Beyond Academic Sectarianism

Steven M. Teles

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More conspicuously than at any time in living memory, elite higher education has found itself in the political crosshairs. Who could have predicted a year ago that the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard would, in quick succession, be thrown out of a job after less than two years in office between them? Or that presidents of other elite universities would be holding on by the skin of their teeth?

While these and other university leaders' responses to the Hamas attack on Israel lit the fire, the dry tinder for a political assault on our most prestigious universities has been sitting around for some time. What started in Philadelphia and Cambridge will not stop there.

Those who sense more than a whiff of political opportunism and anti-intellectualism in this assault are not mistaken. But the public's impression that American higher education has grown increasingly closed minded is undeniably correct. Indeed, concerns about the ideological drift of the university are no longer limited to conservatives, but now include some left-leaning faculty who worry that higher education has become, in the words of Princeton professor Gregory Conti, "sectarian."

This mounting sectarianism manifests itself in various aspects of the university, including the scope of debate within and outside the classroom, the growth of campus administration, and the tenor of student life. For a professor like myself, the character of the professoriate is the most salient aspect. And where conservative faculty are concerned, the facts are beyond dispute: Their numbers are low and continue to fall.

Claremont McKenna's Jon Shields summarized the basic trend in the Fall 2018 issue of this journal, finding that outside of economics, the percentages of conservatives in the social-science and humanities disciplines have dropped to the single digits. In my own field of political science, Harvard professor Pippa Norris has found that the cohort born in 1990 (the newly minted full professors of today) is considerably further to the left than those born in 1960 (those approaching retirement). This means that a further drift leftward among the professoriate is already baked in as a result of generational replacement. At my own university, I would be hard-pressed to name a single tenured professor in the social sciences and humanities who is openly right of center in any reasonable understanding of the term.

The university's ideological narrowing has advanced so far that even liberal institutionalists — faculty who believe universities should be places of intellectual pluralism and adhere to the traditional academic norms of merit and free inquiry — are in decline. While we do not have good data on the rising cohort of graduate students, I have talked to faculty at several institutions who report that with each passing year, every class of admitted graduate students is further to the left of, and displays a more activist orientation toward scholarship than, the class preceding it. And of course, the graduate students of today are the junior faculty of tomorrow.

How could this have come to be? And what can be done about it?

Social scientists have developed a rich set of theories to explain the origins of group-based differences. These theories are largely designed to explain patterns of durable gender, racial, and ethnic inequality, and tend to emphasize factors beyond individual discrimination. Such models — often falling under the category of "structural" or "systemic" injustice — turn out to be surprisingly useful in explaining why so few conservatives are present among elite university faculties. They also lead to some unexpected directions for reform.


A discrimination-based theory of accomplishment in any field emphasizes factors that operate at the hiring stage, where an illegitimate consideration — whether it be race, sex, or, in this case, ideology — is used to exclude the most qualified candidate for a position. When, as is certainly the case in academia, there are a great many qualified candidates for a post, discrimination becomes more evident at the population level.

Discrimination can be conscious, as when employers have what economist Gary Becker called a "taste for discrimination" — they find the idea of employing members of the disfavored group repulsive irrespective of their predicted performance. A hiring committee might also decide that hiring a candidate whose beliefs clash with those of the campus community would undermine institutional culture. Or the committee might judge an individual candidate by the unconsciously assessed average quality of his group.

There is some evidence that conservatives are discriminated against in some of these classic forms, but not much. The most direct effort to test the overt-discrimination explanation is an audit study of prospective graduates by Ethan Fosse, Neil Gross, and Jeremy Freese from the early 2010s, which found no evidence that graduate-study directors treated left-leaning and right-leaning students differently.

Of course, this finding may not extend to professorial hiring. Or perhaps incidents of direct discrimination have increased since the study was conducted. There is certainly evidence — in research by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers on social and personality psychology, for example — that academics believe it is acceptable to discriminate not only in hiring, but also in peer review. Furthermore, academics may have a willingness to discriminate, but because they are presented with so few conservatives at the hiring stage, they rarely get the opportunity to do so.

Still, if conservatives' disadvantaged position in academia is not mostly the result of direct discrimination, what explains their scarcity among college faculty?

