The Academy Needs to Confront the Danger Within

For its own sake if nothing else.

Pew Research Center recently released survey data showing that 58% Republicans and Republican-leaning Americans believe US colleges and universities have a negative impact on our nation, a number that has been steadily increasing over the last several years. Only 19% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning Americans hold such a negative view.

Many social commentators and academics have been quick to blame conservative media for this changing view among Republicans by arguing that right-leaning outlets have unfairly portrayed colleges as places of radical left activism and hostility toward conservatives.

What exactly have Republicans learned from conservative media? They have learned that there is a vanishingly small number of conservative and centrist professors, especially in the social sciences and humanities. They have learned that certain academic fields are becoming increasingly activist-oriented, pushing an ideological agenda that ignores empirical data.

They have learned that when the social justice agenda and truth collide, the social justice agenda typically wins. They have learned that professors who offer divergent perspectives are often ostracized and silenced, and that surveys reveal many liberal professors admit they would discriminate against a potential conservative colleague. They have learned that on many campuses conservative speakers or even liberal speakers who do not conform to far-left campus orthodoxy are routinely shouted down or shut out entirely. They have learned that far-left campus activists have destroyed property, threatened violence, and on occasion even engaged in violence with little or no penalty. They have learned that safe spaces, trigger warnings, and bias response teams are often used tactically to silence opinions not deemed sufficiently progressive. They have learned that at some colleges student governments have tried to prevent the existence of conservative student groups. They have learned that many conservative students feel they must keep their political beliefs hidden. I could keep going.

Critically, these are all demonstrably real issues, not right-wing fantasies. It is important to note that daily life on most college campuses is routine and incident free, and this fact is often forgotten. Also, some colleges and universities have done an excellent job avoiding any drama. But it is undeniable that there is a growing authoritarian, anti-free speech, anti-conservative, and, frankly, anti-science, movement happening in American academia.

Try the following thought exercise. Imagine all of these problems in academia and swap the political association from left to right. Imagine conservatives largely control the academy, particularly the fields that have the most to say about social and cultural life. Imagine the social sciences and humanities treat conservative activism as scholarly work. Imagine conservative scholars and activists calling any empirical evidence they don’t like shoddy and prejudiced. Imagine conservative academics ostracizing or silencing anyone who voices a divergent perspective. Imagine that research reveals conservative professors want to prevent liberal academics from joining their ranks. Imagine it is liberal speakers being shouted down or disinvited. Imagine far-right student protestors destroying property and threatening or committing violence against liberal professors, students, and speakers. Imagine conservative controlled student governments trying to prevent liberals from having their own student organizations. Imagine liberal students feeling they need to keep their political beliefs hidden.

With this alternative academic universe in mind, now tell me that liberal media outlets wouldn’t be giving a considerable amount of attention to campus culture and Democrats wouldn’t see colleges as having a negative impact on our country.

It is important to emphasize that the problem is bigger than the campus censorship that receives much of the media attention. Good campus leadership could quickly address that issue. The fact that some academic disciplines, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, are increasingly blurring the line between dispassionate scholarship and ideological activism is a deeper and more difficult problem to confront. And it is a problem that too few academics and academic professional organizations appear motivated to address.

Many on the left not only blame conservative media for shifting views among Republicans, they also argue that conservatives are anti-education. First, keep in mind the concerns about campus culture and the ideological biases of certain fields I just discussed. Now, add worries shared by many Americans regarding the economic value of many degrees, the rising cost of a college education, and financially debilitating student loan debt. People shouldn’t assume that faltering faith in American colleges and the academic class reflects a disdain for education. Maybe Republicans see real issues that fall within the liberal blind spot.

Progressive academics and activists often fancy themselves as people who speak truth to power. For many potential students struggling to find their way in an increasingly competitive and economically uncertain world, colleges and universities hold a lot of power. Those in control of colleges and scholarly disciplines need to take a hard look in the mirror and consider some unpleasant facts about the current state of academia.

I am a professor but I do not live in a bubble. I am fortunate to have a family and reside in a community with many liberals, conservatives, and centrists living in relative harmony. Parents of all political persuasions have the same hopes and fears for their children. The idea that Republicans don’t care about education and are being manipulated by right-wing media is more of a comforting lie for liberals than an inconvenient truth for conservatives.

Many argue that American colleges and universities are the envy of the world. Indeed, people from all over the globe flock here to pursue their educational goals. Our institutions of higher learning should remain a source of great pride and opportunity for Americans regardless of political affiliation. The United States is already divided in many ways and our collective faith in many institutions is crumbling. In a time with so many pressing national and global demands, we can ill afford to lose faith in our colleges and universities, institutions that make such vital contributions and help so many Americans pursue their dreams.

Filed under: Education


Clay Routledge is a Professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University.


  1. I don’t think you should place the left and liberals in the same bag anymore. If anything true liberals are being forced to turn to moderate conservatives for support. From the moment you become authoritarian, regardless of the “purity” of your ideals you are no longer liberal.

