Higher Education Needs Conservative Voices

James V. Shuls

“Shut up.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard those two words. In almost all cases, they are meant helpfully. What they really mean is, “You don’t have tenure yet, keep your head down. It’s best if no one at your large public university finds out that you’re conservative.” And while I am in Missouri, I know the same message is heard by my conservative university colleagues in other states.

I heard them again recently at a leadership development seminar hosted by my university system, but, for the first time, it hit me—the advice is wrong. Higher education does not need conservatives who are hiding their identity; it needs conservatives who can speak to the value of the academy.

Recent polling by the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Republicans say colleges have a negative effect on the “way things are going” in the United States. Should that surprise us? If professors who might share their values are constantly told to “shut up,” it’s easy to get the impression that universities are hostile places for conservatives. And to be sure, they can be. But they don’t have to be.

I entered academia after two years at the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based free-market think tank. When I disclosed that information at one of my first meetings, one of my senior colleagues said, “I don’t think we are going to like each other very much.” He was wrong. Over the past five years, he has become my mentor, even serving as the chair of my tenure committee. Our relationship is the picture of how things should be at the university. I don’t have to hide who I am and nor does he. I have to be able to show respect for others, to articulate my ideas and my beliefs cogently, and, most importantly, I have to be able to listen. So does he.

This type of relationship can only happen in an atmosphere where academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas are valued. That is what I have found at the University of Missouri—St. Louis. While some colleagues may encourage me to bite my tongue, I have, on multiple occasions, seen my dean defend my right to say things that she does not agree with. She has also supported my development as a leader within our college. This is the model we should all hope for. If we cannot foster civil discourse in higher education, what hope do we have for civility anywhere else in society?

We all know conservatives are vastly outnumbered in academia. According to professor Mitchell Langbert’s analysis of 8,688 tenure track faculty at 51 of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges in the summer, 2018 issue of Academic Questions (“Homogenous: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts College Faculty”), registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 10.4 to 1. That doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. Some have called for a kind of “affirmative action” for conservative professors, but conservatives should have the exact same trouble with that policy as they have with affirmative action proposals in general. Universities should employ the best professors, regardless of their politics.

The irony of so much of this debate is that the conservative intuition that culture is more important than policy could help solve it. Universities don’t need polices requiring ideological “balance,” whatever that is. What they need is a culture of respect. Universities should be places where people of differing opinions come together and argue them robustly. There are few if any policies that can make this happen. It is a cultural problem. The best reason for not marginalizing conservative voices is that conservative philosophy and conservative intuitions have something to offer academic disciplines. But, even if members of the academy are not persuaded by that argument, they should recognize their own self-interest. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans currently hold control in thirty legislatures; in twenty-two of those states, they also hold the governor’s office. Conservative professors can be powerful voices for public higher education when they feel welcomed in the halls of academia. Why silence your best advocates?

As happens frequently at meetings like the one I attended, after I “outed” myself as a conservative, two separate individuals approached me confidentially. Speaking in hushed tones, one told me that she had been called the nastiest of names for being a Republican. The other offered a voice of solidarity. I appreciated their support, but it was a vivid reminder that free speech doesn’t happen by accident; we need to work to ensure that everyone’s voice is safe.

Higher education needs conservative voices defending it, just as it needs liberal voices. We need conservative and liberal professors who can speak to the values of a liberal arts education. Don’t expect this to happen until conservative voices grow louder and the rest of the academy listens.

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