Defenders of an employment status quo typically move from finding that there is little discrimination to a claim that any differences are the result of underlying group attributes. Many scholars who are repelled by such claims in the case of racial minorities are remarkably comfortable making them when it comes to conservatives. Some make the case that conservatives are, to put it bluntly, stupider than those to their left. A more sophisticated argument is that while raw mental ability may not explain the absence of conservatives in academia, conservatives are — almost by definition — lacking in the psychological characteristics that predict high achievement in academic subjects, such as openness to experience and a willingness to question received understandings. Conservatives are, after all, biased toward conserving knowledge, whereas academia tends to reserve its laurels for creative, conceptually path-breaking producers of new knowledge.

There is some evidence for group-attribute-based theories of conservative underrepresentation. In 2014, for example, Fosse, Freese, and Gross attempted to evaluate the impact of class and cognitive ability on one's propensity to pursue academia as a career, and found little if any effect. They also found, at best, weak predictive power for psychological predispositions, such as "openness to experience." New York University psychologist John Jost, by contrast, has argued that fundamental features of conservatism, such as the "need for certainty," explain why those on the right are so underrepresented in scientifically oriented fields like his own. But even if attribute-based theories have some explanatory value, they run up against the same problem as discrimination-based explanations: The magnitude of the difference between the number of faculty on the left and right is simply too large to be accounted for by inherent differences. Furthermore, the decline of conservatives in academia (albeit from a low base) raises the problem of explaining change with a constant.

In any case, the irony here is hard to miss: Usually right-leaning individuals are the ones who argue that group distributions represent the naturally clustered attributes among groups, which they say are either "hardwired" or the result of "culture." Those on the left typically lose their minds when the right deploys this category of explanation in the case of protected groups — and for good reason. While there is a sound argument to be made that avoiding attribute-based theories of groups is good democratic practice, the more salient reason they should be avoided (at least for our purposes) is that they lead to incuriosity. The causes — and remedies — for conservative underrepresentation come to light most clearly when we eschew theories of intrinsic inferiority and instead deploy the mode of analysis that those on the left typically use to explore racial differentials.


Direct, intentional discrimination may not explain much of the ideological differential in elite academia, but under certain conditions, the perception of discrimination can do all the work of actual discrimination, even if no discrimination exists in reality. A simple theoretical model can help us understand how this might work, and how it would apply to conservatives in academia.

Let us assume there are no underlying differences between the groups being compared, and that there is no direct discrimination occurring in hiring decisions. Let us further assume that the actors in this system have imperfect information about the true impact that discrimination has on hiring decisions. After all, there is no infallible source of data on how much discrimination there is generally, much less at any particular institution. In place of objective, transparent sources of information, actors have to rely on socially constructed group beliefs to estimate its prevalence. Those groups may either underestimate or overestimate how much discrimination exists. Naturally, this folk wisdom about the labor market will influence participants' decisions.

Now let's assume that the socially constructed group belief is that there is a great deal of discrimination — in fact, much more than (in this hypothetical) exists in reality. What are the equilibrium effects of such beliefs?

The first, most obvious implication is that individuals who believe discrimination exists will reduce their propensity to apply. Expecting to be discriminated against later in the process, they will decline to enter it at earlier stages and instead pursue a career where the group-based expectation of discrimination is lower.

In such circumstances, there will be relatively little discrimination at the hiring stage, since the relevant group will not be represented in the hiring pool. In the case of academia, this phenomenon can manifest at various stages: in failing to apply for academic jobs after obtaining a Ph.D., in declining to apply for Ph.D. programs, or even in passing up opportunities to develop relationships with professors as an undergraduate in anticipation of entering a Ph.D. program. An interesting implication of this theory is that if the underrepresented group never applies, potential employers may come to believe that the group is simply not interested in or incapable of contributing to their field — after all, they never see applications from its members.

The point of this little model is that the perception of discrimination can have significant systemic effects, even in the absence of actual discrimination. If that is correct, it has two implications for addressing the lack of conservatives in academia.

First, academic institutions seeking to create greater ideological balance among their faculty members would be wise to send visible, credible signals that they are not discriminating against conservatives. The more public these signals are, and the more costly they are to send, the more credible they will be. If academic leaders were to go to places where young, intellectually oriented conservatives are found (such as the numerous summer programs run by AEI, the Hertog Foundation, the Hudson Institute, and others) and make clear that their institutions want (indeed, need) them to be part of their intellectual community, that could make a difference. While academic leaders should not directly involve themselves in graduate admissions and training, it is wholly within their purview to ask their departments and schools to reach out to potential applicants who are likely to have right-leaning beliefs, and to ensure that their graduate-training culture is not ideologically exclusionary.

Second, if this model is correct, it suggests that conservatives themselves have an important role to play in addressing their own absence from academia. When conservatives complain — with some merit — about discrimination in higher education, they need to be aware that young people are listening. To some degree, the belief that the social sciences and humanities are profoundly discriminatory has become a feature of conservative identity. Even if that belief were true (and I think in a simple sense, it is not), there are real costs to encouraging young people to believe it.

This presents a paradox, of course, since pointing too eagerly to the presence of discrimination can help reinforce the very equilibrium that conservatives want to disrupt. That is why conservatives and academic leaders may need to move simultaneously, with academic leaders committing to costly, visible signals of openness and conservatives accepting those signals and amplifying them rather than receiving them skeptically.


Discrimination and the perception of discrimination are not the only causes of group-based differences. One of the most important explanations for such differences is "disparate impact": the idea that unequal results can stem from facially neutral factors that have variable, unintended effects on different groups. In my judgment, this is the most profound source of the low (and declining) number of conservatives in academia.

A key feature of higher education is that incumbents choose their successors. Not only do the existing faculty sift through applications and make determinations of merit, they also choose what subjects to offer positions in and what the appropriate markers of qualification and excellence are. There is no objective way to determine what a sociology department should prioritize, but there is typically a great deal of path dependence: Having once decided to create a faculty position in, say, social stratification, there is at least some reason to expect that a vacancy in that specialty will be filled with someone else with the same specialty.

Furthermore, when shifts occur in academic fields, it is common to defer to what is "hot" in the discipline, rather than what is relatively underrepresented. This matters because the subjects that conservatives are typically most interested in — religion, the classics, civil society, war, the military, etc. — are relatively disfavored as subjects in much of the humanities and social sciences. There does not need to be conscious intent to discriminate if prospective Ph.D. students look at what academic departments are interested in studying and find that there is nowhere to pursue their preferred subject. Or, having noticed how few places offer positions in their chosen field, they make the reasonable inference that there will be few jobs for them if they do earn a Ph.D. The mismatch between the available jobs and conservatives' tastes thus serves as a structural barrier to their applying for academic jobs or pursuing a Ph.D. in the first place.

A second form of disparate impact comes from the cultural ethos of universities. Universities are primarily places to study, but they are also "total institutions" that combine living, eating, recreating, and socializing. Every institution tends, almost invisibly, to take on the culture of those with power within the institution. As Pierre Bourdieu observed in his classic study of French elite higher education, The State Nobility, that culture becomes a powerful instrument of social reproduction, selecting which individuals to include and exclude based on fit as performed in a variety of everyday social rituals.

Although he would never have done so, we can translate Bourdieu's idea into simple economic terms. For those in the group that has produced the culture of an institution, their fit within it is a subsidy — they are comfortable in the existing institutional culture and would be willing to give up some material benefits to be a part of it. For those on the outside — in this case, conservatives relative to elite academia — that same culture is a kind of tax: They find the culture of universities — particularly outside of the formal academic work they do — alienating, forcing them to endure discomforts or even offenses that those from the dominant group do not experience.

Given that for conservatives, university culture is a kind of tax, those who wish to become academics need to have an even greater commitment to a career of scholarship to compensate. At the margin, as Neil Gross showed in his book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, we should expect this process to cause those on the left to be attracted to academia as a career and conservatives to be deterred. This will be the case even in fields that have no ideological content, like computer science or particle physics.

A related dynamic stems from the way the existing ideological distribution influences one's presentation of self in academic life. As Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn argued in their book Passing on the Right, many conservative academics lead a life of concealment. Recognizing that their views are stigmatized in their institutions, they respond by engaging in what Duke University's Timur Kuran calls "preference falsification" — either mouthing the shibboleths of their institution or simply avoiding situations where they would have to reveal their true beliefs. Again, whereas the environment of ideological support is a subsidy for those on the left — who can "let their freak flag fly" in ways they could not in other occupations — conservatives often have to develop a strictly curated presentation of themselves in order to maintain friendly relations with their colleagues.

For lack of a better term, we can call this mechanism of exclusion "institutional" or "cultural" ideological bias. The implication is that even if universities rid themselves of direct ideological discrimination in faculty hiring while actively encouraging conservatives to enter academia, their efforts might not make much of a dent in the ideological distribution of the professoriate: What dissuades conservatives from entering academia is not discrimination per se, but what universities have become in terms of the subjects they focus on and the cultures they embody.


The factors discussed above help explain conservatives' propensity (or lack thereof) to pursue careers in academia, and the relative payoffs they might receive from winning a coveted tenure-track job. The flipside of the coin features the alternative labor-market options that conservatives have, which I will call "exit options."

