Why so few conservative professors?

Why so few conservative professors? The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy asked conservative and libertarian professors to respond to a paper by Neil Gross, a University of British Columbia sociology professor, and Ethan Fosse, a doctoral student at Harvard, which argues that conservatives don’t seek jobs in academia because they see it as a liberal profession.

Duke’s Michael Munger, a economics and political science professor, scoffs:

In other words, conservatives aren’t interested in things like history, literature, and the classics. Presumably, the idea is that conservatives just want to play golf and wear plaid pants and sweater sets in alarming colors.

This idea is absurd on its face: history, literature, classical education, and constitutional government are at the very center of the conservative ideal.

. . . quite a few faculty have told me with straight faces, that expecting a history or English department to hire a conservative is like asking a biology department to hire a creationist. Being a conservative, in many places, is just not intellectually respectable.

Academia is a “hostile environment” for libertarians and conservatives, adds Jonathan Bean, a history professor at Southern Illinois University.

About Joanne


  1. This is definitely a major problem in academia. While I consider myself a moderate liberal at this point, I was much further left during college because nearly all of the teaching assistants and professors were very liberal. It took a larger interest in economics and the desire to balance myself out to even understand a lot of conservative arguments.

  2. Don Bemont says:

    Part of this is just political reality. The conservative movement has done very well gaining political support by appealing to anti-nuance sentiments. While this had gained them crucial votes, it has led to some pushback among the well educated, and, obviously, universities have a population that is going to resent resentment of nuance.

    Since the terms “conservative” and “liberal” defy consistent definition, however, a deeper analysis of how even-handedly the media or academia or any other institution treats these groups is difficult.

    However, two flavors of conservatism come to mind:

    Conservative often refers to the kind of person who attacks secular humanism, calling into question scientific method and reason. Such conservatives doubt that humans can make human life better through increased understanding.

    Conservative also often means the kind of person who places a great stock in economics: Economic liberty trumps other liberties; market competition produces best results and determines ultimate truth. Joanne’s link quotes a resentful William Anderson saying: “Higher education is not a profit-making entity (for the most part), and factors other than ability and know-how play large roles in hiring of new professors.” I hear a man who believes that merit can be determined a lot more reliably in the marketplace than by other processes.

    Since the university represents a distinctly different way of determining truth, as opposed to these two threads of conservatism, I can well believe that those styles of conservatives would find the history, art, literature, sociology, and physics departments uncongenial places to make their way.

  3. I will me more concerned about the lack of conservatives in academia when I start reading some equally diligent examination of why there are so few socialists in the boardroom.

    As a socialist who has served on several boards, I can say that (a) I was the only one (the boardroom is very definitely right-learning) and (b) it was a VERY hostile environment.

  4. Mike Munger says:

    Stephen Downes: I find your parallel an odd one. Presumably it is a different matter to educate young people in a variety of perspectives, and let them make up their own minds.

    The job of the board of a corporation is to make sure that management is serving the fiduciary interests of the stockholders. If you want to give money away, then give away your own money. Giving away stockholders’ money would be theft.

  5. I just find the idea of a socialist in a boardroom an amusing one. What would you do there, Stephen? Did you try to push your political ideology on the rest of the members or did you do your job (like Mike Munger pointed out) of maximizing your corporation’s profit for the benefit of the shareholders and, yes, your workers (the greater good- as it were- at least in terms of the people associated with the corporation)? I mean this in the most respectful non-snarky way; I would love to read a couple paragraphs about what your experiences there.

  6. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    A socialist in the boardroom does not compare well to a conservative in academia — because a conservative in academia does not seek the overthrow of the very system that makes his position possible.

    Academia can be very hostile to conservatives — *particularly* at the lower-tier institutions. I know that sounds odd, because everyone always thinks of places like the Ivies and the top schools as really liberal places. But the fact is that virulent politics makes for bad academia, and second-rate professors generally don’t get hired at first-rate institutions. The faculty at tier two and three schools are, statistically, more likely to be the sort of person that makes politics into an academic issue.

    Even at the “good schools”, though, and even in departments that aren’t very political at all, liberals still have the benefit of feeling “safe” peppering their academic discussions with slanted examples and really quite inappropriate political commentary.

    But if I may engage in a bit of gross stereotyping, conservatives who can’t handle that should remind themselves that self-reliance is supposed to be a conservative precept (though it may be a liberal one as well), and that the right not to be offended is supposed to be a liberal one exclusively.

  7. Math Teacher says:

    “The faculty at tier two and three schools are, statistically, more likely to be the sort of person that makes politics into an academic issue.”

    Do you mean more likely to make academics into a political issue?
    Politics can be academic. To wit: political science, etc. as an academic major… Likewise, can’t either a conservative or a liberal debate politics academically?

  8. John Drake says:

    Stephen Downes Syndrome must be a conservative pretending to be the stupidest socialist he can invent. He can’t be for real.

  9. I tell folks that I’m not lonely being a conservative in academe – because all my colleagues are reaactionaries.

    Really, they’re not liberals. They’re just registered members of the Democratic party. They will struggle to the death to preserve hierarchy, seniority, and privilege. Sometimes (and I mean only sometimes) will they even pay lipservice to systems not based on seniority and the privilege that automatically confers.

