These days, the news is full of sensational stories of violent campus mobs shutting down conservative speakers and freaked-out college administrators treating rioters with kid gloves. Such stories offer excellent fodder for critics who are eager to condemn university culture. But I believe they distract from a deeper, subtler intellectual problem on the modern campus: the profound alienation of professors who don’t hold the mainstream political views and are treated as outsiders as a result.
This is the argument of an important book titled “Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University.” Written by the political scientists Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., it gives a glimpse into the lonely lives of ideological strangers on the modern campus. While conservatives represent America’s largest ideological group, at 36 percent of the population, they constitute less than 10 percent of faculty in the social sciences and humanities — and a small fraction of that at elite private schools. Many report feeling like oddballs who never quite fit in.
Generally, these professors fear they have little hope for advancement to leadership roles. Research backs up this fear, suggesting that intellectual conformity is still a key driver of personal success in academic communities. In a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers asked students to evaluate candidates vying to represent them with the faculty. In some cases, the candidate identified him- or herself as a “typical student at this college”; other subjects were given a candidate who was “a relatively untypical student at this college.” Even though both pledged to represent the students faithfully, in the same language, the untypical student consistently received significantly less support.