Universal among activists of all political stripes is the plea for greater diversity. For progressive students, diversity means including in academic discourse voices of historically marginalized groups like women, people of color and transgender people. For conservative students, diversity means a campus community that represents right-wing, as well as left-wing, viewpoints.
Both groups, the conservatives and the reformers, believe the uniformity of campus culture is a marginalizing force. However, they contend with very different forms of marginalization. Right wingers challenge leftist orthodoxy in the humanities and social sciences that rally against conservative guest speakers. Left wingers work to create an egalitarian society for marginalized groups which often requires discourage hate speech.
James Miller, professor of economics at Smith College, was eager to achieve tenure in the late 1990’s which would guarantee him the highest level of job security. In addition to teaching several courses, Miller published a book, academic papers and even an op-ed in National Review, the country’s leading conservative journal.
In “Campus Colors”, Miller described the modern academy as a predatory power structure, xenophobic toward anyone who disturbs the leftist echo chamber.
“Practically the only way for a women’s-studies professor to get a lifetime college appointment is for her to contribute to the literature on why America is racist, sexist, and homophobic,” he wrote.
The Smith College newspaper, The Sophian, reported two of the memos against Miller’s application for tenure refer to this article.
“I would also refer the committee to… ‘Campus Colors,’ in which Jim says, among other things, that ‘professors are mostly left wing,’ that ‘the large number of non-U.S. citizens in American colleges necessarily makes these schools less patriotic,’” the letter said. “I find it extremely disturbingly [sic] that this could be Jim’s image of academia.”
Miller told the campus newspaper that this was a violation of his academic freedom.
“The person wasn’t disturbed that it was poorly written or illogically argued, but rather she was disturbed by the conservative political views expressed in the article,” Miller is quoted as saying in The Sophian. “This article is criticizing colleges for being politically correct. … This was used as a reason to fire me. I consider that an absolute violation of my academic freedom.”
Descendants of feminist cultural criticism cover a wide net of social theory—feminist, queer and postcolonial theories are all based in a common view of one group dominating another group.
The dominating group maintain power through “cultural hegemony”, a theory developed by Italian Marxist critic Antonio Gramsci. George Erhardt, political scientist at Appalachian State University used this term ironically to describe how the power structures have reversed in the United States. The government has become the dominant class and left-wing professors have become the cultural hegemony justifying it.
“Progressives now control cultural discourse,” Erhardt wrote in “Academics and the Reproduction of Cultural Hegemony”. “No matter how much academics cling to their fantasy that they are ‘speaking truth to power,’ the counter-culture isn’t ‘counter’ anymore—it’s the status quo.”
Erhardt points to the nomination of Betsy DeVos, whose nomination to the role of Secretary of Education is a right wing response to the shortcomings of public education. Instead of confronting DeVos’s agenda with an honest sense of debate, Erhardt wrote, the political left stigmatized anyone who challenged the dominance of the Department of Education.
Derek Adams, professor in the Ithaca College department of English, admitted that the supremacy of left-wing views in a class can alienate conservative students even though he subscribes to a more radical educational philosophy. In fact, Adams said alienating conservative students goes against the original intentions of Marxist critical analysis to intellectually liberate students.
“A ‘good liberal’ would not be alienating and marginalizing people while they are crying out against marginality and alienation,” Adams said. “That happens on the part of professors when they’re teaching classes and they don’t make room for any other kind of thought.”
The university continues to reinforce the oppressive norms of society said Russell Rickford, a historian at Cornell University specializing in black radical tradition. Rickford said there remains a small minority of truly radical professors in universities. Conservatives can rest assure, Rickford said, that there is no shortage of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in the academy.
“Conservatives like to portray the academy as a bastion of left-wing thought,” Rickford said in an email. “Colleges and universities mostly reinforce the status quo in our society. They replicate the existing class structure and they generally reinforce existing institutions and power relations. They overwhelmingly function as partners of—not threats to—global capitalism, the Washington establishment, the military industrial complex… especially in the age of the corporate university.”
Jonathan Haidt, professor at the New York University School of Law, and other colleagues in fields of sociology and psychology founded Heterodox Academy, an online consortium of academics to promote freedom of thought and political diversity in university faculties. Their founding paper “Political diversity will improve social and psychological science” includes the excerpt from an email a student sent him after seeing his lecture on political divides in higher education.
“I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it was for me in graduate school because I am not a liberal Democrat. As one example, following Bush’s defeat of Kerry, one of my professors would email me every time a soldier’s death in Iraq made the headlines; he would call me out, publicly blaming me for not supporting Kerry in the election,” the email reads. “Instead of seeking the professorship that I once worked toward, I am now leaving academia for a job in industry.”
Social and psychological sciences have been the battleground for the progressive-conservative war of ideas throughout the 20th century, resulting from an uncomfortable relationship with the sexist and racist theories from the late 19th century. For example, T. H. Huxley infamously applied Charles Darwin’s theory of evolutionary determinism to justify the second-class citizenship of African Americans. Much of the left wing cultural criticism in politics departments were originally intended to dismantle these unquestioned assumptions, said Derek Adams, associate professor in the Ithaca College department of English.
Efforts to expunge this shameful history included witch-hunts against professor’s whose ideas smack of racial or gender determinism. In 1975, Edward O. Wilson, entomologist at Harvard University, became a pariah in the academy after publishing “Sociobiology: a new synthesis”. Fifteen fellow academics, mostly sociologists and psychologists, accused him of promoting Nazi and social Darwinist views through his study of biological determinism in a letter to the New York Review of Books.
“The reason for the survival of these recurrent deterministic theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex,” the letter read. “Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community.”
Protesters from the International Committee Against Racism, a reformed version of Students for a Democratic Society, the revolutionary activist group responsible for civil rights protests, crashed Wilson’s lecture at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C. Just before Wilson was about to speak, reports describe protesters dumping ice water on his head and chanting “Racist Wilson you can’t hide! We charge you with genocide!”
Wilson wrote in his autobiography “Naturalist” that he proceeded to deliver his lecture, soaking wet, which was met with a prolonged standing ovation.
“It’s a bit of history to reflect on later,” Wilson said in an interview reflecting on the incident. “I believe I’m going to be able to claim that I was the only scientist in modern times to be physically attacked for an idea.”
Haidt’s and and his colleagues’ paper echoes Erhardt’s theory that progressive academics have become a dominant cultural hegemony by detailing how psychological studies throughout the 20th century and today stigmatize conservatives. Since the McCarthy era, psychologists have linked conservatism to low intelligence, unethical behavior and pathological bigotry.
Haidt’s and his colleagues’ paper suggest these findings resulted from biased sampling, that the survey questions only concerned left-wing targets like communists and racial minorities.
“Thus, simply having an ideology does not inevitably lead to biased research, even on politicized topics,” the paper reads. “Nonetheless, as we show later in this article, having a greater number of non-liberal scientists would likely reduce the time it takes for social psychology to correct long-standing errors on politicized topics.”
Their suggestions mirror the efforts made by civil rights activists reacting to racial bigotry—integrate their institutions, execute an anti-discrimination policy, use climate studies to evaluate inclusiveness. They even use the term “coming out of the closet” to refer to conservative students and faculty publicly admitting their stigmatized views.
“In this way, certain assumptions, theories, and findings can become the entrenched wisdom in a field, not because they are correct but because they have consistently undergone less critical scrutiny,” they wrote. “When most people in a field share the same confirmation bias, that field is at a higher risk of reaching unjustified conclusions.”