Bob Maranto and I wrote this letter because of an invitation by the National Association of Scholars. We thank them for allowing us to reprint it here. The contributors at Heterodox Academy hold a range of ideological views. Although this particular letter is directed at conservatives, the advice can be of use to any intellectual minority on college campuses including moderates, and libertarians. Indeed, we argue that if the Right dominated higher education, we would offer much the same advice to young Leftists. The ideologically diverse members of the Heterodox Academy value intellectual pluralism. Bob and I hope that this letter will encourage non-leftists to consider entering the academy. We believe that cultivating intellectual diversity will promote civil discourse in higher education.
I addressed some of these topics in a recent talk at the Hauenstein Center. In this clip I offer advice to young conservatives considering a career as a college professor:
Later in the talk, I also explained how liberal faculty can encourage intellectual diversity by mentoring and supporting conservatives on campus:
Dear future conservative professors,
As conservative professors, we are deeply troubled by the Left’s intellectual dominance in higher education. Higher education should generate and promote knowledge, considering political, social and economic questions from every perspective, rather than promoting narrow ideological worldviews. Yet with relatively few right-leaning voices in the professoriate, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences where ideas matter most, many college students receive less than the intellectually rigorous education than they deserve.
While there are many reasons for the Left’s dominance in higher education, we believe that as conservatives we bear some of the blame. Recognizing the considerable challenges created by the Left’s dominance in the academy, prominent conservatives such as David Horowitz have promoted a narrative of victimization that exaggerates the plight of the Right in higher education. Frightened by tales of radical left wing professors and systematic ideological discrimination, many bright young conservatives never seriously consider careers in academia. As an analogy, John McWhorter and others argue that by convincing minorities that whites will never accept them, civil rights activists have inadvertently created an oppositional culture undermining upward mobility. Why try to succeed if whites will never permit it? Similarly, by painting academia as an institution that systematically persecutes conservatives, many right leaning students never consider careers in higher education. Recognizing that racial and ideological minorities face unique challenges, promoting a fatalistic worldview tends to exacerbate underlying currents of inequality. In shying away from academia, the Right has surrendered strategically important ground in the battle of ideas. It is time conservatives reenter the fight for academia.
While arguing that conservatives should fight to be part of higher education, we know this is a war the Right can never truly win. There are powerful psychological, social and cultural forces that contribute to the ideological tilt among the faculty; thus conservatives will never be equally represented in the American professoriate. However, success ought not be defined as securing an equal position with the Left in academia. To break the Left’s virtual monopoly in higher education, conservatives need only establish a foothold on most college campuses. Even one vocal conservative professor in a sea of leftist faculty can make an important difference to students attending a college or university.
Even as we encourage you to consider making a home in academia, we offer a note of caution. While higher education is a potentially gratifying career path and most professors report high levels of job satisfaction, like all professions, pursuing a career in academia involves some degree of risk. The work is difficult. Though flexible, the hours can be long. Even for those resilient enough to complete a Ph.D., there is no guarantee that they will land an academic job, establish a research agenda and ultimately secure tenure. As if a career in academia is not difficult enough, conservative scholars have the added burden of adapting to an institution that, all too often, regards a leftist world view as the norm. For those prepared to meet these challenges head-on, the academic life provides conservatives with a unique opportunity to shape the future through teaching, research and public service. Additionally, as a role model to young people, a conservative college professor helps students appreciate that not all educated people subscribe to the Left’s sometimes insular world view.
Drawing from the research, as well as our years as right-leaning academics, we offer the following eight suggestions to young conservatives considering a career as a college professor. We hope the next generation of young conservatives will play a role in reinvigorating higher education by promoting meaningful diversity on America’s college campuses.
