The Liberal Academy

While the high cost of college and the woes of student loans tend to be the main focuses of media coverage of universities, there has also been some attention paid to such things as trigger warnings and safe spaces. A trigger warning, in the context of a university class, is an explicit notification that the content a student is supposed to read, view or hear might be upsetting or even cause a post-traumatic stress disorder response. In an academic context, a safe space is supposed to be a place free of harassment, intolerance and hate speech. As might be suspected, some consider trigger warnings and safe spaces potential threats to free speech.

The existence of trigger warnings and safe spaces is also taken by some as a sign that the liberal masters of the academy have gotten out of hand and are imposing their agenda upon students and a few unwilling faculty. There are also concerns that the liberal dominance has marginalized conservative academics. There is some merit to these concerns. There is apparently a roughly 5 to 1 ratio of liberal faculty to conservative faculty and there are certainly examples of how the academy can be hostile towards conservative ideas. And even liberal ideas that do not match the proper ideology.

Given that the stereotypical liberal accuses the stereotypical conservative of marginalizing others and opposing free expression, there is a certain irony in the claim that the liberal is the alleged oppressor and the conservative is the alleged victim. It is also ironic that some of the defenses offered for the marginalization of conservatives in the academy mirror the defenses offered for the marginalization of minorities by some conservatives. This should not, however, be surprising: those with the upper hand tend to use the same basic playbook—although the vocabulary does change.

While I certainly accept liberal concerns regarding the marginalization of minorities and women in the broader society, consistency requires me to also give due consideration to the marginalization of conservatives in the academy. After all, marginalization anywhere is a threat to inclusion everywhere.

I have considered elsewhere the causal factors behind the general liberal dominance of the academy, but it is certainly worth considering this matter again. One concern is that while conservatives might complain about liberal dominance of the academy, there simply might not be enough conservatives interested in becoming professors. This does make some sense—becoming a professor requires spending years getting a terminal degree, grinding through a brutal job search process that is likely to result in part time employment as an adjunct without any benefits. The same amount of effort applied to other fields, such as business endeavors, law or medicine would result in a vastly better chance of getting a much better paying job with greater benefits. Given that conservatives are often cast as interested in being practical and focused on financial success, it would actually seem odd for them to want to go into academics. The stereotypical liberal character seems to better match this career path. This is not to say that an academic job cannot be financially rewarding; but faculty positions yield far less financially than other positions that require analogous education and effort.

Administrative posts can, however, be gold mines—while they do not quite match the financial rewards of the big corporations, the upper echelons do come close in terms of pay, bonuses and perks. But, of course, conservatives taking administrative posts would still leave the actual teaching in liberal hands. But, back to the main subject.

The above reasoning is, of course, is analogous to a stock reply to claims that other areas are lacking in minorities or women: there is no oppression, it is simply the case that minorities and women are not very interested in those areas. So, while conservatives could become professors just as easily as liberals, they wisely elect to pursue more financially lucrative careers. Likewise, liberals tend to pursue less lucrative careers. For example, while there are liberals in the top echelons of the financial firms and corporations (Apple, which does its best to utilize cheap foreign labor and evade taxes is often presented as ruled by liberals), these positions tend to be dominated by conservative white men.

Conservatives can borrow a stock liberal argument here. Liberals typically argue that women and minorities want to be in the fields where they are marginalized, but there are systematic means of keeping them at the margins. For example, liberals often point to how women are treated to explain the small numbers of women in various fields. These methods include the usual suspects: discouraging women from taking classes relevant to the field, steering women away from careers in those fields, hiring biases against women, and hostility towards women who make it into the field.

Conservatives can use this approach and contend that there are many conservatives who want to be professors, but there are systematic means of keeping them marginalized. These means would include the usual suspects: the discouraging of conservative ideas in the classroom, steering conservatives away from careers in academics, hiring biases against those with known conservative views, and hostility towards conservatives who make it into the academy.

While it might be tempting for liberals to respond using analogies to the arguments employed by some conservatives in the face of claims that women and minorities are marginalized, that would be unjust. If being a liberal involves being opposed to marginalization, then moral consistency would require addressing all warranted concerns about the marginalization of conservatives in academics. As noted above, marginalization anywhere is a threat to diversity everywhere.

