n the Fall 2016 CRB Bradley C.S. Watson reviewed Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr. The authors of the review and the book have kindly agreed to further discuss in this online forum questions about politics and higher education. They are joined by Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars. Jon Shields is associate professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. Joshua Dunn is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Bradley Watson is professor of politics and Philip M. McKenna Chair in American and Western Political Thought at Saint Vincent College.
First let me thank both Brad Watson and the Claremont Review of Books. Brad offered a careful, insightful, and fair review of our book and that’s all we could hope for as authors. I'm also grateful to the CRB for allowing this extended discussion.
Since there’s no reason to belabor points of agreement, let’s get things started by focusing on areas of criticism or at least potential division. Towards the end of his review, Brad notes that “attentive readers will take more than a few issues with this interesting book.” The first issue he notes is our use of “right wing” as a synonym for conservatives even though he doesn’t know of any conservatives who refer themselves as “right wingers.” He mentions one possible reason for using the term, “the faux precision of a linear spectrum.” That is in fact one of the reasons we chose it. We explained that “although the term ‘right-wing’ sometimes implies ‘far-right,’ we use it as a synonym for conservatism throughout the book.” There are people on the right and people on the left so it seems appropriate to say right-wing and left-wing. In some ways, when it comes to political ideology and orientation all we have is faux precision. I’ll also confess that I don’t mind being called a right winger and have referred to myself as a right winger. Scandalizing the academic bourgeoisie can be great sport.
An additional reason to limit our use of “conservative” is that some members of our sample, particularly some disputatious libertarians (but perhaps I repeat myself), do not like being called conservative. However, libertarians are clearly within the broad coalition that we refer to as conservatism that is opposed to modern liberalism. Many of the libertarians we interviewed, maybe even most, would be much more comfortable being called right-wing than conservative.
This also points to an interesting fact about folks on the right, or right wingers. They tend to be a bit obsessive about taxonomy in a way that left wingers are not. In our interviews and surveys we asked our subjects to give their preferred term for their politics if it was not adequately captured by conservative or libertarian. Their responses included Catholic conservative, Christian traditionalist, Christian humanist, communitarian conservative, constitutional conservative, paleoconservative, neoconservative, social conservative, natural rights conservative, classical conservative, conservative libertarian, libertarian, free-market conservative, and reactionary. One historian said he subscribes to “Hobbitan conservatism” because he wants “to live in the Shire as described by J. R. Tolkien, [because it] has a sense of natural order and natural deference.” Freud, it seems, was at least right about the narcissism of minor differences.
Brad also worries that “for everything the authors give to conservative critics of the academy, they seem to take something away.” In particular, he thinks that our claim that “right-wing critique of the academy is overdrawn” might not be meaningful because of our methodology. He notes that we created our initial sample by gathering names from journals and membership lists of organizations with right-wing reputations. Thus, this initial sample might be unrepresentative of the broader population of conservative professors. But that was just the initial sample. To gather more names, we created a snowball sample where we asked known conservative and libertarian professors to identify ten others that we could contact. That we had to use a snowball sample was itself telling since it’s a method used to identify difficult to locate populations like the homeless. Nevertheless, I think that makes our sample more representative than it otherwise would be. Of course, it still could be unrepresentative because there very well could be large numbers of even more deeply closeted conservatives that we were unable to locate. But I’m still not sure why sampling more politicized academics would make this claim less generalizable. The academics who are most outspoken about their politics could very well be the most radicalized and thus have even more reason to be critical of the academy. That they were not is an interesting finding.
Regardless, I think it’s not terribly controversial that the right can overstate how grim things are on campus. Of course, saying that things aren’t as bad as the right sometimes says it is not the same thing as saying they aren’t bad–we, in fact, provide substantial evidence that they are bad. That rather obvious fact has been lost on a few, but thankfully not Brad, who have criticized our book. As Brad notes, we think that overstating the obstacles facing conservatives and libertarians can unnecessarily dissuade right-wing students from pursuing academic careers. If that happens the ideological imbalance in the academy will only grow worse. That doesn’t mean that I think that the right should stop exposing the ideological insanity and political bigotry that exists in the academy. When the university doesn’t live up to its self-professed principles of tolerance and diversity, then I’m all for naming and shaming. But that naming and shaming should be tempered with a more complete picture of the academy.
