Back in 2010, University of Illinois, Chicago, Professor and former Weatherman radical Bill Ayers gave a presentation on Public Pedagogy at the American Education Research Association annual meeting. Ayers, then a member of AERA's governing board, made the claim that he, Bill Ayers, was really not a terrorist. Ten of the first 11 sentences in the talk abstract were in the first person singular, before Bill Ayers switched gears to say that really, any violence Bill Ayers might have encouraged merely came in response to the evils of the U.S. government.
Leading a real social scientist to wonder, how on earth can one peer review this "research," or rather me-search? Bill Ayers has got to be the world's leading expert on Bill Ayers, so how can anyone else be qualified to review his work on himself? And anyway, what is Bill Ayers doing on the American Education Research Association governing board? Or have Bill Ayers studies become a distinct subfield alongside such areas as teacher quality and psychometrics?
The standing-room-only talk got a great reception, only to show that AERA desperately needs some conservatives to point out when the emperor has no clothes.
One of us saw the same thing this spring at AERA, when a panel degenerated into a revival meeting on how all right-thinking people back affirmative action, and should fear satanic Supreme Court moves to trim it back. The panel was all big-name, and the clear impression an assistant professor might take away is that publishing anything questioning affirmative action would not be a tenure-winning move. The single audience member who had the temerity to question whether unionized public school systems fail to educate disadvantaged minorities was politely ignored.
Academia Needs Conservatives
The obvious lesson is that one or a few conservatives, isolated and ignored, just won't do. AERA and academia in general, need a critical mass of conservatives to keep the liberals and radicals honest, or at least less out of touch with reality. Otherwise, the Bill Ayers and Ward Churchill types of profit-seeking prophets may rule the roost.
Conservatives may not need academia, but if academia is to survive, it needs conservatives—even though it may not always welcome them. In the edited volume The Politically Correct University, an essay by Dan Klein and Charlotta Stern sums up results from numerous surveys showing that even in the most "conservative" disciplines liberals outnumber conservatives by a wide margin. Klein and Stern show that Democrats and Marxists outnumber Republicans and libertarians by 3-1 in Economics, more than 5-1 in Political Science, 10-1 or more in History and English, and well over 20-1 in Sociology and Anthropology. Exacerbating the imbalance, whereas Democratic faculty hold policy views well to the left of Democrats in the electorate, academic Republicans are more moderate than the typical GOP voter. That makes sense, since campus conservatives hear frequent counterarguments from their peers—their mainstream colleagues do not. And at the elite universities with the most impact on the national conversation, conservatives have even less of a presence.
So how can conservatives survive in this often indifferent and sometimes downright hostile environment? From the research and our "lived experience," we suggest several lessons for the budding right of center academic.
Publication Is the Coin of the Realm
1. Pick your field carefully. Some fields like Sociology, "Womyn's Studies," and the various ethnic studies are simply conservative free zones unlikely to change. On the other hand, Economics, Political Science, and, to some degree, Law and Education, remain reasonably open to ideological diversity, and between them offer conservatives opportunities to study a wide range of social phenomena.
2. Do quality, focused research. In most academic fields, if you research well, you can and will succeed. That said, it makes sense to avoid research on controversial issues until your career is established. (See note on affirmative action above). Make sure you are established as a righteous academic before people see you as a rightist academic.
3. Don't come out of the closet until the time is right. Republican academics, like gays of yesteryear, often have secret signals to signify when they have met kinsmen in foreign territory, such as asking if one is in NAS, or saw that great essay in Minding the Campus or the Weekly Standard. Liberals and radicals have no idea what these questions mean, but we know. It is probably smart to lay low in this fashion. Don't come out to one's colleagues until you are sure they can handle it—perhaps not even until after tenure.
4. Don't self-segregate. It's perfectly natural for members of besieged minority to form enclaves, where they can work and socialize in safety. Just as black kids might lunch at the "black table," as Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum writes in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, so conservatives face temptations to hang out with others of "their own kind." While isolation brings some degree of safety, self-segregation prevents conservatives making a positive impact in higher education by diversifying the intellectual debates with academia. This is not wise. If you are going to work at a university, then work at a university, among conventional liberals. Being exposed to their actual views rather than parodies of their views may make you a broader and better person. Over the long term your presence might broaden them as well.
5. Don't be fanatical. Don't turn everything into a political battle. Understand that even in relatively ideological fields; most of what goes on in research, teaching, and university life generally has little to do with partisan battles over entitlement spending, same-sex marriage, or military interventions abroad. Within academia, conservative and liberal professors often find common ground in their struggles to improve the quality of higher education. Learning to look past superficial political differences is a life skill useful both in and out of higher education.
6. But do be positive. If you see every possible slight or misfortunate as proving political bias, you will become an annoyance rather than a colleague. Instead, give peers the benefit of the doubt, as you would want them to do for you.
7. That said, keep your bags packed. For professors of all stripes, though perhaps more for those on the right, some departments and whole universities can be thought of as "publish or stay" sinkholes. Make sure that you have published enough so that, when confronted with ugliness, you can walk out the door to a better position. As we conservatives know all too well, markets can set us free.
In short, universities need conservatives, not because there is something inherently lacking in a liberal ideological perspective. Rather an educational institution cannot succeed unless it provides students with a comprehensive worldview that includes faculty from both sides of the ideological continuum. To succeed in liberal academia, conservatives must be bold, strategic, and good natured. Ironically, by fighting to remain a part of the academic world, conservatives aren't simply promoting their unique worldview, they're reinvigorating higher education. Without a spirited debate, academia becomes a repository of liberal dogma, rather than an institution devoted to a search for Truth.
Robert Maranto (email@example.com) is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and with others has authored or edited 11 books including The Politically Correct University (AEI, 2009).
Matthew Woessner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Penn State University, Harrisburg. He is the co-author of The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).
This article originally appeared in Minding the Campus on July 2, 2012.
A longer version of this argument was published as "Diversifying the Academy: How Conservative Academics Can Thrive in Liberal Academia," PS: Political Science and Politics 45: 3 (July, 2012), 469-74.