Go to college. This may seem obvious. Unfortunately, in some conservative circles there is a movement to steer clear of mainstream higher education. For example, radio talk show host Dennis Prager, arguably one of the Right’s most reasoned and thoughtful voices, recently began calling on conservative parents not to send their kids to college straight out of high school. Fearing that young people are vulnerable to brainwashing by their leftist professors, Mr. Prager suggests that parents should encourage children to enter the workforce for a few years before attending college. He reasons that once conservative young people have amassed some life experience, they will be inoculated from their professors’ Leftist perspectives. While there are many young people who could benefit from spending a few years in the workforce, as a blanket policy Mr. Prager’s advice has the potential to harm the conservative movement. While it is true that most faculty lean left, as Rothman, Woessner and Kelly-Woessner report in The Still Divided Academy, there is relatively little evidence that students’ ideological views are profoundly influenced by college. In an Inside Higher Education piece titled “Academe’s Persuasion Paradox” Woessner theorizes that having already undergone years of social and political inculcation by family, friends, music, television, movies, and public education, college students may have developed a natural resistance to ideological indoctrination of any sort. Consequently, in putting off higher education merely to make students a bit more independent, conservatives risk derailing young people’s career trajectory. Once they enter the workforce or start a family, getting back into education is very difficult. Particularly for conservatives interested in becoming a college professor, it makes far more sense to dive right into college and learn how to succeed in the world of the Left.
Be an exceptionally good college student. More than most professions, securing a post in academia entails being admitted into a prestigious doctoral program. Acceptance into the best graduate schools is largely a function of how you perform as an undergraduate. For young conservatives even considering a career in higher education, it is important to take college seriously. Study hard. Strive to earn high marks in every course. Join the college honors program. Get involved in undergraduate research. Build a reputation as a hardworking, serious, and ambitious student. If you amass a strong record of scholarship as an undergraduate, you stand a decent chance of getting into a strong Ph.D. program. This in turn is the key to prying open the doors of the ivory towers.
Pick a major where conservative ideas are taken seriously. Whereas virtually all academic fields lean left, there are tremendous variations in the extent to which center-right ideas are considered intellectually respectable. For a conservative interested in conducting serious research on political controversies, majoring in sociology, ethnic studies or gender studies could prove exceedingly difficult. Even seemingly apolitical fields such as history are often dominated by leftist faculty who might be reluctant to work with ambitious young conservative students. By contrast, fields like political science, public administration and economics have sizable minorities of faculty who identify as center-right. In fact, many departments have openly conservative members of the faculty. This modest contingent of non-leftist scholars not only makes being a conservative far more socially acceptable, it gives scholars a fighting chance to publish research that counters a leftist world view.
Even as an undergraduate, seek out liberal mentors. It is important for young conservatives to learn to form good working relationships with left-leaning faculty. Since most graduate programs (particularly at elite institutions) are taught by liberal/leftist professors, you will have to become accustomed to studying under someone who sees the world from a different perspective. As importantly, working with left-leaning faculty will help you develop intellectually. To teach, research and publish in a field connected with politics and policy, students should understand the best arguments presented by both the Left and the Right. Working with a liberal mentor can provide you with an invaluable opportunity to understand the world through someone else’s eyes. More importantly, a good liberal mentor can help you hone your skills as a researcher and learn to examine interesting social questions, following the evidence wherever it might lead. While it may be easier to work with a professor who sees the world through a conservative lens, partnering with a good liberal mentor can help you function and even thrive in a leftist-dominated academic world.
Pick the right graduate program. In academia, the prestige of your doctoral granting institution will play an important role in the arc of your career. To secure that first academic job out of graduate school, it is extremely helpful to earn a Ph.D. from a top 20 program in your chosen field. Beyond institutional prestige, as an aspiring conservative professor, you should seek out Ph.D. programs with graduate faculty who conduct serious, largely non-political research. The best faculty, particularly in the social sciences, try to downplay ideology in their scholarship, focusing instead on straightforward empirical questions that influence society. For example: How do young adults form an identity as Republicans or Democrats? What effect do emergency unemployment extensions have on the long term jobless rate? How do corporate wellness programs designed to improve employee health impact a company’s long term healthcare expenses? If a conservative student can find a graduate school where the faculty endeavor to sidestep overtly political questions, there is a far better chance that the program will train them to conduct research in the best traditions of the social sciences. Thankfully, the Internet has made it easy to learn about faculty’s research interests. Most departments post the vitas (academic résumés) of their faculty online. Additionally, using Google Scholar it is relatively easy to learn about the research agenda of department faculty. Identifying graduate programs with serious, research minded scholars can help conservative students sidestep ideological minefields that can derail a successful graduate career.