Finally, Brad points out that faculty on the right “don’t get to live out their identities quite like their liberal colleagues.” This raises a question that Brad did not ask but that others have after reading our book: how open should conservative and libertarian faculty be about their politics? Contrary to what some critics said, who I will charitably say could not have read the book, we did not take a position on this. (The National Association of Scholars, in fact, sent a recruiting and fundraising email saying that it was “more or less the counsel” of our book for conservatives to “don ideological camouflage.”) As those who read the book know, we related different survival strategies used by the professors we interviewed and we hope that that will be of value to conservative and libertarian students considering an academic career.
Of course, it’s unfair that conservative faculty can’t live out their identities like their liberal colleagues. But until we reach that happy day where conservatives face no ideological discrimination, swords are beaten into plowshares, and the lion lies down with the lamb, that tells us nothing about what any particular professor should do. Some have been open, as both Jon and I have been, while others have felt it necessary to not disclose their politics. I personally think that more could be open about their politics, but I am not in their shoes. I am happy to say that individual scholars are in the best position to know what they should do and, even more importantly, I don’t have any claim on their professional lives. Conservatives, after all, have traditionally opposed the idea that the personal must be the political. As well, some of the closeted faculty we interviewed came out of the closet after tenure and have since become leading conservative public intellectuals, in fact, gracing the pages of the CRB. Maybe they should have chosen another career as Peter Wood says they should have: “I would rather that anyone who is daunted by the obstacles conservatives face choose another career. What we need are people who are willing to dismantle those obstacles by challenging them head-on.” This kind of rhetoric might make for a good St. Crispin’s Day speech but I’m not sure it would lead to a conservative Agincourt. No less a conservative than Harvey Mansfield has advised conservatives to wait until tenure “to hoist the Jolly Roger.” At the very least, I’m not prepared to kick Harvey Mansfield out of the conservative club for this alleged heresy. Maybe the closeted faculty we interviewed should have come out sooner but maybe not. Climbing out of the trench and running toward the blinking light might be courageous or it might be foolhardy. Prudence is needed and as conservatives should know that that’s not the same thing as cowardice.
I’m grateful to CRB for the opportunity to continue a conversation with Joshua Dunn which began last March, when he replied to a review of Passing on the Right I had posted on Minding the Campus. Not long after that I wrote a more extended review of the book for Society, which won’t appear in print until the New Year. My words here are my third bite at the apple, and to judge whether it is an Envy, an Empire, a Honeycrisp, or a Granny Smith.
Some preliminaries: Brad Watson is a member of the board of the National Association of Scholars, and his review of Shields and Dunn’s book captures the temperate spirit of the NAS. Watson puts Passing on the Right into context; notes its virtues; and suggests its flaws—without belaboring them. As to its virtues: I concur. The “thick description” of what scholars experience on campus is valuable and the penultimate chapter on “The Consequences of a Progressive Professoriate” is powerful.
But unlike Watson, I will belabor some of the flaws. I do so because Passing on the Right offers bad counsel to conservatives as well as aid and comfort to those who mistreat conservatives.
Dunn mentions with disfavor an NAS fund-raising letter in which I referred to his book’s counsel that conservatives “don ideological camouflage.” He correctly observes that camouflage isn’t the only “survival strategy” that he and Shields found among the 153 professors they interviewed. Passing to be sure does not offer explicit counsel to “right-wing” scholars who seek academic careers. But few readers have missed its implicit counsel, and Dunn’s reply to Watson nudges that counsel further into full view. He “personally” wishes that conservative faculty “could be more open about their politics, but [he is] not in their shoes.” Those scholars have to make up their own minds, and, after all, staying in the closet until they achieve tenure works.