  2. Simon H. says

    Luís Cleto — I’ve seen this argument a few times now, more frequently lately, and I have to say… it seems like nothing more than a wishful variation of No True Scotsman. The left/liberals might want to imagine there’s an important distinction, but I think few looking at the movements from the outside see any meaningful difference.

    • I believe that is increasingly untrue. Plenty of people identifying as Liberals no longer identify with the Left. These range from internet posters, youtube commentators, ex-muslims and a certain fired google employee. I think the distinction was always there but stopped being important when the left actually was comprised of mostly liberals, but not anymore as the left majority *openly* opposes freedom of speech (if this is not saying “we’re not liberal”, then I don’t know what is) and are imposing their identity politics while silencing dissenting views.

      While I do see your point, (and it was probably my fault for using the term ‘true liberals’) I don’t think the liberalism label is something that applies exclusively or entirely to left-wing ideology… Communism is in absolutely no way liberal, while still being left-wing. Also, allowing this distinction gives those who stand by liberal values but don’t identify with the left something new to cling to and create a new, much needed movement.

      TL;DR The left and liberals are not equivalent or a subset to eachother. They’re different concepts altogether.

      • tehy5 says

        Yeah, I think liberals and the left, call them progressives, formed an alliance back in the days when racism was rampant and so forth. Now that it’s not so prevalent, a lot of the things that used to make sense don’t anymore, but progressives still champion them and extend their influence further and further, forming regressivism. So I wouldn’t group the two together.

    • In addition to the good points made by other commentators, I’d add not only is it semantically and conceptually correct to distinguish liberals from the left (i.e., collectivists: progressives, socialists, etc.), but it has become strategically urgent. The left has long been good at co-opting language and symbols in the interest of advancing their cause. Indeed, that’s how they came to take over the identity of “liberal” in America after WWII — when “progressive” had become tainted by its decades long historical sympathetic association with fascism. Now is an opportune time for those who adhere to the values and principles of classic, British liberalism — and the U.S. constitution is in large measure a product of the liberal tradition — to reclaim the term. Turning John Locke and J.S. Mill against the left at this time has the potential to reveal exactly where the gap lies between liberals and the left. I’m guessing most Americans, indeed most in the anglo-sphere (I once would have said most in Europe, but, we’ll see), once the contrast has been made clear for them, will side with the tradition that upholds individualism, equality under the law, property rights, freedom of speech and association. And if using the term liberal makes it easier for some who have spent a life time being suspicious of those called conservatives, all the better. Because in the end it’s the principles and values that matter.

  3. It’s worth noting that most conservatives see colleges as a threat because the colleges teach evolution in their biology departments, note that 100 plus years of physics and geoscience back conclusions in global warming, and in the humanities and social sciences support critical thinking rather than swallowing dogma. That fact and thoughtful analysis is contrary to the conservatism of Trump and his followers is not an indictment of the academy.

    • I think it’s kind of sad that the author wrote an entire article aimed at this viewpoint and you came out at the end of it still believing that garbage.

      Let’s put it like this: I’m a somewhat conservative kid, going to a very liberal school. On the day that Trump won, one of my teachers got extremely angry at kids not paying attention, muttering about how too many people are uneducated and making stupid decisions. My English class was – although good – extremely shaded towards discussing issues of oppression; the first thing our class read was a 250-page book basically about anti-black racism in the 1950s. My speech teacher would occasionally talk about how the word “princess” was an insulting version of the word prince. But no, it must be because of global warming and…uh, evolution? (By the way, if you’re such a big believer in evolution, how about evolved gender differences? Seems like we got a new set of deniers on the block mi compadre, and they’re ten times as censorious and cancerous as the last ones. I look forward to you calling that out just as hard.)

    • Snokeyjack says

      So it’s all good, huh. Fine. When the true believers come for you, give Bret a call in Washington. And they will come. And in your darkest thoughts, you know this to be true.

    • polistra says

      Thanks for beautifully proving the author’s point!

      There is only one right-wing bias about education that ISN’T true. Republican commentators love to criticize “lazy” tenured profs. This was partly valid in 1950, but the exact opposite is true in recent decades. Tenure causes profs to work fantastically hard toward mostly wrong goals. Aside from politics, tenure creates tremendous amounts of research that is solely useful for career purposes, with zero or negative advancement of real knowledge. In some fields the wrong goals are leftist, in other fields the goals are just trivial.

    • Robin K says

      Look at the chart showing the development. Opposition to evolution can’t explain the drop of support from 58 to 36 over the last 7 years.

    • Peanut says

      >classic British Liberal

      Nice try, but we all know that that’s code for “far right”!

      (I’m kidding.)

    • There is a huge difference between classic liberals and leftists, and there is little that is liberal about leftists. You are correct to use the term classic liberal as classic liberals need to distinguish themselves.

