The following op-ed appeared in the September 15 print edition of The New York Times:
These days, the news is full of sensational stories of violent campus mobs shutting down conservative speakers and freaked-out college administrators treating rioters with kid gloves. Such stories offer excellent fodder for critics who are eager to condemn university culture. But I believe they distract from a deeper, subtler intellectual problem on the modern campus: the profound alienation of professors who don’t hold the mainstream political views and are treated as outsiders as a result.
This is the argument of an important book titled “Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University.” Written by the political scientists Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., it gives a glimpse into the lonely lives of ideological strangers on the modern campus. While conservatives represent America’s largest ideological group, at 36 percent of the population, they constitute less than 10 percent of faculty in the social sciences and humanities — and a small fraction of that at elite private schools. Many report feeling like oddballs who never quite fit in.
Generally, these professors fear they have little hope for advancement to leadership roles. Research backs up this fear, suggesting that intellectual conformity is still a key driver of personal success in academic communities. In a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers asked students to evaluate candidates vying to represent them with the faculty. In some cases, the candidate identified him- or herself as a “typical student at this college”; other subjects were given a candidate who was “a relatively untypical student at this college.” Even though both pledged to represent the students faithfully, in the same language, the untypical student consistently received significantly less support.
Some might argue that it doesn’t matter — or is even a good thing — that conservatives on campus are marginalized. After all, there are many organizations in which philosophical differences are legitimately disqualifying. No one believes that there is anything strange about a Christian church seeking as clergy members only those who share the congregation’s faith and theology. Buddhists may be wonderful people, but they still need not apply for the job.
But such discrimination is legitimate only when it pertains to the core mission of an organization. It would be less sensible and acceptable for a congregation to reject the best-qualified theologian and preacher because of how he or she voted in a presidential election. That church would be prioritizing ephemeral political battles ahead of its deepest spiritual concerns. That’s a pretty bad trade.
Similarly, academia is right to rank candidates based on their expertise and intellectual commitment. But should professors’ political philosophies factor into how welcome they are or the likelihood of their leading departments and institutions? Only if the fundamental goal of the university is more political than scholarly.
So which is the primary goal of universities today? They are in the process of deciding. If they decide the answer is scholarship, they must work harder to form communities that do not just tolerate conservatives but actively embrace ideological diversity. They must be willing to see conservative faculty members not as interlopers to be tolerated but as valued colleagues, worthy of promotion and appointments to leadership roles when merited.
Fortunately, this problem is not insoluble. It wasn’t that long ago that women were similarly isolated in academia, that it was unusual in many departments to have a female professor and practically unthinkable that a woman be a university president. To be sure, there is still gender discrimination, but a huge amount of headway has been made in integrating departments and elevating women to positions of academic leadership. Why? Because the community has come to see that gender discrimination is inconsistent with a good university’s mission. That’s true progress.
There are nascent efforts underway to do the same with ideology. Several top-tier private universities — notably Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and Chicago — have made important commitments to protect intellectual diversity on campus. And a new coalition of academics called Heterodox Academy, directed by the New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt, has formed to foster this movement.
Notably, more than 40 percent of the members of Heterodox Academy are liberals or centrists. And this brings me to a point I want to make to progressive academics: It is up to you to make campuses more open to debate and the unconstrained pursuit of truth. This is partly because liberals are in an overwhelming majority on campus. But more important, the task fits perfectly the progressive movement’s ethical patrimony. American liberalism has always insisted it is the duty of the majority to fight for the minority, whether or not it suits one’s own private interests.
Welcoming the stranger is arguably the greatest moral tradition that liberals have. As we start a new school year, there is a golden opportunity to demonstrate this.