Does it really? Dunn cites no less an authority than Harvey Mansfield (a member of the NAS Advisory Board) as an advocate of wait-until-tenure. Surely there are individuals for whom this camouflage has worked. But as a general strategy, it is a bust. Let me start with a wayward metaphor. If you pay down the mortgage on your house using counterfeit bills for six years, do you really own it in the seventh? If the counterfeit bills were undetected at the time, you might hold legal title to the house and you might tell yourself that’s all that counts. But there would hang over this outcome a certain doubt that would weigh on every subsequent decision.
The NAS has about 2,500 members, 93 percent of whom hold or are retired from academic positions. We are not a “conservative” organization by design, but as an advocate for traditional academic standards, we attract many members who self-identify as conservative, libertarian, or simply “independent.” Unlike Dunn, I’ve never encountered an academic who describes himself as “right wing,” except ironically. It is a rubric congenial to commentators on MSNBC and writers in the Nation but which is heard as a put-down by most conservatives, and Shield and Dunn’s selection of it as a way to encompass conservatives and libertarians under one label shows tone-deafness. The “narcissism of small differences?” Maybe. How about “internalized oppression?”
Passing on the Right does indeed tell many stories of the mistreatment that conservative faculty members face in higher education, but these stories are presented in the rhetoric of minimization. When conservative professors confess they must hide their opinions, it is a “source of irritation” for those chaps, though Shields and Dunn hasten to add that other professors say, “It’s fun.” Some conservative scholars say they often face insults, but “economists are almost entirely immune from these sorts of irritations.” Some “conservatives believed that life is rather unpleasant for their fellow right-wing academics in other departments, universities, or disciplines.” “After all, conservative elites seem to dislike affirmative action…”
Irritation, unpleasantness, dislike. These conservatives appear to have had little more than a bad day at the office. All that stuff about facing no-conservatives-need-apply faculty search committees, bias against conservatives in promotion, research grants, sabbatical leaves, evaluation of publishing, committee assignments, and pay increases needs to be taken in stride. Brad Watson quotes the line in Shields and Dunn’s introduction that “the right-wing critique of the university is overdrawn,” and Dunn now responds by defending his and Shields’ sampling technique. Then he adds, “it’s not terribly controversial that the right can overstate how grim things are.”
That mild sentence is actually the driving idea of Passing on the Right. The book seeks to correct a widespread impression that academe is deeply hostile to those on the political right, and is thus uncongenial. But who exactly is “overstating” the level of hostility? On this, Shields and Dunn are strangely silent.
Exaggerations and outright jeremiads are certainly a feature of contemporary American culture. My book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (2007) is a study of the phenomenon, and I encounter “overstatements” about higher education from writers on the left as well as the right almost daily. The left? Readers of CRB may be less familiar with the Chomskyian idea now in vogue with campus radicals that the university is a tool of right-wing oppression. For a quick sampling of how that idea plays out, I recommend Piya Chaterjee and Sunaina Maira’s edited volume, The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (2014). It offers rich reflections on “The Intelligence Community’s Sky Camps,” the “Prison-Industrial Complex,” and the “University’s Heteropatriracial Order.” For a comparable level of self-delusion on the right, one has to venture deep into recesses of the Internet. The Imperial University, however, was published by the University of Minnesota Press.
Dunn’s claim that the right overstates how grim things are in higher education can only be evaluated if we know who Dunn thinks these over-staters are. Passing mentions William F. Buckley’s 1951 God and Man at Yale as “part of the modern right’s rhetorical arsenal,” and cites a 2012 online article by the very sober Cold War historian Ron Radosh as its sole other example. Radosh was writing about the leftist bias in history departments. Did Radosh overstate? A recent study of party affiliations of university faculty found that in 1963, the ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans in departments of history was 2.7 to 1. Today it is 33.5 to 1, and it is not hard to find history departments at major institutions in which there are no Republicans. Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Caltech, Dartmouth, Brown, UC Berkeley, NYU, and Rochester have no registered Republicans among their history faculties, but a total of 356 registered Democrats. This is plain statistical evidence of systematic bias independent of Radosh’s argument, and it makes it hard to credit the idea that Radosh is among those who overstate “how grim things are.”
