Phillip Dolitsky’s recent essay asks Public Discourse readers if there will be a place for aspiring young religious and conservative scholars like him in the academy. In his framing of the question, he successfully captures the pessimistic mood felt by many conservatives in the face of higher education’s far-left cultural and political tilt among the majority of faculty, staff, and administration.
To my students, I express plenty of caution about getting a PhD in the humanities, because the job market is so terrible that the chances of even very talented scholars’ getting a job—particularly with the increased reliance on contingent faculty (i.e., adjuncts and graduate students)—is slim. But I will set that cautionary note aside and address Dolitsky’s question: Can a conservative make his way through the academy at all these days?
The Academy Isn’t As Bad As Conservatives Think
First, Dolitsky correctly senses that there is reason to be concerned. Professional academics’ left-leaning political and cultural bias is well known and documented. Universities have become a breeding ground for a host of intellectual trends that are best summed up as anti-culture. Conservative positions, particularly on hot-button questions of sexual morality, are not only rare but considered out of bounds. Conservatives in the academy—and there are some—must present their ideas far more cautiously than progressive faculty do. In meetings and in the proverbial faculty lounge, conversation will proceed on the assumption that everyone is obviously on the political and cultural Left. Some fear is reasonable, evidenced by the fact that I wondered whether I should publish this essay under my own name.
However, we sometimes overstate how bad things are. While conservative academics often have to play things close to the vest to protect themselves, despairing narratives are unhelpful overstatements. Too often conservatives generalize about the dire condition of higher education based on a relatively small handful of elite schools on the coasts. These schools grab headlines and no doubt play an important role in shaping the future class of opinion-makers. But the Harvards, Smiths, and Middleburys teach a tiny fraction of America’s college students. Private liberal arts colleges, which perhaps remain the image of what college is like, enroll far fewer students than community colleges do. The vast majority of college students in America—around 75 percent—attend community colleges and regional public universities with little to no brand recognition.
And many of those regional public schools are in red states with state legislatures that have little appetite for progressive cancel culture. These colleges lack large endowments, depend on state funding, and so must work to maintain the goodwill of the legislature. Even in these lesser-known local and regional colleges, it’s often prudent for a conservative faculty member to keep a low profile. But at the same time conservative faculty in these schools are not in immediate danger of being run out the moment they make a verbal misstep.
In addition, there are still many committed and genuine liberals in higher education—the kind who support free speech and open debate—especially among senior faculty and administration. While their voting still tends to be reliably progressive and their hiring practices don’t always reflect a commitment to viewpoint diversity, they are routinely (sometimes aloud and sometimes in hushed tones) scandalized by the dogmatic cancel culture they see in their students and some junior faculty. Some of them stand up for conservatives when push comes to shove, particularly if a conservative faculty member has built strong relationships and alliances with his or her colleagues. This coalition-building helps left-leaning faculty see that their conservative colleagues are not irrational, science-hating, racist, and bigoted nutjobs.
Fear Is Not a Good Reason to Leave Academia
This leads to my third point. Little good will come from young conservative scholars like you abandoning the academy out of fear. My previous point was an attempt to show that some excesses of this fear are in fact not reasonable. Some fears conservative scholars hold are reasonable, but here we must show courage. If conservatives are passionate about education, the pursuit of truth, and the formation of young people, they would be foolish to simply cede a large swath of the world of higher education to the Left. Doing so would go a long way toward simply ceding the culture to the Left.
And finally, fourth, I think conservatives will find that tremendous opportunities await them when they find their way into college classrooms. At any given American college, there are students who quickly grow tired of being sneered at for their “backward” religious or conservative views. Students at public regional universities are often far more religious and conservative than their faculty and so have little interest in or patience for critical ideologies peddled in classrooms. At colleges across the spectrum of rankings, there are students who can have their natural desire for meaning and truth stirred, who get excited about reading old books, and who care deeply about pursuing wisdom and virtue. There are real opportunities for conservative scholars at public regional colleges. While these are not the schools of the elites, a great majority of American college students are formed in these institutions.
So to answer your question, yes, an academic career is still worth pursuing for religious conservatives. In fact, the country will be much worse off if conservatives no longer enter the academy. These are our institutions, too—they educated us and will educate our children. We have as much right and responsibility to shepherd these institutions as anyone else.
But you should enter those institutions with open eyes. I have never met a religious conservative faculty member who did not worry far more about their standing than do their colleagues on the Left. Conservative faulty routinely self-censor in front of peers and students—sometimes wisely, sometimes unnecessarily—and they all see themselves as operating behind enemy lines. But your colleagues and students usually don’t need to know your political and religious opinions. With some care—being courageous at the right moments, being cautious at other moments, but never being dishonest—you can thrive in the academy.