To have any chance of succeeding in existing academic disciplines, all young intellectuals will have to make several difficult decisions. They will need to adapt their interests to what is highly rewarded within those disciplines. Having done so, they might have to move geographically more than once to less desirable locations while climbing the greasy pole, with a significant risk of getting stuck on the way up. This may mean delaying other valued life choices, such as marriage and childbearing, as well as potentially paying significant opportunity costs for declining to pursue a different career.

Taking these steps will, on average, increase a conservative's odds of eventual success. At the population level, doing so will increase the chances that conservatives find a home in universities. Whether conservatives choose to commit to this treacherous path will depend in part on whether there are exit options that still permit them to do academic work.

Conservative intellectuals have many alternative opportunities for pursuing scholarly careers. These typically take the form of think-tank fellowships and other positions within the conservative intellectual infrastructure. Such positions tend to be even more attractive than academia in some respects. A great many of them, for instance, are situated in influential cities like Washington, D.C., and New York — locales that also contain communities of fellow conservatives. The think-tank exit option also allows young intellectuals to pursue a path that prizes more normatively motivated work, whereas academia requires them to hew to disciplinary standards and (in conservatives' case especially) conceal their ideological bent. And while conservative think tanks do not offer tenure, in practice they do offer significant job security.

These exit options create complicated incentives, the most obvious of which is to discourage conservatives from pursuing a career in academia at all. Some non-academic positions for scholars do not require a Ph.D., which may reduce an individual's prospect of spending half a decade or more in graduate school for an uncertain payoff. For conservatives who do earn a Ph.D., exit options reduce their likelihood of going on the academic job market or remaining in a less desirable job in hopes of publishing their way out.

On the other hand, these exit options offer a kind of insurance policy for conservatives who opt to take the risk of pursuing a position at a university. If conservatives know they're scaling the mountain with a safety net underneath them (in the form of a job at a think tank), they may be more willing to try their luck. Moreover, the think-tank insurance policy may reduce their need to falsify their preferences within academia — they know that if they get tossed out of Harvard or Stanford, AEI, Cato, or Hoover may be there to catch them. In short, exit options ensure that conservative academics don't have to confront the limited options of, in effect, Yale or jail (or, at least, Starbucks).

Given the low and dwindling number of conservative academics at a time when the number of conservative think-tank positions has surged, it appears that exit options work mainly to reduce conservatives' incentives to play the academic game. However, new institutions emerging within academia may change this calculus. Public flagship institutions in Republican-majority states appear to be creating new schools — like the School of Civic Leadership at the University of Texas and the Hamilton Center at the University of Florida, both of which build on the original model of Arizona State's School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership — as fast as they can stand them up. These are a kind of exit option, at least from mainstream academia, that does not require leaving the university entirely to work within an ideologically hospitable institution.

The more such institutions are created, the greater the insurance policy conservatives have for attempting to enter academia. AEI's Benjamin and Jenna Storey have recently argued that these new quasi-disciplines in academia will allow conservatives to circumvent the structural impediments in existing disciplines, to show that their approaches can generate scholarship that will receive recognition even from mainstream scholars, and to potentially create a pathway back into existing disciplines. If it worked for scholars of gender and race, whose work is now a recognized part of the humanities and social sciences, it could work for what we might call "civic studies."

Perhaps. The risk they run, however, is that these new, conservative-friendly disciplines will produce academic ghettos rather than pathways into the mainstream. Conservatives may end up creating their own feeder institutions for Ph.D. recipients, their own journals that are not cited beyond the world of "civic thought," and schools that are isolated within larger universities. In the process, creating a parallel conservative higher-education universe may simply reinforce the polarization of higher education by letting existing schools off the hook for finding a place for conservatives within existing disciplines.

Ghettoization would be a problem for two reasons. First, academia is and will continue to be a highly hierarchical field of endeavor, with the greatest rewards reserved to those who succeed in its core disciplines and produce Ph.D. students who spread their ideas and approaches across their disciplines. Creating a parallel universe to that disciplinary core — especially one focused on undergraduates — means accepting an intrinsically lower-status role in the university.

More concerning, however, is that conservatism itself will be impoverished if it is cut off from the rich resources of modern social science. Modern statesmanship and citizenship, which these programs rightly emphasize, is impossible if it simply rests on knowledge of the classical canon. Governing a complex, continental, technologically sophisticated society — or even effectively critiquing how that society is governed by those on the left — is impossible without access to the full range of analytical tools and conceptual approaches that are mostly held in academic disciplines. Indeed, those disciplines are impoverished by the absence of those from the center and the right who bring different assumptions to our methodological and conceptual tools.

That said, without significant changes by higher education, there may not be an alternative available. Creating a parallel academic universe for conservatives may not be the ideal, but it is certainly better than complete exclusion.


The process by which conservatism has become inconsistent with the academic vocation is at an advanced stage. Academia has leaned left for quite some time, as one can see from some of the earliest studies of the subject — such as Everett Carl Ladd and Seymour Martin Lipset's 1975 book The Divided Academy (notable in part because one would be hard-pressed to name a sociologist in an elite university today as conservative as Lipset). But when The Divided Academy was published, one could still find highly prestigious social-sciences departments featuring a large group of prominent conservatives. In my discipline, to take one example, conservative scholars James Q. Wilson, Edward Banfield, Harvey Mansfield, and Samuel Huntington were all part of Harvard's government department in 1975. When I studied at the University of Virginia from 1989 to 1994, my dissertation committee featured three extraordinarily learned and serious conservative thinkers: Martha Derthick, James Ceaser, and Steve Rhoads. Thirty years later, I cannot think of a top political-science department in the country where one could put together such a committee.

At some point in conservatives' disappearance from elite-university faculties, cause and effect begin to merge. One reason conservatives fail to enter graduate school is that there are so few conservative faculty members with whom they can study, or who play a role in graduate admissions and recruitment. A few departments allow conservatives to train graduate students, but they are generally at institutions with less-than-elite prestige and often in fields with relatively low demand for doctoral students. As a consequence, they rarely place their students at top-tier universities once they graduate.

This is a depressing state of affairs. Most of what I have described are deeply path-dependent processes, and social scientists tend to be much better at describing how such processes reproduce themselves than how they can be disrupted.

The people who hold the key to making their universities more open to scholars and graduate students of moderate to conservative political orientations are what I'd call liberal institutionalists — a category in which I include myself. Liberal institutionalists are defined less by their political ideology than by their conception of the university's role in society. They believe that, where the great questions of democracy are concerned, the university should be institutionally neutral — not out of nihilism or relativism, but because taking positions as an institution threatens universities' distinct competence: subjecting society's orthodoxies to empirical and theoretical scrutiny.

For some liberal institutionalists, this translates into a commitment to merit in scholarship and hiring. For others, like myself, merit needs to co-exist with pluralism — a commitment to accepting diverse ways of studying reality and basic moral precepts. True scholarship — the kind that leads one to check the footnotes and dig into the datasets of fellow scholars — depends on conflict. Without that, it is too easy to let sloppiness slide.

Liberal-institutionalist faculty members should be explicit in arguing that moderates and conservatives would enrich their intellectual communities — that they would be valued for what they could bring to the university's intellectual pursuits. While conservative scholars could contribute useful perspectives to a range of fields, it would also help for liberal institutionalists at top research universities to offer positions in subjects that are disproportionately appealing to right-leaning scholars. Finally, these faculty members should think about putting pressure on the non-academic departments of the university, such as student life, that are in many cases even more ideologically narrow than academic departments.

There are no shortcuts for bringing conservatives back into the mainstream of academic life; that project will require the slow, uncertain, arduous work of rebuilding the pathways by which conservatives enter into the core disciplines of the university. Liberal institutionalists in academia who believe in the university as a place of intellectual pluralism have an obligation to help rebuild those pathways and find a place for conservatives in their institutions.

We cannot do that critical inside work, however, if we find ourselves excluded as well. In institution after institution in American life, what begins with the exclusion of conservatives eventually ends up as a threat to liberals or those with a less politicized notion of their vocation. Former New York Times editor James Bennet has written eloquently about how liberal institutionalists have found it increasingly difficult to maintain their positions in places like the Times. There is every reason to believe that the structural processes I have described may already be leading to self-exclusion by those who identify with neither the right nor the insurgent left.

In some ways, the problem is even worse for liberal institutionalists than it is for those on the right. Conservatives have organizations that can facilitate collective action and mutual support. We the non-aligned barely have a name to call ourselves, much less a way to organize and promote our interests in places like universities. What's more, liberal institutionalists tend to have an atomistic sense of the academic vocation, believing that uniting to defend "our" interests is inconsistent with the individualistic character of scholarship. This means they are in a poor position to organize for self-defense.

Yet organize we must. And conservatives should see in our defense of academic liberalism a necessary precondition for their success in finding a place for responsible conservatism in academia.

Steven M. Teles is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.


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