Are the over-staters of the right exemplified by Robert Nisbet or Allan Bloom? No, Shields and Dunn cite them as among “the staunchest and ablest defenders of [the university’s] tradition.” Naomi Schaefer Riley gets a skeptical glance for recommending “getting rid of tenure.” Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals is batted aside by an unnamed historian as “obviously false.” Steven Hayward is cited for an argument about whether one needs conservative professors to teach conservative ideas properly, not about whether conditions are grim for conservatives in academia. There is a dismissive mention of “bomb-throwing Ann Coulter” as one “closeted professor” calls her. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn is called out for his short-lived success in stripping the National Science Foundation from funding political science projects that failed to promote “national security or the economic interest of the United States.” Surely there are overstatements lurking in the writings of some of these figures, or in the case of Ann Coulter, overstatements doing star-spangled backflips accompanied by a brass band. But Passing on the Right was not written to refute Coulter.
The closest Shields and Dunn come to naming an actual example of a right-wing over-stater on the grimness of higher education is a series of glancing comments on David Horowitz. He is found variously “warning us about radical professors”; “an instance of right-wing efforts to scandalize the radicalism of higher education”; as a purveyor of “appalling incidents”; as an advocate of academic “professionalism”; as leading a “campaign against higher education”; and as “the most tireless crusader against liberal bias in higher education.” In none of these do Shields and Dunn go beyond the bare reproach.
What we have is a book that refutes a supposed misimpression without naming who conveys the misimpression. To the extent that Shields and Dunn argue it out with anyone, their foil is their own group of respondents. Shields and Dunn are tireless in pointing out that the complaints of their respondents are ill-founded, over-stated, or hypocritical. This is again the rhetoric of minimization–not that they expose themselves to all that much hard-core complaint.
Forty-seven percent of the respondents in the survey came from departments of political science and economics, the two fields in the social sciences that have the greatest number of faculty who do not self-identify as liberal or progressive. Eighty percent were tenured and another 4% emeritus. “About a third” of the interviewees were libertarians, whose views on social issues like abortion and gay marriage tend to track much more closely with their progressive colleagues than with conservatives. And the “conservatives” Shields and Dunn did interview turn out on average to be more liberal than Republicans in general. For example, Shields and Dunn report that 84% of “all Republicans” favor stricter control on immigration, but only 55% of “conservative professors” do.
The picture that emerges from Passing on the Right is of a cohort of mildly inconvenienced people who are only a little out of step with their progressive colleagues. I don’t doubt the accuracy of that finding, but I interpret it not as evidence that things aren’t so bad for conservatives in academe, but rather as evidence of conservative dhimmitude in academe. Yes, a conservative-minded young scholar may survive all the way to a positive tenure decision by muffling all his opinions and convictions, and putting many of his research interests in a deep freeze.
The temptation to do that, or at least attempt it, is very strong. I have had many conversations with young academics who have spoken about the choice. Some view it as a painful choice; others as a game. I suspect the gamesters have the better chance, but be that as it may, it is a decision that has consequences beyond the immediate goal. It orients those who choose it to a life of play-acting and petty (or not so petty) deception. It ingrains the habits of timidity. Perhaps at a deeper level, it instills the spirit of temporizing and the loss of clarity about underlying principles.
All of us, of course, should be mindful of the importance of listening and of making concessions for the sake of advancing a larger common good. A “conservative” who is belligerent or so unyielding as to be nothing but an obstruction will accomplish little. But a conservative who is functionally indistinguishable from a progressive accomplishes less than nothing. He just makes it easier for a repressive regime to settle in for the long term.
Josh Dunn is correct to point out the “narcissism of minor differences” among those on the right. But it doesn’t follow from this that the term “right-wing” is a good or necessary descriptor for the various shades of conservatism that he and his co-author, Jon Shields, find in the academy. If, as Josh says, they use “right-wing” merely as a “synonym for conservatism,” why not stick with conservatism—and include an appropriate footnote explaining those shades? Alternatively, why not stick with “those on the right” versus “those on the left,” and thus jettison the pejorative connotations of “right-wing”? I’ll reiterate what I said in my initial review by agreeing with Peter Wood. Like him, I don’t encounter any colleagues who refer to themselves as “right-wingers,” except ironically. As Peter says, this language flows easily from the lips of the progressive commentariat, not to mention from progressive professors. I maintain that it’s not very helpful language—other than helping to make the book eminently quotable by such people.