Making the academy more diverse would thus require approaches analogous to making other fields more diverse. These methods would include tolerance of conservative ideas in the classroom, encouraging conservatives to pursue careers in academics, addressing hiring biases against conservatives (perhaps with some affirmative action hires), and sensitivity training to mitigate hostility against conservatives in the academy.


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  1. I don’t think that the fact that there are fewer right wingers in academic positions (U.S. right wingers often are not conservative at all) is analogous to discrimination against women and minorities.

    Let’s start with the sciences. Lots of U.S. right wingers deny the theory of evolution. Therefore, they are not qualified to teach biology or botany or medicine or any life science. So obviously, in the life sciences there are more left wingers than right wingers.

    How about the social sciences? It well may be that there is much in the social sciences which leads a student to relatively left wing conclusions. Ditto with philosophy.

    Women and minorities are born that way. No one is born a right winger. People opt for right wing positions. It’s seems wrong to discriminate against people for traits that they are born with, but not for traits that they opt for. To take an extreme case, not hiring Nazis or racists or homophobes is a form of discrimination, but it seems justified.

    Right wingers in the U.S. generally support Republican candidates, Trump being this year’s Republican contribution to the human race. Do we really want our students being taught the values that Trump espouses or that Ted Cruz espouses? Hillary Clinton is a hypocrite through and through, but at least she generally pays lip service to decent values and a university with academics who espouse Hillary’s values (the ones that she espouses) rather than Trump’s or Ted Cruz’s seems on the right track.

  2. Kevin Henderson

    The National Academy of Science shows as few as 5% of all biologists are religious, and only 7.5% of physicists are religious. Is the NAS prejudice against religion since over 50% of the population is religious?

    Like universities, I do not think NAS push for liberal faculty. I have seen over a dozen faculty search processes and never once heard of someone overtly criticized for their political beliefs. It is usually only at a casual lunch one might learn of a faculty member’s political or religious values being espoused.

    Universities or science organization don’t choose liberals, the people they attract are usually already that way.

  3. “There are also concerns that the liberal dominance has marginalized conservative academics. There is some merit to these concerns. There is apparently a roughly 5 to 1 ratio of liberal faculty to conservative faculty and there are certainly examples of how the academy can be hostile towards conservative ideas. And even liberal ideas that do not match the proper ideology.”

    Those 5 liberals….Are they actually the genuine article, or could it be possible that four or even more of them might be merely conforming to the path of least resistance. Hence, their objections to liberal ideas that do not conform to the “proper” ideology.

    Okay, I know it’s social conformity.

    Are they actually conservatives……..Not always, but it is amusing to see neo-Victorians, mask their actual ideology in the garb of radical feminism. But many have no ideology, in the same way as the time my grandfather put a white Limousin cow in a field with black and white Holstein Friesians. The Friesians would exclude the Limousin, and viciously attack her if she did try and join the group. It was very sad to watch. There was no ideology. And you can have the two breeds in peaceful coexistence, but sometimes the herd will brook no diversity.

    Conformity is the diametric opposition of diversity. The university of Chicago have been in the news recently for telling prospective students they don’t do “safe spaces”. Chicago has the notoriety of being the point of origin of neoconservatism, and Leo Strauss as its’ original ideological architect. I would in fact place Strauss as more subversive than Herbert Marcuse, a feature of that subversiveness being in that he is viewed as a conservative. The aggressive “liberalism” typical of universities today, is really just a platonic myth to mask the reality; that they are actually authoritarian police states, focused on closing minds and producing Marcuse’s one dimensional men and women. Counter-subversion through pseudo-subversion. Illiberablism through liberalism.

  4. You are right that the NAS itself need not have any bias: the organization is composed of scientists and it could be that the sciences tend to attract people who are not religious or that education in science tends to reduce religious commitment.

  5. Yes, it could be that many faculty adopt a liberal appearance as protective camouflage to survive the grind to tenure. By then, they could have become their disguise.

  6. Universities across this country have been conducting an experiment in social engineering to test whether changing the language that people use will change their long term behavior. We know that the words that we use about a subject can change how people think about it. Republicans who oppose Obama care express strong support for the provisions of the Affordable Care Act and like their State Insurance Exchanges. When someone uses the words “illegal alien”, it automatically conjures up thoughts of “otherness” and criminality which makes it difficult to even consider whether the breach of immigration laws might fall under the necessity exception which, for example, forgives breaking into a locked building during a snow storm with no other nearby shelter available. The question being tested at universities is whether or not forcing people to use value neutral words when discussing hot button social issues and to be careful about the way they talk about race, gender, and sexual orientation during their intellectually formative years will finally break the cycle of implicit bias which keeps women, minorities, and LGTB Americans from advancing. In short, can the way we teach our future leaders to talk and think about these subject bring our nation closer to truly equal justice and equal opportunity?
    For many white heterosexual Christian males who had previously set the standards of socially acceptable behavior, this change in the rules of social behavior can be very uncomfortable. Instead of simply telling women and minorities that they need to toughen up and not be so sensitive, those who had previously been largely immune to criticism of their actions are being told that they need to be sensitive about the words that they use. Instead of women and minorities being forced to walk a very narrow line between assertiveness and pushiness, between being cold and unfriendly and “asking for” unwanted sexual attention, men who are used to being the ones who set the standards for others, are now being told that they must watch their words and actions.
    For conservatives in academic institutions this emphasis on social sensitivity and “politically correct” language presents a problem. Liberals accept the idea that the idea that the goal of education should be to improve society as well as help students get good jobs and improve the economy. Conservatives do not, and they therefore often come into conflict with their peers on this issue. Institutions seek to hire individuals who share the values of Institution. One of the values of an educational institution is open inquiry and freedom of speech, but another value which is increasingly being embraced by many institutions is to redress some of the nation’s social ills and create “better” leaders. Whether these goals are ones which institutions of higher education should pursue, and whether or not this is a good way to pursue them can be debated, but it is important to understand what is being debated.

  7. A civil society is very important and teaching how to be civil is a legitimate goal in educating future leaders and a generation who will be increasingly living in a multicultural society. To describe it as ‘the nanny state’ is wrong.

    In the works of some well-known writers of the past century there are a lot of expressions used which highlight the misogyny, racism, and antisemitism of that era. It is strange to come across it now and it diminishes the writers and their work to some extent. Although well-educated they had assimilated the cultural attitudes of their time.

  8. Mike LaBossiere,

    “Yes, it could be that many faculty adopt a liberal appearance as protective camouflage to survive the grind to tenure. By then, they could have become their disguise.”

    Yes, but this is becoming the disguise of the thing, not becoming the thing. And without giving a long explanation of Karl Jung on masks; when someone believes they are the mask itself, they’re dangerously psychotic. With institutions, their mask is their mythos.

    If you take Slovenia, in the former Yugoslavia, while it was under communist rule, a potential academic would be barred from employment if found to be inadequately Marxist. And to be clear, it was Slovene academics coming to this determination, not state officials interfering in the freedom of the academy. Slavoj Zizek was one of those barred from teaching, for being inadequately Marxist. And how they punished people in the post Stalinist era, was to make them unemployable. (being punished for what, though?). Zizek spent his 20s broke and forced to live with his parents. Then through non sanctioned activities, he began to gain a little attention outside of Yugoslavia. And this is where the powerful became nervous; when the system can’t break you, they try to buy you. Zizek was offered a tailor made academic position in an obscure agricultural institute, with a stipulation that he could not teach any actual students. And this suited Zizek very much, as he’s not crazy about teaching, as it eats into his time concentrating on theory, and this is where he remains to this day, even though the regime who grant him this position no longer does.

    Was Zizek inadequately Marxist to begin with. No. His threat to the system was that he was authentically Marxist, and the system was not.

    American universities, with their liberal semblance and illiberal substance, the soul crushing Soviet style bureaucracies, the survivalism of their academics reminiscent of Great Purge era Russia. Is this a knowing contrivance. With the End of History, Francis Fukuyama was making a wry joke about specific Hegelian ideas within Marxism; that Marxism is simply the end point history can reach, no other alternatives being possible. It is later, much to Fukuyama’s deep shock and chagrin, that many did not in fact get the joke, even though some of this “many” being university professors held in high regard. And these professors would also claim to be Straussarians; people influenced by the teachings of Leo Strauss. They didn’t get Strauss either.

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