Op-Ed: Do universities need affirmative action for conservative professors?
Even though we are conservative professors, we’ve argued publicly that conservative attacks on universities are too often overheated and counterproductive. Nonetheless, liberals shouldn’t pretend that academia is untouched by political prejudices. Conservatives do face some bias and are wildly underrepresented in the social sciences; enough, perhaps, to warrant new affirmative efforts to increase political pluralism in academia.
According to a recent study, only 6.6% of professors in the social sciences self-identify as Republicans (compared with 24.2% in business, 23.3% in engineering, and 22.9% in the health sciences). In sociology, Marxists outnumber Republicans by 4 to 1. Conservative professors are, then, less well represented in the social sciences than women and people of color.
This imbalance is partly attributable to the fact that conservative students steer clear of the social sciences well before they consider graduate programs. One study found that students’ politics is among the very best predictors of their undergraduate major choice, with conservatives tending to select the natural sciences.
It’s possible that these conservative undergraduates simply prefer the natural sciences — some evidence, for example, suggests that they are slightly more focused on financial success than are liberals. But it’s also germane that conservatives feel uncomfortable in classes that touch on politics.
A climate survey conducted by the University of Colorado found that Republican students were more than three times as likely as their Democratic peers to feel intimidated when sharing their political ideas in class. Another study found that students active in campus conservative groups avoid coursework in the social sciences — an especially striking discovery given these students’ self-evidently strong interest in social and political issues. A third study found that conservatives report less satisfaction with their coursework in the social sciences than do liberal students.
We’ve also found that right-leaning PhD students seem to avoid the most politicized subfields in the social sciences. One young political scientist, for example, told us that she would have preferred to study the Middle East, but opted for a safer subfield instead: “I didn’t do the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which was the thing I wanted to do.” As one professor of the ancient world — a safe subfield in history — explained more generally: “If you’re a conservative, there [are] such huge no-go zones.”
A survey conducted by U. of Colorado found that Rep. students were more than three times as likely as their Dem. peers to feel intimidated sharing their political ideas in class.
The one exception — that proves the rule — is economics. Economics has a long history of openness to thinkers on both sides of the political divide and is the one social science field that actually looks like America; it has roughly equal proportions of professors who identify as Republicans, independents and Democrats.
Academic sorting is especially troubling given that the university is one of the only institutions that could model civil discourse for young people in our polarized age, an example that is hard to provide with so few conservatives about. Additionally, a growing number of social scientists are recognizing that political homogeneity makes it hard for humanistic disciplines to converge on the best approximation of the truth; homogenous fields not only generate a narrower range of research interests and interpretations, they are also plagued by confirmation bias — our tendency to accept findings and theories that fit our assumptions.
One liberal argument for affirmative action is sympathetic to these very points. In his 1978 opinion on Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. noted that truth is discovered “out of a multitude of tongues.” (He was quoting an earlier decision on another topic.) If Justice Powell is right — if the primary purpose of affirmative action is to increase the variety of tongues — then we should increase conservative ones too.
Some might reasonably object that the real purpose of affirmative action is to remedy historical discrimination. Universities, however, have long emphasized the virtues of diversity over remedial justice. In fact, liberals embraced the diversity rationale in the 1970s partly because it allowed them to extend affirmative action to new groups — especially women — with far weaker historical grievances than African Americans. Today, universities are so committed to diversity — not remedial justice — that they are now practicing affirmative action for men so that their campuses don’t become even more dominated by female students.
Diversity is now the new religion of the university — and it’s one they could practice much better. We don’t endorse preferences in graduate admissions and hiring. At a bare minimum, however, universities should stop barring conservative speakers from their campuses. In just the past year, for example, Williams College disinvited two conservative speakers from its “uncomfortable learning” series.
In hiring committees, liberal faculty might also question their natural preference for like-minded colleagues. (Progressive professors often say that they prefer to hire liberals, all else being equal.) Before they start sorting through resumes, departments might consider advertising positions in fields that are more popular among conservatives, such as military history, political history, the American founding, sociology of religion and natural law. Scholars in such fields would bring some balance to a curriculum increasingly dominated by race and gender. Finally, universities could grant visiting appointments in conservative thought, an experiment already underway at the University of Colorado.
Even these modest reforms should help conservative feel much more welcome in all of academia, not just in some of its quarters. When that happens, the university will also deepen its public legitimacy — an increasingly rare and fragile good in our polarized age. But that fine achievement depends critically on liberals. As conservative professors, we have defended the progressive university against its polemical right-wing critics. Now we are asking the university to better practice what it preaches.
Jon A. Shields is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Joshua M. Dunn Sr. is associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado — Colorado Springs. They are authors of “Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University.”
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