Don’t be a partisan hack. Once admitted to a respected doctoral program, as a right-leaning graduate student, you must establish a reputation as a serious scholar, rather than a conservative with an ideological axe to grind. This isn’t to say that as a graduate student you need abandon your principles or pretend to be a leftist to succeed. In the best social scientific tradition, you should examine scholarly questions with an open mind. Your research should pose interesting scientific questions, with conclusions based on evidence rather than mere belief. If left-leaning faculty can see that you are serious about reaching evidence-based conclusions, you stand a good chance of thriving in graduate school whatever your ideological disposition.
At first, keep a low profile. The academic job market is difficult even for the best newly minted Ph.D. Any tenure track academic job typically has dozens or even hundreds of qualified applicants. It is a hard truth that in a world dominated by left-leaning academics, establishing a research agenda that hints at your conservative worldview is a potential liability, at least early on. This is particularly true since much academic hiring is done by committee, so a single professor who strongly objects to your views may have veto power over your hiring. Generally, we advise against tackling highly charged political topics (i.e. same-sex marriage, affirmative action, immigration policy, etc.) before landing your first academic job. This isn’t to say that as a conservative academic you need to adopt a politically correct research agenda. Rather, begin by looking into less controversial topics. Know that your opportunities to tackle ever more difficult and controversial research topics will grow as you become established in your academic career.
Have a backup plan. This is sound advice for any young person with a career goal. Keep your options open. Pursue educational opportunities that are both cost effective, and can serve you in a variety of professional endeavors. In part this has less to do with ideology than with the harsh realities of the academic job market. After years of steady growth, the market for assistant professors in most fields collapsed in the 1970s, becoming a buyers market. Even as colleges continue to churn out Ph.Ds, this overabundance of advanced degrees makes securing a doctoral degree something of a gamble. Unfortunately, for students with terminal degrees in anthropology, communications, art history, or theater, the post graduation job prospects are extremely limited. By contrast, the more ideologically diverse disciplines such as political science, public administration and economics often have ties to real-world professions. We might add that our own field, Political Science, scaled back Ph.D. production when the market for doctorates collapsed, with the result that the vast majority of the field’s newly minted doctorates find work, though not always of the prestige and geographic placement they seek. The ability to market a doctoral degree outside an academic context makes securing a Ph.D. in an area like Political Science a better investment.
For strong students, even the financial risk of pursuing a Ph.D. is manageable. Unlike law school, where prospective students routinely borrow $100,000 to earn a degree, doctoral students with strong academic credentials can typically secure fellowships or assistantships covering tuition, and enough for a thrifty graduate student to live on. For example, Robert Maranto’s education policy doctoral program offers fellowships that includes free tuition and a $35,000 annual living stipend. While this package is more generous than most graduate programs, elite institutions are often anxious to attract talent. If you have a high GPA, strong GRE scores and a record of undergraduate research, you shouldn’t have to take on a mountain of debt to secure a Ph.D.
Fortunately, if you are a college student preparing for a career in academia, the prerequisites for applying to a prestigious doctoral program (i.e. a high GPA, strong test scores, independent research and strong letters of recommendation) are also useful in the pursuit of non-academic goals. If, you apply to top graduate programs and do not get in, or fail to secure the necessary funding, you still have the option of applying for an MBA, a JD, an applied master’s degree, or entering the workforce. Earning good grades, developing a strong work ethic, and improving your interpersonal skills will serve you well whether your ultimate professional destination is academia, public service or the private sector.
As intellectual pluralists, we believe in ideological diversity. Students and faculty alike grow intellectually by confronting new ideas, and considering the world from different points of view. Although our own politics lean right of center, if higher education were dominated by right wing professors, we would encourage leftist students to join the ranks of the faculty in the hopes of revitalizing intellectual discourse on college campuses.
The reality today is that the opposite is true, and higher education is in desperate need of fresh perspectives. Understanding the considerable challenges of working in a profession dominated by the Left, we hope a new generation of young conservatives will take up the call to storm the ivory tower.
Matthew Woessner, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy
Penn State University, Harrisburg
Robert Maranto, Ph.D.
21st Century Chair in Leadership
University of Arkansas