Liberals Can Help Make Academia Ideologically Diverse

(Dreamstime image: Kasto80)
Everyone would benefit if higher education was more welcoming to conservatives.

Nicholas Kristof gets points for tenacity. His campaign for ideological diversity continued last week, when he worried aloud in the New York Times that intolerant campus liberals may actually be getting worse in the age of Trump.

“Already,” Kristof writes, “the lack of ideological diversity on campuses is a disservice to the students and to liberalism itself, with liberalism collapsing on some campuses into self-parody.” He notes that the terror and shock over Donald Trump’s election may be revelatory. Why hadn’t more of these students encountered serious conservatives in the course of their education?

Kristof’s insight is a good one. If the academy could be more welcoming to conservatives and religious traditionalists, everyone would stand to benefit. Students will be better prepared for adult life if they are exposed to a wider range of views in their college years. Scholarship will likely be stronger and more honest if researchers know that their work may be read by peers who seriously disagree with them. Finally, we should consider that our bitterly polarized nation has a great need for environments (safe spaces?) in which people of good will can forge collegial relationships with others of dramatically different persuasions. In principle, universities should be an ideal place for this, since they are supposed to foster civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas. In practice, they are increasingly known for being insular, intolerant, and heavily politicized.

Ideological diversity might offer a further benefit, which Kristof does not stress, but which might be compelling to certain university administrators as they consider their institutions’ middle-term futures. As our population ages and demands more entitlement and pension support, America is careening towards a serious budget crisis. Moving into those belt-tightening years, no taxpayer-supported institution can afford to be blasé about public opinion, and right-leaning America harbors some deep hostility towards the universities. Many feel that they have effectively been conned into financing their ideological opponents’ strongholds. The fact that universities function as elite-job filters only adds to the resentment.

Here’s a word to wise administrators. If you alienate approximately half of the public with your aggressive ideological stance, don’t be surprised if higher education ceases to be a taxpayer priority in the years to come.

What has been done in response to these appeals? To date, very little. The professoriate is slow to change, and of course many academics are deeply averse to this type of change. My anecdotal experience suggests, though, that a sizable number of liberal academics are concerned about this problem, while many more are just genuinely shocked to hear how difficult it is to make one’s way in the academy as an orthodox Christian or political conservative.

Christians and conservatives in the Academy right now are frequently undercut by intolerant liberal colleagues who try to marginalize them.

This might seem incredible, but it’s really not so surprising. Almost everyone finds it pleasant to be surrounded by like-minded friends and colleagues. If we ourselves feel no hostility towards an under-represented group, we tend to assume that there’s some benign explanation for their small numbers in our community. I have more than once seen an aghast expression pass over a liberal-academic friend’s face when I quoted Kristof’s statistics about the number of professors who openly admit to being prejudiced against conservatives and Evangelicals. (About 10 percent of professors in the humanities and social sciences are Republicans; more than half of anthropologists and English professors surveyed by sociologist George Yancey in a recent study admitted they would be less likely to hire someone knowing he was an Evangelical Christian.) These friends really didn’t believe that the problem was so bad. They personally don’t hate Christians; they assumed their colleagues didn’t either.

The silver lining here is that it really may be worth trying to forge alliances with sympathetic liberals who see the value of fostering ideological diversity within the Academy. There’s little to lose, and potentially a lot to gain, by asking for their help.

Help with what, though? Suppose a university president had a genuine desire to foster academic diversity within his institution. What could be done? Is it possible to promote something as nebulous as ideological diversity through affirmative-action programs? Would conservatives even want that? It’s difficult to hire conservatives if eligible candidates are few, but as I have argued before, it’s tough for candidates to get that far without sympathetic mentors and advisers. By the time a young scholar applies for jobs, she’s already been marinating in the academy for a decade or so. Are conservatives likely to hang on for that long if they can’t find any sympathetic mentors?

There’s no magical solution, but there are many ways to help. Institutions might start by taking care of the people they already have. Christians and conservatives in the academy right now are frequently undercut by intolerant liberal colleagues who try to marginalize them, and in some cases even manage to ruin careers. Administrators can’t (and shouldn’t) police normal scholarly interaction, but when controversy becomes more public, they can decide whether to buoy beleaguered minorities, or whether to lend their support instead to bullies and unjust accusers (as we have recently seen with Anthony Esolen at Providence College). Make sure the conservative scholars you do have feel secure in their jobs, and have adequate research support. Many of them will want to mentor younger people into the professoriate, so this in itself could be fruitful over the long term.

The next thing to note is that professors, like journalists, are gluttons for awards and honors. There are innumerable ways to communicate to the general faculty that conservatives are now in favor. Establish a lecture series, and roll out the red carpet for Charles Murray or David Bentley Hart, in the way that you might do for Cornel West. Pick a conservative for your graduation speaker or an important keynote. In general, faculty and junior administrators are political creatures. They’ll get the point.

More important than the honors, though, is the intellectual climate within the academy. This last point is perhaps the most important. If we want the academy to be ideologically diverse, we should take steps to foster an intellectual environment that will be fulfilling not just to secular liberals, but also to traditionalists and conservatives. What kinds of scholarly events would make a university career attractive to them? What would help junior faculty and graduate students to find one another (and sympathetic older mentors), while potentially reaching out to undergraduates who might likewise develop an interest in their lines of research?

#related#Universities normally offer a bevy of grants and research bonuses to scholars advancing specially favored projects or lines of research. Right now those tend to be flagged for “sustainability,” “intersectionality,” or “diversity-promotion.” How about allotting these sorts of funds for the study of our constitutional tradition, Western philosophy, or military history? Stimulate a broader conversation by ensuring that conservative scholars can find support for the studies that interest them.

 A few years ago, I received an e-mail from my old graduate institution containing a “climate survey.” It was something of a fad at the time, as humanities departments raced to assess their friendliness towards women and members of (ethnic and sexual) minority groups. I was asked a battery of questions about whether I felt marginalized as a woman during my years at Cornell. As a woman? No. As a conservative Catholic? That’s a much more complicated story. But of course, I wasn’t asked about that.

Maybe it’s time for a new climate survey? As scholars should easily understand, ideological diversity is truly the most important kind for an institution of higher learning. It’s also the most difficult to accept.

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