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.
Similarly, academia is right to rank candidates based on their expertise and intellectual commitment. But should professors’ political philosophies factor into how welcome they are or the likelihood of their leading departments and institutions? Only if the fundamental goal of the university is more political than scholarly.
There are nascent efforts underway to do the same with ideology. Several top-tier private universities — notably Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and Chicago — have made important commitments to protect intellectual diversity on campus. And a new coalition of academics called Heterodox Academy, directed by the New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt, has formed to foster this movement.
Notably, more than 40 percent of the members of Heterodox Academy are liberals or centrists. And this brings me to a point I want to make to progressive academics: It is up to you to make campuses more open to debate and the unconstrained pursuit of truth. This is partly because liberals are in an overwhelming majority on campus. But more important, the task fits perfectly the progressive movement’s ethical patrimony. American liberalism has always insisted it is the duty of the majority to fight for the minority, whether or not it suits one’s own private interests.