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Eternally frustrated by "liberal" universities, conservatives now want to tear them down

A shot of the Iowa State University campus.
Under a bill introduced in Iowa, Iowa State and other public universities would be forced to hire more conservative professors.

Iowa state Sen. Mark Chelgren wants to tweak the dossier that candidates submit when they apply to teaching jobs at the state’s universities. In addition to a CV, sample syllabuses, and some writing samples, he’d like one other thing: their party registration.

“I’m under the understanding that right now they can hire people because of diversity,” he told the Des Moines Register. And where are university faculty less diverse than party registration? That’s the theory behind the proposed bill Chelgren has filed, which would institute a hiring freeze at state universities until the number of registered Republicans on faculty comes within 10 percent of the number of registered Democrats.

Bills proposed in state legislatures are easy fodder for outrage — some wacky proposals get introduced every year. But Chelgren — who, it should be noticed, claimed to hold a degree in business that turned out to be a certificate from a Sizzler steakhouse — is not an outlier. In North Carolina, a similar proposal was introduced and then tabled earlier this month. And at CPAC, the conclave for conservatives held in Washington last month, newly appointed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos zeroed in on college faculty. She warned college students in the crowd to be wary of attempts to indoctrinate them: “The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”

Fear of a liberal university faculty has been a feature of modern conservatism for decades, woven into the very foundations of the modern conservative movement —although the attacks on universities have not always taken the form of legislation or calls for “ideological diversity.” The adoption of the language of diversity and pluralism serves mainly as a new way to skewer the left using its own vocabulary.

But no matter how often conservatives call attention to the ideological imbalance in the professorate, they fail to affect the makeup of college faculties. Indeed, faculties are markedly more liberal today than they were when the fight began. But persuading sociology departments to hire more Republicans is not really the point. Instead, these attacks have turned into a tool for undermining higher education, part of a far more serious — and far less conservative — project of dismantling American universities altogether.

First came the Red Scare, then a general fear of Keynesians and New Deal sympathizers

It began with the communists. (Almost everything about modern conservatism begins with the communists.) At the dawn of the cold war, the Red Scare snaked its way through American universities, targeting left-leaning professors who found that not even tenure could save them from political persecution. The scare turned conservatives and liberals alike into happy red-hunters, as administrators and professors entered a contest of patriotic one-upmanship: loyalty oaths, hearings, purges.

Ray Ginger, a historian at Harvard Business School, was forced to resign in 1954 when he refused to take the loyalty oath Harvard demanded of him and his wife. They had to leave their home; his wife, nine months pregnant at the time, was forced to give birth as a charity patient. The marriage soon fell apart, and alcoholism claimed Ginger’s life at age 50. Rutgers fired two professors and allowed a third to resign after they refused to testify before the Senate red-hunt committee. No US university would hire them, and two were forced out of academia altogether.

The university scare more closely resembled the Red Scare in Hollywood than the one within the federal government. With the government, the fear was straightforward espionage: spies and blackmail and treason. With entertainment and education, it was the more nebulous fear of brainwashing, a worry that there was a softness in the American mind that could be exploited by nefarious filmmakers — and professors.

For conservatives, anxieties about communist professors co-existed with anxieties about liberal ones. Indeed, a significant part of the conservative theory of politics was that the slippery slope toward communism began with New Deal-style liberalism. In his 1951 book God and Man at Yale, written in the midst of the university scare, William F. Buckley Jr. had little to say about communists. He instead made the case that Yale University had become infested with liberal professors who, in promoting secularism and Keynesian economics, had torn the school from its traditionally Christian and capitalist roots.

As McCarthyism waned, Buckley’s argument became more prevalent on the right. Thanks to growing affluence and the GI Bill, millions more students were entering America’s colleges and universities. They were unlikely to become communists, but Keynesians? That was far easier to imagine.

In a 1963 piece for his “Ivory Tower” column in National Review (a regular feature on higher education — underscoring just how much the state of America’s colleges worried the right), Russell Kirk dismissed concerns with communist professors. “People who think that the Academy is honeycombed with crypto-Communists are wide of the mark,” he wrote. “At most, never more than 5 per cent of American college teachers were Communists.” The real threat, Kirk maintained, came from liberal groupthink.