  10. Maybe it’s because so many conservative leaders flatly deny the existence of academic scholarship, choosing to deny global warming, evidence that abstinence-only programs work, that deficit spending is necessary in a bad economy, and so on. We have conservative politicians basically accusing educated people of being elitists, and saying that down-home uneducated “folksy” people know better. How can such attitudes fit in to academia?

  11. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    Math Teacher,

    You can look at it either way, I suppose.

    I phrased it the way I did (making their politics into an academic issue) to signify the entry of politics into academics without necessarily taking an academic approach to it (so that it maintains its character as politics). I made “politics” the subject of the sentence because I see it as being introduced into an environment for which it is not suited. Here’s politics, we might say, and here’s some second rate intellectual turning politics into an academic issue the way one might put lipstick on a pig.

    One might just as easily look at it “making academics into a political issue”, I suppose. Though there, and this may just be my particular sense of the sentence, I tend to think of making academics into a political issue as taking something inherently academic (meaning appropriate to its area) and doing something political with it, such as holding congressional hearings about curricula or debating legislation based on some published research study.

    So I take your point… but I didn’t mean to write anything other than I did. Again, this might just be a question of individual approaches to sentence structure and language.

  12. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    I think Wahoofive is a troll. He just happened to pick for his examples (a) global warming, the theories of which appear to be coming apart at the seams; (b) abstinence education, which was recently validated in an extensive study; and (c) deficit spending, which is not exactly the most popular thing among the hoi polloi these days.

    Nevertheless, he brings up an interesting point: if you think academics are mostly elitists pricks, why would you go to work with them?

    Well, a great many of the professoriate and their graduate student acolytes really are the worst sort of elitists, looking down their noses at the rest of the population with a disgusted disdain. Indeed, I think to a certain extent the environment breeds such an attitude — it’s the isolation and the single-mindedness of it all. Dump every bit of your soul into something, and cognitive dissonance will get you every time.

    Thinking this is the case doesn’t seem to rule out having an academic career, however. One need not like one’s colleagues. Having such a career jus means that you won’t be able to speak your mind to your colleagues on certain issues for fear of mortally offending them. But that is, to a great degree, simply common tact.

  13. Wow. The liberal “conservatives are anti-intellectual morons” comments are so funny. You’re just announcing to everyone, “conservative arguments are all greek to me – I’m completely unable to even begin to understand them. Besides, my own ideas are so self-obvious that I would never consider even trying.” Way to prove the point! (Conservatism is not anti-intellectual, btw. it’s anti-what passes for intellectual these days. True intellectuals should be able to understand that degrees from schools where only one view point is represented do not automatically correlate with smarts, an ability to think rationally or come up with ideas that work in the real world. “Resenting being treated like you are an idiot because, say, you do not agree that running up more debt during a financial crisis is a good idea, is not the same as being anti-intellectual!”

    The best explanation for the over representation of lefties in academia I’ve ever heard came from Thomas Sowell:
    “the most fundamental fact about the ideas of the political left is that they do not work. therefore we should not be surprised to find the left concentrated in institutions where ideas do not have to work in order to survive.”

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    Yeah. Phil Jones–of CRU East Anglia–has admitted he hasn’t a clue where his data went and the warming since 1995 is statistically insignificant. What kind of mind continues to promote AGW? Somebody with stock in a carbon-trading company.

  15. Lopez,

    i think you you are one of the best posters on this board, but i just wanted to be pedantic and point out that the “hoi” in “hoi polloi” means “the” and that technically it is repetitive to write “the hoi polloi.” Otherwise you are right on target. Carry on.

  16. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:


    Thanks! You should learn something new every day…

  17. Most conservatives are smart enough to look at the odds of landing a tenure-track position and decide in favor of a lucrative professional degree rather than a PhD. in the humanities…

  18. Inigo Montoya says:

    To quote my namesake, “Why do you keep saying that word? I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    I guess you’d have to define what you mean by “conservative” and “academia” for me.

    If by conservative you mean Republican, they are certainly far outnumbered but there are plenty of them in academia. Mostly not in the humanities or some of the social sciences. There are lots in economics and some in political science. There are more in physics. There are tons of them in engineering, and in research fields closely tied to corporate funding. Are you saying business schools aren’t part of academia? How about medical schools? How about ag schools?

    If by conservative you mean committed to the constitution and the Bill of Rights, opposed to mob rule and threats of violence, insistent on the dignity of the individual person regardless of their relgion/secularism or political views, I think academia is full of conservatives.

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    re yr last graf
    Have you checked with F.I.R.E. on this?

  20. Steve Quist says:

    Well, let’s take a look at this. There’s an environment where the inhabitants choose their own colleagues and they do so based on their own ideas of what constitutes scholarship. That is a perfect recipe for groupthink. Suppose the group majority thinks that Marxist analysis of literature is the only sound scholarship around. They are not going to accord any respect to conservative scholars who approach the topics from another perspective. In engineering terms it’s a positive feedback situation. And as engineers know, positive feedback systems run quickly to the rails, that is one extreme or another. If academics tended to be as overwhelmingly conservative as they are liberal now, I expect we’d see the same thing happen – they would choose like-minded colleagues. I like to think they wouldn’t be quite as nasty and condescending as the leftists when talking about the other side.

    The situation is worst in the humanities, I think, because the field lacks the useful corrective of the objective data in the sciences. So there is no Marxist critique of orbital mechanics. And the physicists must ultimately refer back to objective data. There is no such discipline for humanities.