Why Should Republicans Trust Higher Education?

A few weeks ago, survey results from the Pew Research Center revealed sharp divisions along party lines in the views Americans have of national institutions. Perhaps the most publicized result regarded the overwhelmingly negative views Republicans have of the media, as the narrative dovetailed so well with that of another poll from The Economist/YouGov which found that an alarming 45 percent of Republicans favored allowing government to shutter biased news outlets.


Slightly less noticed, but still the subject of some analysis, was the finding that a majority of Republicans think colleges and universities have a negative effect on the direction of the country. Of course, many left-of-center commentators took the opportunity to present their conclusions that Republicans are a bunch of ignorant, uneducated hicks who hate science, facts and truth, which explains why they hate disseminators of those things as well.

Yet one of the most fascinating of Pew’s findings was that there has been a marked change in Republicans’ views of higher education since 2015. Today 58 percent believe colleges have a negative impact on the country; two years ago 58 percent believed they had a positive effect. Of course, anyone looking to tie this to Donald Trump will point out that this span of time roughly coincides with the period in which Trump has been ascendant in the GOP. They might theorize that less educated Americans who voted Republican in support of him are now identifying with the party and better educated Republicans, who were much more likely to disapprove of Trump, have ceased to identify as Republicans, but rather as independents, Federalists or Libertarians — maybe they even crossed over for Hillary. The resultant change in composition of the GOP explains some of the survey results.

Perhaps, but I don’t think that is what is going on here. In the past two years, stories of campus protests of conservative and politically-incorrect speakers have reached ridiculous frequency and now are not just examples of close-mindedness, but of the willingness of the left to shut down views of which they don’t approve with violence. There is no need to go over a comprehensive list — in addition to conservatives and libertarians like Ben Shapiro, George Will and Charles Murray, alt-righters like Milo Yiannopoulos and leftists like Richard Dawkins have faced opposition as speakers on campus due to politically incorrect views and statements. The climate for speech is only friendly if said speech fits within a narrow slice of ideas that liberals find acceptable. Conservatives don’t need to be focused only on their own to find numerous examples of the oppressive stifling of intellectual diversity.


What is amazing is not how negative Republican views of higher education are in 2017; it’s how positive they were before. As a conservative and registered (if not proudly) Republican who is pursuing a graduate degree in Europe, I am friendlier to higher education than most members of the right and the GOP. Of course, I personally haven’t been shouted down or called names for my opinions. Still I have sat in multiple classes prior to 2015 in which conservatives (or non-liberals) were spoken of as if there were none in the room. But what would we expect in institutions in which liberal professors outnumber conservatives 6 to 1?

Samuel Abrams, who ran the numbers and discovered that ratio, also noted a significant leftward shift in academia over the past 25 years. He wrote the following in The New York Times:

The overall shift is undeniable. In surveys of the ideological leanings of college faculty members by the Higher Education Research Institute from 1989 through 2014, the percentage of those identifying as liberal has always outnumbered moderates and conservatives, but the data show a notable shift left in the middle of the 1990s. In 1989, roughly 40 percent of professors were moderate and 40 percent were liberal; the remaining 20 percent were conservative. By 2014, liberal identifiers jumped to 60 percent, with moderates declining to 30 percent and conservatives to just 10 percent.


It isn’t hard to imagine how the shift happened. Abrams speaks of inertia, without elaborating, but left-leaning institutions are liberal enough at some point that they begin to discourage students with other viewpoints to attend. With fewer non-liberals attending few receive degrees, meaning fewer pursue doctorates and ultimately become professors. Jobs are increasingly filled with leftists, shifting the ideological atmosphere left and perpetuating the cycle with increased momentum. This is hypothesis is supported by the differences in the extend of the shift left when one looks at different regions. Originally liberal colleges became liberal faster than colleges that were originally more balanced.

A handful of liberals like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and NYU professor Jonathan Haidt have spoken out in favor of reform to bring conservatives and Republicans into universities in increasing numbers. It is good that at least some liberals still recognize, like liberals of old, the value of free inquiry and debate, even if the means of reform, which might involve quotas or a sort of ideological affirmative action, are not as good as their ends.

On Wednesday, I wrote about another topic, pop culture and the arts, arguing that conservatives not only need to engage with them, but to engage with them for their own sake, not just to counter liberals. The same is true of colleges and universities. What Shapiro, Will, Murray and others recognize is the need to enter these institutions despite the fact that they are hostile. They will not change from within absent conservative and libertarian influence.


This doesn’t mean creating conservative colleges and universities, although there is a place for that. It doesn’t mean entering academia to be a “conservative professor,” but rather to do good academic work that may happen to come from a conservative worldview, thereby expanding the conservative-friendly environment and attracting young college students — conservative or not — with compelling scholarly work; these students may go on to do the same. It means reversing the self-perpetuating cycle.

Until that happens, conservative viewpoints will be ignored, dismissed or openly-derided in academia. Why expect Republicans to see it as contributing positively to the country under those circumstances? Why feel good about an institution in which the supposedly learned call for the assassination of the president? 

It isn’t going to change on its own.



Join the conversation as a VIP Member

Trending on RedState Videos