And how had the academy become so biased toward liberalism? Because administrators promoted liberals and demoted conservatives. That was the common conservative critique, anyway. William Rusher, publisher of National Review, laid out the plight of these conservative scholars: “They face many tribulations. Advancement comes hard. They are victimized by their departments.” Passed over for funds to support their research, Rusher argued, these conservative professors became a “neglected generation of scholars.”

The arguments that folks like Buckley and Kirk and Rusher were advancing in the 1950s and 1960s are nearly indistinguishable from those conservatives make today. But while the arguments have remained the same, something crucial has changed: the case for what to do about it.

The conservative diagnosis that universities are liberal hotbeds has remained consistent, but the prescription for action has changed

Conservatives are certainly correct in their central claim: In the professoriate at large, and particularly in the humanities, the number of liberals and leftists far outstrip the number of conservative. This varies by field (you will find conservatives in in economics departments, business schools, and some sciences) and by school (Hillsdale College and Bob Jones University are hardly hotbeds of liberalism). But in general, the ivory tower indisputably tilts left. Whether this constitutes a problem that needs solving is open to debate, but even among those who feel it is a problem, solutions are hard to come by.

In God and Man at Yale, Buckley held that left-leaning faculty should be replaced by ones more in line with the university’s more conservative traditions. The best guardians of those traditions, he argued, were not faculty or administrators but alumni, who should be given the power to determine the college’s curriculum. They would do this through the power of the purse: withholding donations until the university administration became so desperate that they restructured the curriculum and changed up the faculty to meet alumni demands.

What’s important here is not the mechanism for change — Buckley’s alumni model was unworkable (it assumed Yale alumni all agreed with his goals and had more financial leverage than they did) — but the theory behind it. Buckley was opposed to Yale’s liberal orthodoxies not because they were orthodoxies, but because they were liberal. He believed the university should be indoctrinating students; he just preferred they be indoctrinated in free-market capitalism and Christianity.

Over time, conservative efforts shifted from changing the liberal makeup of the university to building alternative institutions and safeguarding conservative students. Organizations like Young Americans for Freedom and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute became gathering spaces for young right-wingers, while a swath of new think tanks were erected for the purpose of getting conservative research and ideas into circulation. By the 1980s, anti-liberal student magazines like the Dartmouth Review served as feeders for Buckley’s National Review and other conservative publications.

But what of the professors? They came under fire again in the 1990s and 2000s. Books like Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education popularized the idea that professors infected their students with relativism, liberalism, and leftism, laying the intellectual groundwork for a new effort to limit the influence of liberal scholars.

But when those attacks came, they came wrapped in an entirely new logic and language: ideological diversity.

Marshaling liberal arguments about viewpoint diversity in support of the conservative cause

Let’s pause here for a second, because this is important. In the 1990s, there was a real shift in American culture and politics, centered on multiculturalism and the postmodernism. Multiculturalism held that diversity was a positive value, because people from different backgrounds brought with them different perspectives, and a wide range of perspectives was good for intellectual debate. Postmodernism, a more academic idea, held — at least in some of its guises — that truth was inaccessible, perhaps nonexistent, that everything might be relative, everything might be perspective.

Conservatives didn’t like either one of these shifts. Social conservatives like Pat Buchanan and Bill Bennett saw multiculturalism as a thinly veiled attack on the West (read: white European culture). Likewise, the rejection of knowable truths was an affront to believers in a fixed moral universe based on shared values. Multiculturalism, postmodernism — these were anathema to their conservatism.

Except — multiculturalism was also incredibly useful. If diversity of perspectives was good, and if universities valued that diversity enough for it be a factor in hiring, then surely the paucity of conservative professors was a wrong to be remedied?

Enter the pro-diversity conservatives, who have taken the arguments of the left and turned them into tools to expand conservatives’ presence in university faculty. The most visible early proponent of this approach was a former leftist, David Horowitz, who in 2003 founded the Campaign for Fairness and Inclusion in Higher Education (later renamed Students for Academic Freedom). The very name of the campaign suggested that Horowitz was committed to a pluralistic model of higher education dedicated to equity and balance.

The central project of Students for Academic Freedom was the Academic Bill of Rights. In its definition of academic freedom, the Academic Bill of Rights homed in immediately on “intellectual diversity.” It never mentioned conservatism, but rather advocated protecting students from the imposition of “political, ideological, or religious orthodoxy.” Given that Horowitz had widely criticized the “one-party classroom” and the liberal atmosphere of the academy, this equation of academic freedom with intellectual diversity amounted to a call to protect conservative professors and students.

