Fed Up With Liberal Academia, Conservatives Call for Their Own Safe Space

We’ve done it, chaps. We’re finally free to go study the works of Ayn Rand. Photo: Lambert/Getty Images

Conservative academia is in crisis, and to protect it, a new right-leaning research university must be founded in the United States. This is the argument presented by the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess and Brendan Bell in the latest issue of National Affairs. Noting that there are now relatively few right-leaning academics, the researchers, who both specialize in education policy, say conservatives need “a place where serious scholars can have the space to pursue questions and subjects that don’t fit the progressive orthodoxy.” They lay out extensive plans for how such an institution might operate, down to the number of students (4,200 undergraduates and 2,400 graduate students) and average salaries for various faculty members (ranging from $300,000 for endowed chairs to $120,000 for assistant professors).

“We need an incubator,” Hess and Bell explain, “where promising young intellectuals could pursue their research without being forced to conform to the prevailing ideology, and where they can find the scaffolding — employment, funding, networks, and publication outlets — to enable them to achieve independent viability. What is needed is an ivory tower of our own.”

This proposal may be unusually detailed, but it isn’t novel. Figures on the right have long argued that institutions of higher education in the U.S. are hypocritically intolerant of conservative ideas, and the only solution is to separate from liberal academia. Over the past four decades, this notion birthed a constellation of Christian colleges and universities, from the small but ambitious Patrick Henry College, which was founded in 1998 and famously profiled in Hanna Rosin’s 2007 book God’s Harvard: A Christian College On A Mission To Save America, to Liberty University, which was established in 1971 by Jerry Falwell. Liberty University, in particular, has grown into a powerful institution on the right. Its current president, Jerry Falwell Jr., has the ear of Donald Trump, and Liberty functions both as a pipeline to D.C. for young, conservative talent and as a landing pad for washed-up Republican lawmakers. For example, on Tuesday the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that former Congressman Dave Brat, who lost his reelection bid in November, will become the dean of Liberty’s business school.

Christian colleges are known for restricting academic freedom, sometimes to extraordinarily punitive degrees. Though there isn’t an exact parallel between Christian colleges and the secular campus Hess and Bell envision, they still trip over separatist dogma. Christian colleges can certainly produce sound scholarship, but at conservative campuses in particular, those efforts are restricted by an institutionalized requirement to strain that scholarship through a domatic sieve – to make it affirm Biblical literalism, or some broader combination of right-wing politics and religious conviction. A secular, right-wing ivory tower would be similarly constrained by its self-inflicted restrictions.

Here is how Hess and Bell describe their mission:

Our goal is to establish a self-sustaining university where, to paraphrase the mission of Brandeis University, the intellectual right — in all its myriad diversity and disagreement — can be “a host at last.” While the institution should be oriented by an intellectual mission rather than an ideological agenda, its board, leadership, bylaws, culture, and norms should be constructed so as to be unapologetically hospitable to right-leaning views and values that are marginalized across most of academe. Hiring, staffing, and recruiting should favor scholars looking to pursue rigorous, important work that challenges the prevailing orthodoxies of the campus monoculture.

To be clear, the university would embrace unfettered academic freedom in accord with the highest principles of free inquiry. Unlike many of today’s institutions, it would not kowtow to demands for speech codes and “safe spaces” or to the political enthusiasms of the moment, left or right.

Hess and Bell write that gifted liberals would, in theory, be welcome to join their institution, but only if they reject orthodoxy. They might not quiz applicants on the spiritual validity of infant baptism, but it sounds like they hope to enforce a creed of their own – that their dream school would practice its own version of affirmative action, apply its own litmus tests, and restrict speech in its own way.

There’s a gap between the world as Hess and Bell present it, and the world as it actually exists. They acknowledge that there are privately-funded, right-wing academic centers and institutes on many campuses, only to claim that “these hubs are hamstrung by the reality that they operate as isolated outposts within largely uninviting institutions.” That might be news to faculty at George Mason University, where administrators signed gift agreements that granted the Charles Koch Foundation some say over economics department hires and the right to evaluate the performance of those hires. InsideHigherEd reports that Utah State University and Florida State University once signed similar, now-defunct agreements. As the Atlantic reported in 2015, Charles and David Koch have invested billions in gifts to major research universities with the explicit aim of building a “talent pipeline” for conservative and libertarian students. Aside from Koch-funded endeavors, there are organizations like the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that claims it has trained more than 200,000 “conservative activists, leaders, and students” since its founding in 1979, and supports more than 1,700 conservative groups and newspapers on campuses across the country. The Leadership Institute has worked with Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence, and Grover Norquist, and helped launch right-wing activists like Lila Rose of LiveAction and James O’Keefe of Project Veritas.

This is real power, but it doesn’t satisfy Hess and Bell. In their universe, conservative speech and scholarship is uniquely endangered; they even claim that research universities “are, almost uniformly, a publicly subsidized, wholly owned subsidiary of the political left.” As is often the case with panics over campus liberalism, the case for the conservative university largely rests on a series of omissions. In reality, professors and students alike are often hounded by outside groups, right-wing pundits, or university administrators for expressing left-wing perspectives on issues ranging from Palestinian independence to sexism and racism. And if either author has considered the possibility that there may be fewer conservative scholars in academia because their perspectives on subjects like climate change often contradict established fact, it’s not evident. Ideological diversity is not an achievement if if advances ill-founded arguments.

The dwindling number of conservative academics may also reflect the movement’s own priorities, not institutional disdain for heterodoxy. Movement conservatism is so consumed by culture war that its adherents tend to fixate on the classroom as a site of pitched ideological battle. This is undergirded by fear; if conservatives can’t dominate the academy, they surrender victory to the left. The dreaded dictatorship of the snowflake will follow. If, in devising a solution to this problem for their movement, Hess and Bell sound markedly like the campus liberals they seek to escape – an ivory tower of their own is nothing if not a plea for a safe space – that’s not a coincidence. As University of Virginia scholar Nicole Hemmer wrote for Vox in 2017:

Fear of a liberal university faculty has been a feature of modern conservatism for decades, woven into the very foundations of the modern conservative movement —although the attacks on universities have not always taken the form of legislation or calls for ‘ideological diversity.’ The adoption of the language of diversity and pluralism serves mainly as a new way to skewer the left using its own vocabulary.

As Hemmer noted, this argument hasn’t persuaded universities to bring on rafts of new conservative hires. And the right has found its own way to profit from its minority status; Dinesh D’Souza, Ben Shapiro, and Charlie Kirk all owe their careers to their ability to manufacture panics over the marginalization of conservative views on campus. The right itself seems perplexed by the university, unable to settle on a consistent course of action. Should conservatives attempt to take the campus over? Retreat to their own, parallel system of ideologically pure institutions? Or should they crush the university altogether? On one side of the coin, Scott Walker stands over the shell of the University of Wisconsin, whose budget he ruthlessly slashed; on the other, Peter Thiel funds provides fellowships for aspiring entrepreneurs on the condition that they drop out of or skip college altogether. The campus is either a place for intellectual development, or a brute tool to to win the culture war. It can’t be both. Any call for a conservative ivory tower is impeded, perhaps fatally, by the conservative movement itself.

Conservatives Demand Safe Space, Free From Liberal Academia