When Conservative Scholars Fall Prey to Stockholm Syndrome

(Ariel Martin/Dreamstime)
Keep quiet about your beliefs and they may treat you as equals, almost.

In 2016, the merest hint of institutional bias is reason to rally to the cause of the oppressed and demand that those in power wake up and do the right thing. When it comes to race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference, it’s regarded as outrageous to even hint that the victim “should just get over it” or that she “doesn’t have it so bad.” Imagine if someone penned a column recounting data on bias in universities and then concluded, “It’s not really as bad as it sounds.” They’d be ridiculed. And if two black scholars penned that column, and then concluded, “The bias isn’t so bad, and it builds our character, and black scholars have found ways to cope, so relax” . . . well, it wouldn’t get published. And, if it did, things would get ugly fast.

That’s what made the recent Washington Post column by two conservative scholars so bizarre. The title pretty much says it all: “Forget what the right says: Academia isn’t so bad for conservative professors.” Even though the piece goes on to acknowledge the extensive evidence documenting anti-conservative bias in higher education, the authors concluded that the discrimination really isn’t so bad, that it builds character, and that things are okay because some conservative scholars have found ways to manage.

The piece was penned by two self-identified conservatives, Jon Shields of Claremont-McKenna and Josh Dunn of the University of Colorado. The two have a new book out from Oxford University Press and are clearly eager to drum up interest. That gives them plenty of motive to enable leftists eager to dismiss concerns about intellectual bias in the academy.

RELATED: The Pathology of the Professors

The peculiar thing is that Shields and Dunn insist they understand that this bias does exist. They write, “Too many disciplines and subfields — including sociology, literature and modern American history — are ‘unsafe spaces’ for right-wing thinkers.” They note, ”As one conservative historian put it, ‘If you’re a conservative, there [are] such huge no-go zones.’” They further maintain that they “have no interest in slighting the challenges conservatives face in academia.” They observe that:

[Conservatives] remain more poorly represented there than all current targets of affirmative action, and some studies suggest that their numbers are falling. There is bias, too: In one study by George Yancey, a sociologist at the University of North Texas, for example, some 30 percent of sociologists acknowledged that they would be less likely to hire a job applicant if they knew she was a Republican. Yancey found that 15 percent of political scientists and 24 percent of philosophers would discriminate against Republican job applicants, and at least 29 percent of professors in all disciplines surveyed would disfavor members of the National Rifle Association. He found that professors are even less tolerant of evangelicals, partly because that identity is a proxy for social conservatism.

This prejudice has professional consequences for right-leaning academics. Scholars Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter found that socially conservative professors tend to work at lower-ranked institutions than their publication records would predict. In addition, a study of elite law schools shows that libertarian and conservative professors publish more than their peers, which suggests that conservatives must outshine liberals to reach the summit of their profession. The finding is especially striking given that other research suggests it is more difficult for scholars to publish work that reflects conservative perspectives.

Yet, after all this, Shields and Dunn explain:

Conservative professors . . . have become quite skilled at navigating the progressive university. About a third of the professors we interviewed said they concealed their politics prior to earning tenure. Of course, being in the closet is not easy. (One particularly distressed professor told us: “It is dangerous to even think [a conservative thought] when I’m on campus, because it might come out of my mouth.”)

Imagine this same paragraph being penned about Latino or transgendered professors, and the firestorm that would ensue if the cheery takeaway was — as in this case — that “it’s a temporary hardship.”

#share#Shields and Dunn blithely note:

Conservatives even report close friendships with colleagues far to their left. “I love my colleagues, we love each other very much,” one literature professor told us. “They . . . joke with me and say, ‘Oh, I heard you’re in love with Michele Bachmann’ or ‘You’re in love with Sarah Palin.’” A conservative history professor reported that his best friend is a leftist historian — who sometimes jokingly introduces him by saying, “Meet my friend, he’s a right-wing fanatic.”

That’s all sweet enough but, again, imagine rewriting that paragraph so that it was about black professors sharing tales about their friendships with diehard racists. It’d be read as appalling, rather than heartwarming.

#related#Shields and Dunn have clearly stumbled onto a winning formula . . . for how to succeed in the academy by becoming every progressive professor’s favorite conservative. They will be widely cited by leftist pundits and by academics eager to dismiss concerns about ideological bias. And Shields and Dunn know it. Their op-ed touts their “gratitude to the progressive scholars who mentored us — as dissertation advisers, letter writers, morale boosters and book reviewers” and offers thanks for “mak[ing] it possible for conservatives like us to succeed in academia.” Indeed, Shields and Dunn even call for unilateral disarmament on the right, urging conservatives to “deescalate their rhetorical war against the progressive university.”

If Shields and Dunn were more interested in arguing that deep-rooted ideological bias is a big problem for higher education, they might have more credibility when telling conservatives to get over it. But lamenting academic bias isn’t novel and is far less likely to catch the fancy of Oxford University Press or the Washington Post, or to make Shields and Dunn celebrities in the academy. The result is a truly remarkable and disheartening case of Stockholm syndrome.

— Frederick M. Hess is a director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


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