NAS member J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of political science at University of Missouri-St. Louis, has written a case study of the 2015 crisis at the University of Missouri, using it as a window into the declining commitment to diversity, free speech, and academic rigor nationwide.
In David Hume’s words, “Truth emerges from debate among friends,” from the competition of ideas conducted in a civil way. There is relatively little debate and competition of ideas on most campuses, and less and less civility. There is a liberal hegemony that has become so ingrained among administrators, faculty, and students as to constitute systemic or institutional liberalism. Conservative faculty and students are marginalized, often compelled toward self-censorship. One can talk about “toxic masculinity” and “whiteness” but not dare to stereotype women or blacks.1 Liberal ideology is privileged especially in those departments and units that preach the most about the need for diversity—the humanities and social sciences, education and social work schools, and others. Of course, there are exceptions (for example, economics departments and business schools, along with many of the hard sciences); but liberal orthodoxy dominates the university as a whole, as could be seen in the broad groundswell of faculty support for Melissa Click at Mizzou, including from the AAUP. Data provided by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute and other sources confirm a trend over time toward a higher percentage of self-identifying “liberals” in the professoriate and a decreasing percentage of “moderates” and “conservatives.”2
A hallmark of the university should be “nonpartisanship,” but that is no longer the case. One study by Daniel Klein and colleagues, which examined faculty voter registration at forty leading universities, found Democrats outnumbering Republicans by a ratio of 12 to 1.3 Another report found “Democrats and Marxists outnumber Republicans and libertarians by 3 to 1 in economics, more than 5 to l in political science, 10 to 1 or more in history and English, and well over 20 to 1 in anthropology and sociology.”4 Jonathan Zimmerman of NYU, a self-described “devout Democrat,” in an article entitled “US Colleges Need Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors,” adds that at the 8 Ivy League colleges, 96 percent of the faculty who made campaign donations in the 2012 presidential election gave to President Obama. At Brown, for example, 129 faculty gave to Obama and just one donated to Mitt Romney.5 It is not just an Ivy League thing – at my own university, based on Federal Election Commission filings, it was determined that from 1997 to 2015 more than 75 percent of faculty and staff political donations went to Democrats.6 Like Zimmerman, some other liberal observers have found the evidence impossible to ignore. For example, Nicholas Kristof, who has written about “liberal intolerance” and “the dangers of echo chambers on campus,” has noted that “four studies found that the proportion of professors in the humanities who are Republicans ranges between 6 and 11 percent, and in the social sciences between 7 and 9 percent. One study found that only 2 percent of English professors are Republicans.”7
The way institutional liberalism works is not so much that conservative job candidates fail at departmental interviews but rather that they never make it to the interview stage if their dossier lacks a progressive-minded dissertation or research agenda in the works. Nobody questions why queer history is in and military history is out. It is not so much that conservative guest speakers are disinvited but rather they are rarely if ever invited in the first place, since they are only marginally represented on the faculty, on university student programming boards, and on other bodies that make up the bubble that is the university. Students wanting to start up a College Republicans organization on campus may be prevented from doing so, not because of any outright ban but owing to the unavailability of conservative faculty to serve as an advisor. “Discovery learning” is the pedagogical rage, aimed at getting students to reach the conclusions dictated by what is assumed to be a settled liberal consensus on everything from climate change to the minimum wage. There is a smug sense of inclusiveness, with everyone welcome as long as there is no dissent and challenge to prevailing liberal dogma. When liberals are accused of fostering institutional illiberalism, their fallback position is that, by definition, liberals cannot be illiberal.
It is possible that a conservative counter-revolution may be on the horizon. Campus progressives may have overplayed their hand lately, as even many liberals have winced over the excesses of trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, and safe spaces that are fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a liberal education.8 Especially hopeful is the recent letter by the University of Chicago dean of students, Jay Ellison, supported by President Robert Zimmer, informing incoming freshmen that academic freedom and vigorous debate override concerns about discomfort and other speech constraints. As President Zimmer remarked, “A university should not be a sanctuary for comfort but rather a crucible for confronting ideas.”9 A few other universities, such as Purdue and Princeton, have followed suit, with faculty committees following the lead of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression in drafting policy statements.10 A large number of faculty opposing the recent illiberal trends have formed the Heterodox Academy in order to articulate their concerns. Washington University in St. Louis and other schools have developed policies to limit disruptions that prevent invited speakers from being heard.11 John Etchemendy, the former provost of Stanford University, delivered a speech to the Stanford Board of Trustees on February 21, 2017, warning of “the threat from within ... as I have watched a growing intolerance at universities in this country—not intolerance along racial or ethnic or gender lines. ... Rather, a kind of intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for.”12 Still, there remains much pushback against reform.
The solution to all this is not affirmative action for conservative professors to achieve a certain “balance” of viewpoints, since the development and dissemination of knowledge should not be reduced to ideological and partisan bean-counting.13 Rather, if universities want to respond to this critique properly, they need to become more sensitized to these issues and include them in the “diversity” project. If universities do not act more responsibly in policing themselves, they will invite outside intrusion from politicians and alumni.14 That would be unfortunate, but universities would have only themselves to blame for a failure of governance.
- At Gettysburg College and other schools, classes can teach about “toxic masculinity.” See Alissa Lopez, “Students Told Term ‘To Be A Man’ Represents Toxic Masculinity,” The College Fix, October 18, 2016, http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/29527/. Courses on “white privilege” and “whiteness” are commonplace. See Yanan Wang, “A Course Originally Called ‘The Problem of Whiteness’ Returns to Arizona State,” Washington Post, November 12, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/11/12/a-course-originally-called-the-problem-of-whiteness-returns-to-asu-as-racial-tensions-boil-over-on-campuses/?utm_term=.6ec196357820.
- Samuel Abrams, “There Are Conservative Professors. Just Not in These States,” New York Times, July 1, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/opinion/sunday/there-are-conservative-professors-just-not-in-these-states.html. On the marginalization of conservatives in academia, see Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn, Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
- Reported in Bradford Richardson, “Liberal Professors Outnumber Conservatives Nearly 12 to 1, Study Finds,” Washington Times, October 6, 2016, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/oct/6/liberal-professors-outnumber-conservatives-12-1/.
- Cited in Robert Maranto and Matthew Woessner,” Diversifying the Academy: How Conservative Academics Can Thrive in Liberal Academia,” PS: Political Science and Politics, 45 (July 2012): 469-470.
- Jonathan Zimmerman, “US Colleges Need Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors,” Christian Science Monitor, December 13, 2012, https://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2012/1213/US-colleges-need-affirmative-action-for-conservative-professors.
- Reported to me by a colleague at UMSL, on November 19, 2015.
- Nicholas Kristof, “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance,” New York Times, May 7, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/a-confession-of-liberal-intolerance.html. Also, see his “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus,” New York Times, December 1, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/10/opinion/sunday/the-dangers-of-echo-chambers-on-campus.html. Other liberal commentators who have acknowledged concerns about lack of respect for diversity of ideas on campus are Frank Bruni, “The Dangerous Safety of College,” New York Times, March 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/11/opinion/sunday/the-dangerous-safety-of-college.html; and Kirsten Powers, The Silencing (New York: Regnery, 2015). Even Bill Maher, a vocal critic of conservatism, felt compelled on March 17, 2017, after the Charles Murray incident at Middlebury College, to say on his Real Time television show that “liberalism is at a perilous point” due to its repressive, exclusivist nature on college campuses.
- President Obama, in his 2016 commencement speech at Howard University, said, “Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view. . . . Don’t do that.” “University of Chicago Rebels Against Moves to Stifle Speech,” New York Times, August 27, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/27/us/university-of-chicago-strikes-back-against-campus-political-correctness.html,
- Robert Zimmer, “Free Speech Is the Basis of A True Education,” Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2016.
- More universities are grudgingly conceding there is a problem that needs attention. See Douglas Belking, “Colleges Pledge Support for Discourse,” Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2017.
- At major assemblies featuring guest speakers, Washington University enforces a policy stating that “posters, banners, and other forms of expression should not be brought into the presentation area during the talk so that an environment free of interference, distraction, and intimidation shall be maintained,” although “groups are free to gather outside, to leaflet, to display posters, and to distribute literature.”
- John Etchemendy,”The Threat from Within,” speech to the Stanford University Board of Trustees on February 21, 2017.
- See Brianne Pfannenstiel, “Iowa Senator Wants Political Balance Among University Professors,” Des Moines Register, February 20, 2017, http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2017/02/20/iowa-senator-wants-political-balance-among-university-professors/98167182/.
- “Fight Over Free Speech Goes to States,” Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2017.
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