Commentary: Conservative Faculty Are Outliers on Campus Today
Commentary by Samuel J. Abrams originally published by RealClearEducation and RealClearWire
One misconception about college life today is that faculty on campuses are monolithically progressive. That description comes closer to being true about college administrators, but a new survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) of almost 1,500 professors at four-year U.S. colleges and universities reveals that while faculty tend to lean to the left, ideological diversity still exists. Fifty percent of professors identify as liberal, 17 percent as moderate, and 26 percent as conservative.
The survey reveals that faculty on the right are struggling, however. On the one hand, conservative professors are far more supportive of open inquiry compared to their liberal counterparts. On the other, right-leaning professors fear that their ideas and beliefs will meet resistance or outright opposition on campus, resulting in cancellation or other professional consequences.
Viewpoint diversity and the ability to question and debate openly in the search for truth are among the core values of higher education. Many faculty are consciously limiting their engagement in these central activities. The FIRE survey shows that when asked about limiting one’s expression, far too many faculty acknowledge that they have opted to keep quiet. Even among liberal faculty, 20 percent report that they could not express their opinions on a subject because of how students, colleagues, or the administration would respond. Among moderates, 34 percent felt the same way.
Most troubling is the 58 percent of conservative faculty – almost three times the percentage as liberal professors – who report regularly self-censoring out of concern about how the campus community could react. This is the antithesis of living a life of the mind.
Beyond self-censorship, conservatives are also deeply worried about ideological discrimination. When asked how often, if at all, their colleagues would actively discriminate against them based on their political beliefs, 19 percent of liberal faculty think that discrimination happens occasionally, frequently, or all the time; almost half of moderates (47 percent) feel the same way. But 70 percent of conservative professors believe that there is active discrimination against them because of their political beliefs.
Faculty were also asked about pressure to avoid controversial topics. Ten percent of liberal faculty say they feel such pressure occasionally or often, compared with 30 percent of conservative faculty. Faculty should never feel restricted in their teaching or research.
There is real concern about job security in this charged ideological climate. Faculty were asked if they were concerned about losing their jobs or suffering reputational costs in cases where someone misconstrued what they said or did, took it out of context, or posted something about them regarding a past action or episode. Again, conservatives were the most concerned: 72 percent were somewhat or very worried, compared with 40 percent of liberals and 56 percent of moderates.
There is indeed a mob culture on many campuses, and the growing trend of shouting down speakers is another example of it. Faculty ideology is salient here: 63 percent of liberal faculty can think of cases when it would be it acceptable to shout down speakers, compared with 47 percent of moderates; only 12 percent of conservatives feel the same way. Moreover, nearly a third of liberal faculty (31 percent) believe that there are cases where blocking other students from attending a campus speech is acceptable, while just 16 percent of moderates and 5 percent of conservative faculty feel the same way.
These findings about faculty are disheartening. Professors are charged with the duty to promote honest intellectual exploration and open inquiry, and to help students learn and thrive in environments that embrace free-ranging discourse. Sadly, college faculty are failing in this task, as conservative professors’ concerns about cancel culture and their own job security make clear.
Fortunately, professors are beginning to push back on these trends, thanks to groups like the Heterodox Academy and the Academic Freedom Alliance. Let us hope that these latest findings from FIRE will galvanize more support for free expression on our college campuses, where a stifling social and intellectual climate is harming professors’ ability to search for truth.
Commentary by Samuel J. Abrams – This article was originally published by RealClearEducation and made available via RealClearWire.