The Failures of Conservatism in Higher Education

During my college application process, I kept a chart that showed the average high and low temperatures in January at each of the schools I was considering. I figured if I got to pick where I lived for four years, it might as well be someplace warm. Not the criteria my guidance counselor would have recommended I base my decision off of, perhaps, but it was important to me.

A recent Gallup poll has raised the possibility that other more unorthodox considerations may soon be playing a role in the decision-making of college-bound students and their parents—specifically, partisan identity. In a survey soliciting opinions on higher education, Gallup found that a mere 33 percent of Republicans and those who lean in that direction have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in colleges and universities.  The number one justification for these attitudes, given by 32 percent of respondents, was that universities are “too liberal/political,” which raises some interesting questions about the future of higher education in this country.

The first question is whether we’ll see a decrease in the number of conservatives sending their kids to college. We can be fairly confident in saying that this is highly unlikely, especially given that in the survey, only 7 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners cited the difficulty of finding employment as the reason for their lack of confidence in higher education. If both Democrats and Republicans largely accept that colleges and universities are important as career stepping stones, then how can those on the right reconcile their distrust of the system with their acknowledgment of its importance? They can, as many do, fight for “free speech” on college campuses, and against safe spaces and the “special snowflake” status that they seem to believe appears on the identification cards of students at liberal universities. Or they can seek out conservative schools. For the moment, their approach seems to be mostly the former—attempting to create change within the system, rather than seeking out or constructing a parallel system. To be sure, schools with conservative reputations do exist—George Mason, Hillsdale College, etc., but they are a clear minority in the world of higher education. The closest thing that conservatives currently have to a parallel system are religious schools (Bob Jones, Oral Roberts, Liberty, or BYU), but of course, many Republicans would find these schools a poor fit as well—one may worship the free market and object to trigger warnings without believing that physical contact between unmarried men and women should be forbidden à la Bob Jones University.

In addition, if conservatives were to take the “build a parallel system” approach, it would betray the very values they claim to support—unrestricted free speech and exposure to differing viewpoints more generally, and here specifically, opposition to the perceived politicization of higher education. Outraged by perceived censorship and partisanship on the part of the liberal elite in higher education, and the echo chambers they believe this creates, conservatives would look hypocritical forming their own insular institutions where they only had to listen to conservative ideas.

It would appear, then, that conservatives are left with little choice but to continue down their current path, railing against the “coddling” of students and bemoaning and criticizing the anemic conservative presence in academia. With this in mind, I have two suggestions for them.

The first, regarding their current practice of losing it every time a speaker is protested: stop. The idea that rejecting speakers or topics is close-minded has become increasingly untenable in an age of technology and publicly recorded positions. If I want to know what Milo Yiannopoulos thinks, I can read and listen to his commentary online, from Breitbart to screenshots of his old tweets. Then, if I protest him speaking at my school, it’s not because I’ve heard he is offensive and don’t want to risk being exposed to his ideas; it’s because I have exposed myself to his ideas, found them to be beyond what can appropriately be considered academic discourse, and object to their being given a platform that presents them as such. The so-called “debate over free speech” isn’t really that; rather, it is a debate over what constitutes an idea or legitimate intellectual inquiry, and what is simply trolling, hate speech, or conspiracy theory. Only the blindest of conservatives would believe it was “censorship” if a school refused to attach its legitimacy and reputation to speech that, far from contributing to any sort of discourse, simply boils down to racist (or sexist, or homophobic, or xenophobic) opinions.

Assuming that my advice is heeded, the last and best option remaining for conservatives is to compete with liberals in the free market they love so much. In higher education, this would be the market of ideas. Economics is a field that tends to feature more conservatives (at least fiscal ones). Clearly, it is possible for conservatives and their ideas to find success at the university level. Here’s the other thing: it’s not like a majority of the unemployed PhDs out there are Republicans. There are simply fewer conservatives competing for these jobs. Perhaps that’s because they self-select out of what they view as a liberal field; perhaps it is because education tends to liberalize. Perhaps it is because, as Stephen Colbert once noted, reality has a well-known liberal bias. Regardless of the reason, if conservatives are truly concerned about a liberal lean in academia, they know what they must do to counteract it. If they’re serious about their concerns and ideals, they will do it. And if they’re not, they will continue to complain and cry censorship and take shots at snowflakes without making a serious effort to put conservative ideas and academics to the test against those on the liberal side.