn and Shields do not propose, but which may hold promise, is to build a stronger conservative community in higher education by creating a national association for right-of-center academics. The organization need not have the specific political purpose of fighting liberal scholarship or pedagogy; it would primarily provide opportunities for collegiality, scholarship, and plain old venting, through regional and national conventions and perhaps a journal. It would perform some of the same functions as valuable programs like the James Madison Program at Princeton, but would encompass a broader range of topics and disciplinary approaches. Simply placing the few conservatives in academia in contact with their ideological peers would help them feel more at home in what is an often inhospitable and alienating profession. Of course, this approach would require clandestine conservatives to reveal themselves, but the recognition of and participation with a like-minded community would make that a more welcoming proposition. Passing on the Right shows just what that community looks like, which makes it an important book for understanding both conservative culture in America and the state of American higher education.
Christopher J. Scalia, formerly a professor of English, works at a PR firm in Washington, DC.