As to the authors’ methodology, no reiteration of their snowball sampling technique is required. The point I made in my review is not that they are bad social scientists, or that they didn’t work carefully and hard to do what they’ve done. Rather, it’s that any “thick description” inevitably makes it difficult to reach generalizable conclusions. In the instant case, the problems flow from the authors’ small sample (particularly in relation to the overall size of the American academy), conjoined with the fact that their subjects were, necessarily, already enjoying academic success—after all, they had real academic jobs. What of the conservatives who don’t? Perhaps a snowball sample could more profitably uncover this “difficult to locate” population. And of course no snowball sample would be required if they were trying to identify progressive interviewees amongst the more than a million college instructors in the United States—ipso facto evidence of a much bigger problem than Shields and Dunn seem to suggest.
The scope of the problem is shown in other ways too. If the point of Passing on the Right is to encourage, or at least not “unnecessarily dissuade” conservatives and libertarians from pursuing academic careers, it’s hard to see how it can do this by telling them the view from the top is fine—but only after they’ve scaled Mount Everest in winter. And this is especially so if no effort is made to remind them that so many fellow-travelers—probably a majority—have fallen to their deaths along the way. While I’m not saying the noble effort should be avoided, I do think Passing on the Right calls more for complacency than heroism. And the latter, or more particularly the moral virtue that makes it possible, is what’s most needed in the academy.
Let me be more pointed still. Does the academy really need conservatives of the sort identified by the authors’ sampling technique—the sort who, happily or unhappily, voted for Barack Obama or (one presumes) Hillary Clinton? Voting is a proxy, of course, as I noted in my review. But if, to borrow from Charles Murray, the “bubbles” in which academic conservatives live are as thick as their progressive colleagues’, they’re quite likely to miss some important things that their fellow citizens pick up on, things that matter to human beings outside the academy. They’re certainly not likely to represent, in any meaningful way, the rich diversity of voices in America. In fact, it’s quite possible they’re not really conservatives at all. Certainly, based on what Shields and Dunn report, they appear more likely, compared to the average American, to view as deplorable the same things their progressive colleagues do.
In the academy, as Peter notes, “a conservative who is functionally indistinguishable from a progressive accomplishes less than nothing,” by reifying an oppressive status quo. Certainly, go-along-to-get-along tendencies are likely to be pronounced, if for no other reason than very little is at stake for successful academics, as long as they don’t rock the boat. Perhaps, as Peter suggests, they’ve sold their souls, and the results are awful. Perhaps, as Josh suggests, some of them simply had to be cautious, and the results are better than if they hadn’t been. Either way, once herd animals are raised, we shouldn’t be surprised if they keep following the herd.
Let me restate this. If the academy should represent a wider range of views than it does, as the authors suggest, shouldn’t conservative academics not only be far more numerous, but far more conservative, than they are? And by conservative here, I mean well outside the mainstream of academic opinion. Shouldn’t they be less likely than they are to reflect the attitudes and behaviors of their progressive colleagues on some pretty important questions?
Could cultural conservatives—the sort of “right-wingers” that Shields and Dunn recognize to be in particularly short supply—somehow storm the academic barricades, aided by the “right-wingers” who are already there? Or would they be doused with boiling oil before they came anywhere near the parapet? Those who challenge orthodoxies head-on tend to be the sort of people with high pain thresholds, but even they can’t accomplish superhuman feats. And they need allies.
Peter Wood sees “conservative dhimmitude in academe,” whereas I see precious few conservatives. In some cases, that amounts to the same thing. Passing on the Right supports either view. The book is therefore self-refuting insofar as it insists that “the right-wing critique of the university is overdrawn.”