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Lack of Campus Intellectual Diversity: Primarily a Problem of Ideological Hostility—or Partly a Methodological Problem?

The Brief

This is the first in a series of articles from BPC Fellow Steven F. Hayward on the decline of intellectual diversity among higher education faculty. The opinions expressed reflect those of the author and not necessarily those of the Bipartisan Policy Center

Truly robust campus discourse requires that participants in the conversation hold a wide range of viewpoints. That is one reason why the growing ideological imbalance in college faculties, while not breaking news, has newly and rightly been seen as an obstacle to ensuring a robust and intellectually diverse campus culture, capable of fully engaging the questions of our time.

The proportion of conservative professors has shrunk substantially over the last 25 years. The causes of this trend remain in dispute: leading explanations include discrimination against hiring and promotion of conservative scholars, and academic disinterest in research on topics of central concern—such as military history or family breakdown—to conservatives

It is typical today to see academic job ads that might as well openly say, “conservatives need not apply.” Take for example this recent Wesleyan University posting:

Wesleyan University’s Department of Government invites applications for a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in American politics beginning July 1, 2020. We will consider candidates who have a specialty in race and ethnic politics, or in identity politics (e.g., race, class, gender, sexual orientation) or in immigration and citizenship.

But beyond the fashionable ideology of identity politics that appear prominently in nearly every social science and humanities department today, there is perhaps another factor that is seldom discussed: the role of increased pressures to “publish or perish.” In theory, each new published piece adds to the academic literature. However, when all primary and well-worn subjects are seemingly exhausted, academics, in a search for new subjects, descend into hyperspecialization.

The case for increased specialization, particularly at major research universities whose primary directive is the generation of new knowledge and the progress of disciplines, is well known and cogent. As we learn even from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, increased specialization makes for increased productivity, whether in making pins or in scholarly research.

More and more, professors face the imperative: “publish or perish.” As one study noted, “more universities were using research-oriented criteria in the hiring and rewarding of faculty, including institutions that espoused a teaching mission.” Very often the only way to satisfy publication requirements is to pursue highly specialized research.

But many conservatives are put off by the narrow specialization now required for academic success. The long-time conservative hostility or skepticism toward specialized social science is less because social science is thought to be a tool of the devil, as much as it is thought to narrow our horizons and degrade the capacity for necessary synthetic perspectives and judgment.

Richard M. Weaver, whose 1949 book, Ideas Have Consequences, remains in print largely because it is regarded by conservatives as a canonical text, put the matter thus:

It is an ancient belief, going back to classical antiquity, that specialization of any kind is illiberal in a freeman. A man willing to bury himself in the details of some small endeavor has been considered lost to these larger considerations which must occupy the mind of a ruler … Modern man is suffering from a severe fragmentation of his world picture. This fragmentation leads directly to an obsession with isolated parts.

One reason that conservative academics were perhaps found more often at smaller liberal arts colleges, rather than large research universities, is that they maintained the older capacious interdisciplinary character more congenial to conservatives.

But increasingly, today’s liberal arts college faculty are indistinguishable from those of research universities. The emphasis on narrow specialization, esoteric publications, and research is designed as much to develop sophisticated empirical techniques as to understand real-world problems.

To be sure, the hesitations about over-specialization and narrowing methodologies are not unique to conservatives, especially when considering the prospects of earning tenure. Research university professors are given lighter teaching loads and delegate many tasks to graduate research and teaching assistants, as they complete their research. This is not so at many liberal arts colleges, which now often require a book or multiple articles to earn tenure.

Aspiring liberal arts college professors, competing under the “publish or perish” rubric, must balance research time against a heavy teaching workload that leaves them little time to drill down the proverbial rabbit’s hole. With all free time expended on niche research, they’re left no space to devote themselves to the wide-ranging intellectual inquiry that is more congenial to conservatives (and more likely to inform undergraduate-level teaching to boot).

This has created a self-reinforcing feedback loop, in which many bright conservatives rule out consideration of an academic career. If liberal art colleges were once more congenial to conservatives, this is no longer so: according to the most detailed study to date, a greater fraction of professors at liberal arts colleges are liberals, and a smaller fraction are conservatives, than of professors at Ph.D.-granting universities.

It is important to acknowledge that this conservative self-selection out of academia is for reasons other than campus hostility to conservative viewpoints. Nevertheless, the paucity of conservative faculty deprives students of the opportunity to hear from thoughtful conservatives and to witness respectful disagreement between faculty who hold widely divergent views. Remedies to this state of affairs are not obvious, but I’ll propose some ideas in future contributions to this series.

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