In the face of demands for greater political diversity on college campuses, sociologist Neil Gross is pushing back.  Pointing to a 2015 Harvard study, which found that a mere 21 percent of Republican students feel uncomfortable sharing their views on campus, Gross says that the climate on campus is not especially unfriendly to conservative views.  If “suppression of conservative voices were rampant,” Gross concludes, “we’d see a far larger share of collegiate Republicans concerned about their freedom of speech.”

Yet even if one evaluates American campuses’ political climate by the light of the Harvard study alone, its findings are less encouraging than Gross supposes. Only half of the students it surveyed agreed that they feel comfortable sharing their political views on campus without fear of negative repercussions, with a mere 22 percent “strongly” agreeing that is was safe to do so. (Another 34 percent of students were not sure what to make of their campus climate.)

Other evidence, meanwhile, suggests that the political climate is considerably worse, especially for conservatives.  A survey of students in the University of Colorado system, for example, unearthed a far more serious climate problem than did the national survey conducted by Harvard. Here are some of its key findings, provided by sociologist George Yancey:

Have you experienced prejudice or discrimination in a University of Colorado educational experience?

Democrats Republicans Very Liberal Very Conservative
14.3% 51.7% 13.7% 61.8%

 

Specifically, have you felt intimidated to share your ideas, opinions or beliefs in class?

Democrats Republicans Very Liberal Very Conservative
11.3% 36.9% 12.3% 47.7%

 

Why did the Harvard study find so much less student anxiety?  Perhaps partly because of the way it worded its lone survey question.  The Harvard survey asked if students feared a harsh consequence for speaking their minds, such as “negative repercussions” or “censorship,” whereas the Colorado survey merely asked whether students felt “intimidated to share their ideas.”  In addition, the Colorado survey also assessed the anxiety of “very conservative” students.  That matters since very conservative students consistently express much less comfort on college campuses than Republicans.

It’s also the case that the University of Colorado study surveyed a much more elite slice of the student body, with half attending the highly selective flagship campus in Boulder.  That may matter since other evidence suggests that it is selective residential colleges that have nurtured the most repressive campus environments.  It was elite places like Yale and Amherst, after all, that erupted in student protests last fall, but not vocational schools, commuter colleges, community colleges, or evangelical institutions.

Therefore, the Harvard study may have found happier students because relatively few of them were full-time students attending residential colleges.  In fact, a large number of students queried by the Harvard study about their campus environments attend non-residential colleges and commuter schools, with 38 percent living in their parents’ home.  Some 21 percent are also non-traditional students, attending college part-time.  With that many students spending so little time on their respective campuses, it’s not surprising that one out of every three students surveyed by the Harvard study didn’t know how to assess their political climates.

Some may object that the climate problem is still overstated, mostly affecting a small number of elite institutions.  Even if that turns out to be true, elite institutions matter.  It’s those very institutions that are educating the next generation of leaders in academia, the media, the arts, and politics.  Few critics of McCarthyism were comforted by the fact that its chilling effects on speech were especially pronounced in some types of colleges, especially in elite, secular, and public institutions.

Nonetheless, Gross’s caution against overreaction is both welcome and needed in our increasingly demagogic democracy. Critics of the university should be careful not to overstate the climate problem.  The same University of Colorado survey, for example, also found that the vast majority of students believe that most of their professors are tolerant of diverse views. To argue, however, that there isn’t a climate problem on our campuses strikes me as much too sanguine and certainly too premature.

What we need now is better data so that we can attain a more fine-grained sense of the campuses that nurture especially bad climates.  My best guess is that it’s a problem that varies considerably by institution, with elite liberal arts colleges leading as the worst offenders.

Gross further says that hiring more conservative professors in the social sciences won’t improve intellectual pluralism in our universities.  As he put it: “We should foster real intellectual diversity, not just political diversity, because they are not the same thing.”

He is right to a degree: Political diversity is not the only form of intellectual diversity. As Gross noted, there already is real intellectual diversity in the university just by virtue of the existence of different disciplines in the social sciences, all of which have been shaped by distinct intellectual currents, and which focus on overlapping yet varied social and political questions.  Anyone who takes introductory courses in psychology, economics, and sociology, for example, quickly learns that these fields hardly offer identical perspectives on human nature.

Nonetheless, many areas of social inquiry, including research on race, gender, progressivism, class inequality, and conservatism, have been deeply shaped by professors’ leftist politics.  For skeptics who doubt this claim, here is a thought experiment: Imagine that your average historian or sociologist had the politics of a James Q. Wilson or Arthur Brooks, instead of a Barack Obama—and that had been true for a century.  Do you really think the body of research on topics ranging from gender to class inequality to the Reagan Revolution would look much as it does today?

Of course, we can’t rerun history to answer this question definitively.  But, happily, history is still of some help.  In the 1970s women—many of them feminists—entered the academy in large numbers, bringing different intellectual interests and interpretations with them.  They studied topics long neglected by their predecessors, especially the social construction of gender and the lives of women more generally.  Thus, feminists broadened the interests of academia well beyond Marxists’ obsession with class and New Deal liberals’ interest in the Teamsters. Here is a case where greater political diversity brought more intellectual diversity.

Yet, if feminists brought considerable intellectual diversity to academia, why wouldn’t more conservatives (and libertarians and centrists, for that matter)?  Some may remain skeptical because they see conservatism primarily as a tribal attachment to the Republican Party rather than an intellectual frame of reference.  As one liberal colleague once put it to me, “Who cares who professors vote for?”

But this sort of affective partisanship is far more prevalent in the mass public than among conservative professors.  In fact, Dunn and I found that conservative professors are often quite alienated from the Republican Party even though they tend to vote for its candidates.  For many professors on the right, conservatism is less a partisan attachment and more of an intellectual orientation, one with roots in Enlightenment thinkers ranging from Edmund Burke to David Hume to Adam Smith.

To be sure, academic scholarship may benefit from more forms of intellectual diversity that do not spring from conservatism—a possibility that advocates of viewpoint diversity would be receptive to if someone could specify other intellectual traditions missing in academia.  Until they can be identified, proponents of intellectual diversity should join the call for more political pluralism in the social sciences.

Jon A. Shields is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.