I recently returned from four days of imprisonment. I was trapped in a catacomb of exhibition halls, hotel suites, seminar rooms, and coffee vendors. Everyone knew that liberation would arrive on the fourth day, and yet the stress level of the prisoners was uniformly high.
It was an academic conference, of course. And for my fellow inmates who aspire to be doctoral students or professors, it was the season of judgment: the annual meetings of many major scholarly societies occur between November and January. Doctoral applicants are trying to get into elite departments, while every doctoral candidate is trying to get out of an elite department and into a professorship anywhere. In the career center the line of unread résumés, which had been dropped off for the mythical “open interviews,” was depressingly long. But each morning the queue at the single Starbucks was even longer—because, as you know, we academics are all latte-sipping liberals.
This doesn’t bother me much. I like lattes and liberals. But I like conservatives too, and more importantly, I am sympathetic to the conservative plea for intellectual diversity in university life. Why are there so few conservative professors?
Others have argued, sometimes in court, that there is overt discrimination against professors with conservative political views. While there are no doubt instances of such discrimination, these alone can’t account for the widespread phenomenon I have in mind. I think the process is primarily one of self-selection. Political science professors Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner argued along similar lines in a groundbreaking 2007 study published by the American Enterprise Institute [PDF], and Louis Menand also broached the subject in his recent book The Marketplace of Ideas.
In the United States the word “conservative” is usually used as a political label, but it also evokes a cluster of other characteristics. Because I am not persuaded by claims of widespread discrimination against conservative political convictions, I must account for the dearth of conservative professors by examining other traits. Conservative political views are related to, and often rooted in, a conservative temperament. Some theorists, such as Michael Oakeshott in his 1956 essay “On Being Conservative,” have argued that “being conservative” is primarily a matter of temperament or disposition rather than a matter of beliefs about politics or anything else. It’s likely that certain aspects of this temperament hinder the successful completion of doctoral studies and the pursuit of an academic career in the contemporary research university. Four conservative traits in particular would, I think, severely discourage a person from pursuing an academic career—independent of any external discrimination. If you are a young man or woman who (1) values the maintenance and passing on of intellectual tradition, (2) plans to marry and have children, (3) wants as much individual freedom as possible, and (4) avoids irrationally risky behavior, then you’re not likely to undertake a PhD and even less likely to finish one. At some point during or after college, you will decide against this career path. If you possess only one or two of these traits, you might still make it work—I myself have two of them. But if you have three or all four of them, you will almost certainly choose to do something else for a living.
If we set aside the professional schools (for example, those of law and medicine), it’s clear that the contemporary research university rarely emphasizes the maintenance and passing on of traditions. Sure, one may still teach Shakespeare, Locke, and Darwin to undergraduates, but one cannot get to that point by honoring traditions. In order to receive a PhD from an excellent academic department, and thereby earn the privilege to teach the classic texts someday, one must have demonstrated a willingness to challenge a core aspect of a disciplinary tradition. It is difficult enough to pass the originality test in the sciences and social sciences, where new data are experimentally produced. In the humanities new data are rare, and so originality involves revision rather than discovery. Most dissertations from elite humanities departments try to shatter—or at least “complicate”—some traditional idea. Such departments are not natural homes for conservative temperaments, but they are the primary sources of tenure-track professors.
Neither is the path toward academic tenure a comfortable one for young families, a point made persuasively by Woessner and Kelly-Woessner. It takes six to ten years for a woman with a bachelor’s degree to get a PhD, and another six to ten years to find out if she’ll get tenure—that is, if she’s fortunate enough to have found a tenure-track job. It’s biologically risky to wait until after all this to have children, and professionally risky to take huge research breaks for pregnancy, adoption, or child-rearing. It’s not impossible, but it is exceedingly difficult. For someone who intends to be a breadwinner, the academic career path is an utter disaster. In this field, success means spending five to ten years earning between $0 and $25,000 through a graduate stipend, then landing a tenure-track position that earns between $40,000 and $65,000. From there the income growth potential is very small, except at the top universities. Prolonged apprenticeship and financial insecurity make the traditional family structure difficult for young academics to sustain.
Most conservatives want to maximize their individual freedom, and here the life of a professor is deceptive. It’s true that much of a professor’s life is self-directed. One can prepare for class, grade papers, and do research on a flexible schedule. Our scandalous “summers off” are filled with research, but there is nevertheless time left over for rest and relaxation. We also vigorously defend our intellectual freedom. However, two of the central features of human life—where we live and for whom we work—are almost completely out of our hands. The job market is so flooded, and tenure-track positions are so few, that graduates of elite departments will go anywhere, and many will stay wherever they go for the rest of their careers. I have applied for jobs in Maine, New Orleans, Iowa, and Manitoba—knowing full well that I might be in one of those places for the next thirty years—and I would have accepted any of those jobs in order to be a professor. What other career works like that?
This leads to my final point: The conservative temperament desires stability and predictability. I’d argue that, aside from jobs that endanger one’s life or health, an academic career is among the riskiest one could choose. Graduate students often have to borrow a lot of money, yet there are few stable jobs available once they’ve finished. It can take up to a decade after graduation before they find out if they’re going to get tenure, and for someone with six to ten years of graduate education, the pay is awful. (It’s true that journalists may have it worse, but at least they aren’t stuck in graduate school through their twenties.) And once they’ve made it, most professors are paid what their friends from college got paid a decade earlier. Financially at least, the decision to pursue an academic career seems bold, even reckless.
Though I possess some conservative traits—and look conservative in my blue blazers and khakis—I’m also irrationally risky. But I’ve been lucky. If conservatives are ever to regain modest representation in academia, some of the problems I’ve mentioned will need to be addressed. Higher pay and some stabilization of a broken job market would help, but so would a broadening of family-friendly policies and a deepening of family-friendly culture. Many leading universities have made such moves, which are generally considered “progressive.” Ironically, these policies might lead to more conservatives choosing to pursue academic careers. And perhaps shorter lines at the espresso bar.
Related: Bernard G. Prusak's review of Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas