Conservatives in academia: Express views

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The most provocative admission of Professor Lilla, however, is buried in the guts of the article. “My brightest conservative students, brought up on hair-raising tales of political correctness, dismiss academic careers out-of-hand because they are certain of not being hired or getting tenure. And I can’t say I blame them.” My own experiences in and around academia convince me that Lilla’s concerns are only part of the story. More than political correctness may be blocking conservative careers in academe. Elsewhere in his ruminations, Lilla admits that too many so-called conservatives are more aptly characterized as Fox News junkies than as authentic intellectual conservatives. You can’t put together a distinguished academic career around Bill O’Reilly talking points. Someone must impress on young conservatives that you must build up an intellectual foundation to enter academe and succeed. To suggest, as Lilla does, that you succeed primarily by playing politics — i.e., hiding your ideology — sends the wrong message.

Conservatives wanting to enter academia need to be counseled that there are biases and prejudices to overcome in all professions. Try to get hired at top Wall Street firms without an Ivy pedigree or seek employment at the best law firm in your state with a night-school degree and you’ll see what I mean. The biases that Lila mourns are in some degree everywhere, but they are most pronounced at Ivy League institutions and a handful of other elite universities. But you don’t have to be at any of those places to be a conservative intellectual. The peer review panels of most academic journals today operate anonymously, so reviewers don’t know you are at a second-tier college or university. Do cutting-edge work and you’ll be rewarded with promotion and better offers from other schools. Trust me, get a long list of publications in refereed journals and your party registration won’t matter. Yes, lightly published liberals may receive preferential treatment, but that’s just life. Stop whining.

Another impediment to conservative entry into academe that Lilla doesn’t explore is its bureaucratic culture. I think a lot of libertarian-minded conservatives object to the “military-industrial complex” that has become academia. My favorite-ever conservative intellectual was Jim Payne, a colleague of mine at Texas A&M University from 1978 to 1986. He was at what was then a conservative institution in a department that, while moderate-to-liberal in its political outlook, respected scholarship. He was a full professor with tenure and was genuinely liked and respected by fellow faculty of every political stripe. But he quit. Why? It was certainly not to abandon scholarship. He’s been churning out books and articles ever since leaving A&M. His current curriculum vitae describes him as director, Lytton Research and Analysis, Sandpoint, Idaho. Lytton is his own creation. I suspect Payne was fed up with all the bureaucratic bunk that university life entails and decided to go out on his own.

Lilla’s squarely on target, however, in advocating that academics encourage political dialogue in the classroom that covers the right as well as the left. If an aspiring conservative intellectual never gets to hear an erudite discussion of the roots of this tradition, and he or she never hears anyone more learned than Sean Hannity defend a conservative worldview, then credible entry into the academy is improbable, at best.

David Hill is a member of the research faculty at Auburn University and has been a Republican pollster since 1984.