  4. Ripley says

    This problem has arisen as school administrators have turned to the social sciences to generate tuition revenue. The social sciences are notoriously easy when compared to their STEM cousins, allowing those with average or even low intellects to attend and graduate from universities with a social science degree. The result has been a boon in tuition for higher education (and injury to a public saddled with crushing school loan debt), and the proliferation of ever more absurd, obscure “disciplines” populated by social agitators masquerading as legitimate scholars. Higher education is now stuck in a negative feedback loop which is impossible to interrupt, and the inexorable result will be the collapse of many of these departments, followed by a return to what college use to be: a place for those with higher-than-average intelligence to conduct serious and important study.

    • Conrad says

      Re: “What college used to be”

      If you do some reading on the history of higher education, particularly in the US but in Europe as well, you will discover that there was never a golden age in which all students were intellectually above average and Serious and Important Study was the sole or even primary focus of the institution.

  5. Will says

    Liberals love to cite skepticism about evolution and man made climate changes as evidence that the right is knowledge adverse. Yet, they reject well established economic principles such as the influx of low skilled immigrants causing a decrease in wages in some segments of the population or the decrease in employment when the minimum wage is raised. Any study showing differences in abilities of different ethnic groups is rejected. Even patently obvious observations that the average man is physically stronger than the average woman are dismissed. Exactly who is knowledge adverse?

    • You sound like you live in my head Will! The fight against Communist/Marxist/Fascist/Socialist/Progressive/Liberal/Democrat (all the same basic thing) ideology has been going on as long as mankind has been on earth and the fight must continue. I have more than a glimmer of hope based on the nearly total shutout of Dems in recent election cycles. Now that we have them under control we need to attack the Progressive Repubs and send them home to seek gainful employment.

  6. All the indictments of academia being undeniably true, the saddest and undeniable indictment is that a college education puts the average student into insurmountable debt (actually puts the Federal Government into that debt as they ‘administer’ the student loan program as poorly s is humanly possible it seems. $1,500,000,000 in bad debt and growing I understand), and release young adults with meaningless degrees that land them no gainful employment. Exceptions are for the hard disciplines such as engineering, ag sciences, and the like but the social science and other soft topic degrees are pretty much a total scam.

  7. Will says

    Proposals for tuition free college are tremendously misguided. No one with half a brain who has to pay their own way majors in anything that does not lead to a job. If you no longer have to pay, all sorts of marginal students will go to college and study crap. When they cannot get a job, they will go to law school and become immigration lawyers and activists. Not a pretty picture.

  8. Darby says

    Yes this is increasingly a problem. I am sure there are a bunch of college’s that are not totally like this, but that is not to say their faculty is balanced ideologically. As a hard scientist myself I see the social sciences with near complete ideological domination by the far left face a crisis of reproducability in their research. Some of which is caused by extreme ideological views held by these departments. Some of these studies put out are nothing more than ideological screeds with poor or non-existent scientific methods being applied. At this point the quality of their “science” is so bad that these departments should likely be shut down, as fixing the problem is impossible. Ask these ideological extremists to fix their biases and diversify their departments is like asking the con artist to help fix a crime problem. You wouldn’t do that latter and the former is equally impossible. Since these social sciences are not performing real science I would suggest something along the lines of the Dept. of Leftist Studies or something like it. Science should not be in the name as they do not use the scientific method properly for their studies. Then their department would be properly labeled for the work they do and students can decide if they would want such a major. It is just not appropriate for tax dollars being used for pseudosciences. If what they do is so important, use only student tuition to fund this kind of work. If the students want a major in Leftist Studies, that is fine. But don’t go around claiming it is science, it is not. Science uses the scientific method and part of that method is reproducing the studies done to validate it. So few are validated it cannot be called science, science fraud, sure, but not science.

  9. Steven Willis says

    It is far worse than you can imagine. I was threatened with discipline for allegedly claiming to be a Methodist. I am one. I also was told by a colleague that a large portion of the faculty dislikes me bc I am a republican and a Christian. We had a faculty meeting a couple years ago in which we were told the greatest threat to the US are the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans.

    You could hardly make this stuff up. I’m a tenured Professor at the university of Florida. I’ve never seen such a hostile environment. Conservatives and Christians are unwelcome. If also male, then forget about any respect. So much has changed in my 38 years. I mostly feel for the young conservative white males: they are overtly marginalized. Somehow “progressives” believe such intolerant and crush behavior is morally just. I pray for them, but it is not easy.

  10. Shut down every damn college; they are faculties of untruths and ignorance. The left is a cancer on the body and cultural politic.

  11. martin says

    As a scientist, from a reputable university, do you have any empirical evidence … whatsoever … to make the claim, “certain academic fields are … pushing an ideological agenda that ignores empirical data.”

  12. John says

    Check out “New Real Peer Review” on twitter. Gender Studies.

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