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Thursday, June 27, 2024

Vanishing Conservatives on Campus

Many posts have discussed the spiral of silence on campus.

 Steven Teles at National Affairs:

Claremont McKenna's Jon Shields summarized the basic trend in the Fall 2018 issue of this journal, finding that outside of economics, the percentages of conservatives in the social-science and humanities disciplines have dropped to the single digits. In my own field of political science, Harvard professor Pippa Norris has found that the cohort born in 1990 (the newly minted full professors of today) is considerably further to the left than those born in 1960 (those approaching retirement). This means that a further drift leftward among the professoriate is already baked in as a result of generational replacement. At my own university, I would be hard-pressed to name a single tenured professor in the social sciences and humanities who is openly right of center in any reasonable understanding of the term.

The university's ideological narrowing has advanced so far that even liberal institutionalists — faculty who believe universities should be places of intellectual pluralism and adhere to the traditional academic norms of merit and free inquiry — are in decline. While we do not have good data on the rising cohort of graduate students, I have talked to faculty at several institutions who report that with each passing year, every class of admitted graduate students is further to the left of, and displays a more activist orientation toward scholarship than, the class preceding it. And of course, the graduate students of today are the junior faculty of tomorrow.

Given the low and dwindling number of conservative academics at a time when the number of conservative think-tank positions has surged, it appears that exit options work mainly to reduce conservatives' incentives to play the academic game. However, new institutions emerging within academia may change this calculus. Public flagship institutions in Republican-majority states appear to be creating new schools — like the School of Civic Leadership at the University of Texas and the Hamilton Center at the University of Florida, both of which build on the original model of Arizona State's School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership — as fast as they can stand them up. These are a kind of exit option, at least from mainstream academia, that does not require leaving the university entirely to work within an ideologically hospitable institution.

The more such institutions are created, the greater the insurance policy conservatives have for attempting to enter academia. AEI's Benjamin and Jenna Storey have recently argued that these new quasi-disciplines in academia will allow conservatives to circumvent the structural impediments in existing disciplines, to show that their approaches can generate scholarship that will receive recognition even from mainstream scholars, and to potentially create a pathway back into existing disciplines. If it worked for scholars of gender and race, whose work is now a recognized part of the humanities and social sciences, it could work for what we might call "civic studies."

Perhaps. The risk they run, however, is that these new, conservative-friendly disciplines will produce academic ghettos rather than pathways into the mainstream. Conservatives may end up creating their own feeder institutions for Ph.D. recipients, their own journals that are not cited beyond the world of "civic thought," and schools that are isolated within larger universities. In the process, creating a parallel conservative higher-education universe may simply reinforce the polarization of higher education by letting existing schools off the hook for finding a place for conservatives within existing disciplines.