That same framework could also be found in the 2009 book The Politically Correct University, published by the American Enterprise Institute. It included a chapter laying out “the route to academic pluralism” and another that claimed “the academy’s definition and practice of diversity is too narrow and limited,” arguing instead “for a more inclusive definition of diversity that encompasses intellectual diversity.”

In some rare cases, conservatives borrowed the language not just of diversity but of postmodernism. Horowitz asserted that the reason there needs to be more ideological diversity on campus is that “there are no ‘correct’ answers to controversial issues.” This is a long way indeed from conservatives’ traditional rejection of relativism. Indeed, one could fairly wonder whether there was anything conservative about it at all.

A portrait of William F. Buckley Jr. with his first book, “God and Man at Yale.”
William F. Buckley wanted Yale to hire more Christian capitalists — but not because they brought “diverse viewpoints” to the campus. Nor did he want to shutter the history department.

So conservatives found a new argument for hiring more conservative professors. What they had not found was a way to convince universities to actually hire them. And this is the perennial problem with conservative critiques of higher education, the reason they scurried away into think tanks or places like Hillsdale college: There doesn’t appear to be any mechanism to make universities hire more conservative faculty members.

This is in sharp contrast to the right’s power to shape precollege education. Through school boards and state legislatures, conservatives have had real impact on public school curricula around the nation. They have won wars over textbooks, standards, even Advanced Placement guidelines. But that power smacks into a wall when it comes to higher education, where traditions of academic freedom and shared governance between faculty and administrators create real limits to external meddling.

Which is why conservatives are so often left lobbing rhetorical bombs at universities, and why bills like those in Iowa and North Carolina usually wind up quietly tabled. There is no legislative fix for ideological imbalance in the classroom, nor any general agreement that it is a problem that should be fixed.

The most interesting work being done on the topic on liberal academic groupthink is at Heterodox Academy, directed by the NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. The organization brings together scholars from across the country who are committed to promoting greater viewpoint diversity on campuses. But look through the list of solutions Haidt and his colleagues provide, and you won’t find a single piece of legislation among them. Indeed, what you’ll find reading lists, student government resolutions, college “heterodoxy” ratings — is aimed almost entirely at students, not at hiring committees.

If liberal arts departments won’t hire more conservatives, why not defund the liberal arts?

The right is still intent on undercutting what they see as the liberal political power of the university. But they’re taking a different tack, pursuing their goals in more structural ways: weakening tenure, slashing budgets, upping teaching loads. It would be easy to dismiss this as simply a result of austerity programs, which have cut public services to the bone in states across America. But in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, however, the cuts have been accompanied by rhetoric that makes the true goal clear: attacking curriculums and professors who seem too liberal, and weakening the overall power of the university.

Take North Carolina. Since Republicans took over the state government in the Tea Party wave of 2010, the state’s universities have been under constant attack. Centers on the environment, voter engagement, and poverty studies have all been shuttered by the Board of Governors, which is appointed by the state legislature.

No sooner had Pat McCrory come into the governor’s office in 2013 than he began making broadsides against the university, using stark economic measures to target liberal arts programs, like gender studies, with which he disagreed. His stated view was that university programs should be funded based on how many of their graduates get jobs.

Notably, the McCrory campaign was bankrolled by Art Pope, founder of the Pope Center for Higher Education (now the Martin Center), an organization dedicated to increasing the “diversity of ideas” taught on campus. As its policy director, Jay Schalin, explained in 2015, the crisis at the university stems from “the ideas that are being discussed and promoted”: “multiculturalism, collectivism, left-wing post-modernism.” He wants less Michel Foucault on campus, more Ayn Rand.

But bills calling for the banning of works by leftist historian Howard Zinn or hiring professors based on party registration haven’t yet made it out of the proposal stage. What has? Steep funding cuts that have led to higher tuition, smaller faculties, and reduced access to higher education for low-income students.

That is the real threat to the professorate, and to the university more broadly. And as with the strategic conservative embrace of postmodernism, it also represents an erosion of a worldview that once understood the value of an advanced education beyond mere job preparation or vocational training. Unable to reverse the ivory tower’s tilt, many on the right are willing to smash it altogether, another sign of the nihilism infecting the conservative project more broadly.

Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.

The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at

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