Passing on the Right: an academic necessity

Conservative demagogues have long argued the existence of institutional discrimination against conservative professors in the academy. This discrimination, they argue, occurs through the various forms of hyper-partisan peer-review processes, discriminatory hiring practices, ousting of conservative professors and denial of tenure to conservatives. While there is a kernel of truth to these accusations, as with most, Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, by Professors Jonathan Shields and Joshua Dunn, is the first cohesive attempt to examine these claims under the microscope of the pseudo-scientific method employed by the social sciences. As such, it is a must-read for any student and professor who wishes to legitimately call themselves an academic.

Shields and Dunn interviewed 153 conservative American professors from 85 institutions and most departments in the social sciences and humanities, many of whom remain “closeted” conservatives to this day. A vast majority of these professors remained anonymous in the book, fearing that their peers, students and administrators would discover their true beliefs; several interviewees equated their meetings with Shields and Dunn with spy craft.

Through the anecdotal evidence provided by the interviews and the limited research conducted into academic bias against conservatives, Shields and Dunn were able to conclude that, while there are many disturbing cases of discrimination against conservatives and libertarians, very little of it is institutionalized. Rather, Shields and Dunn found that most forms of discrimination are perpetrated by individual academics or by assumptions about conservatives made by a field, with most incidences of such discrimination occurring apparently subconsciously and without malice.

While it is reassuring that the research produced no evidence of institutional discrimination against political minorities, the findings of subtle discrimination in Passing on the Right are nonetheless disturbing.

First, rather than finding evidence of codified discrimination in hiring, tenure and peer review processes, Shields’ and Dunn’s research finds hidden bigotry in these processes. A rather significant minority of sociologists (30 percent) said that they would vote against hiring a candidate if they knew them to be Republican, and 37 percent of philosophers said that they would intentionally hire a Democrat over a Republican. Only a plurality of conservative professors (45 percent) concretely believed that they would have been hired for their first tenure-track job had their political views been well-known in the department ahead of their hiring.

Limited windows into peer review processes show more blatant political biases against conservative scholars. Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas, published an unpopular paper in Social Science Research which concluded that children raised by same-sex parents “fared worse” than those raised by heterosexual parents. The largest critique made throughout the sociological world: the review panel of three liberal and three conservative thinkers wasn’t “balanced” enough (code for “too conservative”), in spite of the fact that peer reviews are almost always liberally dominated. Regnerus and his research were subjected to a witch hunt, led by a prominent critic of Regnerus, which concluded that if Regnerus’ peer review process was more balanced—even though all six reviewers voted to publish—such conservative findings would not have been allowed to be published.

Shields’ and Dunn’s second prominent finding was that approximately 46 percent of conservative professors admitted to self-censoring themselves due to fear that their colleagues would filibuster their hiring and keep them from promotion as well as from publication. Self-censorship included refraining from writing conservative or libertarian editorials, refraining from working on Republican or Libertarian Party campaigns, applying for conservative or libertarian grant money and refraining from publishing on conservative or libertarian academic journals. Several interviewed professors even admitted that they have changed their lifestyles—how they speak, what clothing they wear, what cars they drive, where they shop—to avoid giving the slightest indication of their true political beliefs.

Perhaps the most significant finding is that the American academy is disturbingly out of touch with the reality of American politics. While only 10 percent of social science and humanities professors identify as conservatives, 18 percent identify as Marxists. Contrasted with a country where 36 percent of its citizens identify as conservatives and Marxism is a laughing-stock, these results show just how isolated from reality academia has become.

While progressives might rejoice at these numbers, they reveal an underlying weakness of many academic fields: groupthink. While there are many competing theories in economics and political science, arguably the only practical fields of study in both the social sciences and humanities, Shields and Dunn found that the main—and often only—schools of thought for most other departments in these two divisions are derived from Marx (e.g. anthropology, sociology, literature, etc.).

These findings go to show the truly anti-academic culture that has slowly been conquering professorship. There is nothing less intellectual than blind obedience to a single ruling ideology; homogeneity breeds laziness and ignorance. When an entire field is devoted to one or two ruling theories with the same roots, the field no longer seeks to find the truth but, rather, to reinforce preexisting assumptions. When opposing ideas are no longer debated but ignored, the echo-chamber created makes entire fields illegitimate.

It is unacceptable that in academia—a place which claims to be tolerant and inclusive of everyone—conservative professors live in fear. Professors should be able to study what they want without fear of being ousted or ostracized. Professors should be able to publish what they want without thesis-based censorship and repression (obviously, research with faulty methodology shouldn’t be published, but, hypocritically, faulty liberal research is often rushed to the printers while concrete conservative research is torn to shreds). Professorship should at least pay lip service to the ideas that rule the real world; conservatism is more relevant and accredited than Marxism in today’s society, yet that truth is blatantly ignored. Most importantly, academic fields should foster a rigorous intellectual debate within themselves rather than working to reinforce their echo-chambers. It is wondrous that conservative demagogues are wrong about institutional discrimination against conservative professors, yet conservative professors often live in fear nonetheless.