July 28, 2017

Want to know why there are so few Republicans in the humanities?


A recent, and widely discussed, Pew poll relays a worrisome fact: nearly sixty percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country.

Readers of the DUMBO-based MobyLives might be totes cool with that. But I would urge them to put down that Ramenburger/PBR/guide to fixie repair, and think this one through. The finding that conservatives loathe the academy should concern all of us.

For starters, the right’s anger is predicated on a legitimate grievance: conservative professors are woefully underrepresented on college and university faculties.  This has been demonstrated in scholarly book after scholarly book. It has been hashed over in studies and op-eds. Nothing in my experience suggests this is fake news.

Let me try, however, and give you a little insider perspective, stuff that the polling data and the hype tend to obscure. You will find conservative scholars in large numbers at theological seminaries. They are decently represented on business, law, and STEM faculties. But you won’t find conservative scholars in the liberal arts (which is what I and the PBR-quaffing readers of this blog care about the most).

This imbalance is insanely pronounced in the humanities. It is really, really hard to find a Republican art historian, or a pro-life women’s studies scholar, or an English professor in favor of open carry policies for guns on campus, or a French cinema expert who touts free market values. At an elite school—the type of joint that sits high and lofty atop the U.S. News & World Report rankings—you’re far more likely to encounter a Maoist vegan. Probably a few Maoist vegans.

This has not, I assure you, escaped the attention of Republicans. Which brings us to our second reason to worry about their disdain for higher education. As Fredrik deBoer correctly observes in a recent LA Times op-ed, Republican-controlled state legislatures are slashing funding to public colleges and universities.  Never discount the possibility that these “budget austerity measures” are born of Republican revulsion for the “liberal” professorate.

Here, I wish to make one crucial corrective. In deBoer’s piece, he points to the preponderance of “liberal” professors on college faculties. I think we—especially demographers who study the political leanings of scholars—need to be a little careful about nomenclature. As I argued in the Washington Post last month, American academic culture is not American political culture. There are not two columns on a liberal arts faculty (i.e. conservative versus liberal) but three (i.e. conservative versus liberal versus radical left).

Why is this important? Because liberals are often blamed for (bad) ideas that they don’t even hold. Concepts such as “trigger warnings,” “micro-aggressions,” speaker boycotts, “safe spaces,” and the like, are rarely supported by liberals, who tend to be more free-speech fundamentalists. Those sorts of initiatives more likely emanate from the radical left. As much as conservatives love to engage in Liberal SmackDown, I think they misunderstand a basic truth of American higher education: at elite schools and elsewhere, liberals have been out-hired, out-published, and out-tenured by scholars who make them look like conservatives.

These Women and Men of the Left are serious academicians. I have studied with them, read them, cited their work, argued with them, etc. The problem is not their scholarship, but their bewilderingly outsize presence in the humanities and interpretive social sciences.

A good undergraduate education—does this even need to be said?—exposes students to all sorts of viewpoints. I learned a great deal from conservative profs when I was in college (though, admittedly, they were pre-Tea Party, pre-Alt-Right types; members of the reality-based community, each and every one of them). My progressive students at Georgetown often make similar observations about teachers who don’t share their political commitments.

If conservative intellectuals feel that the academy is hostile to them, they will ply their trades elsewhere. That could be a think tank. That could be the Hill. That could be the White House. But wherever this is, it won’t be a place where nuances are generated, back-and-forth takes place, and ideological brake-pumping is the norm.

A group of professors known as the Heterodox Academy makes much of what they call “viewpoint diversity.” It is a solid sociological principle. If scholars are surrounded by people who don’t share their views—assuming they’re not crazy—their views are likely to evolve and become more nuanced. When conservatives abandon higher education, one crucial check on extremism is lost. One day they’re fairly benign historians teaching at West Georgia College. The next, they’re Newt Gingrich!

The question remains: why are there so few Republicans on the faculty? Many answers have been proposed, but I’ll suggest one that you can read more about in my book Campus Confidential. I blame search committees. Academic job searches are essentially low-tech ideological cloning devices. For whatever reason, scholars of all political persuasions love to surround themselves with people who remind them of themselves. In recent decades, the radical left has mastered the trick of commandeering a search committee (a tactic they learned from an earlier generation of liberals). And now here we stand, presiding over the imminent implosion of the American professorate. Something’s got to give.



Jacques Berlinerblau teaches at Georgetown University, has written many books, and is an editor for the journal Philip Roth Studies. His newest book, Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students was published by Melville House in June 2017. Follow him on Twitter!