In this essay on the dearth of conservatives in higher education, the possible oppression of conservatives will be considered. I am obviously not the first to advance this hypothesis, but it is certainly worth new consideration. The idea is a familiar one: a group is being unjustly discriminated against in an institution and this accounts for the under-representation of this group. In this case, the group is not defined by ethnicity, religion, or gender but by political ideology.
The claim that conservatives are victims of oppression/discrimination might be met with snorts of derision or even the assertion they are getting what they deserve. After all, conservatives have generally not expressed concerns about the exclusion of other groups. As such, it could be said that their concern is not based on a principle of fairness but on their lamentation that they are not dominating or at least a major force in higher education. The logical reply to this assertion is that their apparent inconsistency and their allegedly selfish motives are not relevant to whether their exclusion is just. After all, if it could be proven that feminists did not care about fairness and are motivated by selfishness, then it would not follow that they are wrong to claim that the underrepresentation of women in various fields is wrong. To believe otherwise would be to fall into a classic ad hominem, that a person’s motives or bias must discredit their claim. It is, of course, morally fine to point out inconsistencies between claimed ideals and actual behavior—but that is another matter. As such, the claim that conservatives are being unjustly excluded from higher education cannot be dismissed so quickly. The challenge is, of course, to provide evidence.
As noted in earlier essays, conservatives tend to respond to claims about oppression or exclusion by asserting low representation is due to the allegedly excluded being either uninterested or incapable. The same could obviously be done to their claim of discrimination, a matter discussed earlier in this series of essays. But the focus now is on trying to make the case for the claim of discrimination and I will set aside that counter and turn to considerations of evidence.
One obvious source of evidence is complaints from conservative faculty. This does occur and should be taken as seriously as any other claim of discrimination. Christopher Freiman, a fellow philosophy professor, has contended that a significant percentage of faculty have admitted they would discriminate against conservative applicants and he also points to claims of their being underplaced and fired at a higher rate than liberal faculty for political speech. This is the same sort of evidence that would be advanced to support a claim of discrimination against women or minorities and hence should be given the same sort of due consideration. To do otherwise would be mere prejudice and inconsistent with the moral principle that discrimination is wrong. That said, as conservatives will note when it involves others, claims about discrimination need not be actual evidence of discrimination. Ironically, the same tools and methods that conservatives have used to dismiss concerns about discrimination can be applied to their claims. However, to use them as weapons with the express intent of dismissing evidence would be a moral error—rather, the evidence should be examined neutrally with the tools of science and logic with a goal of determining the truth, whatever it might be.
Since I do not have the resources to conduct a proper large-scale investigation, I will begin with my own experiences. It must be noted that this entails a limited sample size and biasing factors. That said, I have served on or chaired numerous search committees over the years and not once was there an inquiry into the political ideology of the candidates. The job description, ranking standards and questions included nothing about political ideology and hiring decisions were made based on academic qualifications. As would be suspected, I and all the other members of the committees had to attend meetings about how to run job searches and the bulk of the meetings were spent on instructions on how to avoid discrimination (and lawsuits). Speaking with other colleagues across the country, no one has ever mentioned anything that would be evidence of discrimination against conservatives in their hiring practices. It should be noted that there was never a directive to seek ideological diversity in hiring—mainly because, as I said, ideology was never considered as a factor (positive or negative) in the hiring process.
There are a few obvious replies to my alleged evidence. One counter is to assert that I am lying—if I was discriminating against conservatives, I would surely deny it and carefully conceal all evidence. That is a fair point: as feminists and others have long pointed out, discriminators are inclined to lie about their discrimination. Those who think I am a liar will obviously not be swayed by my claims that I am not. Those would just be more lies to hide my other lies, at least in their eyes.
A second counter is that while I claim that we did not consider ideology or even inquire about it, we could surely infer a person’s ideology from their research, presentations and publications. For example, if someone gave a presentation entitled “reflections on the evils of capitalism within the context of cultural Marxism ideology” or “a stalwart defense of conservative values within the context of a biased academy”, then we could surely infer their likely ideology. This does have some merit: candidates can, of course, send signals to prospective employers via their research, presentations and publications. The influence can even be unconscious, as some claim occurs when people are biased against applicants with female or minority sounding names. The use of ideology signaling via these means is something I think is worth investigating—especially its potential for biasing (unconsciously or not) search committee members. As such, I would recommend this a research project—it would make an excellent subject for a dissertation.
A third obvious counter is that even if I am being honest, my experience is limited to one institution and a limited number of search committees. As feminists and others have long argued, the absence of evidence for discrimination in some cases is not evidence of the absence of discrimination in others. Of course, it is also the case that evidence of discrimination in some cases is not automatically evidence of broad or systematic discrimination. What is needed, then, is a proper investigation of the claim of discrimination. Fortunately, or unfortunately, discrimination against women, minorities and others has resulted in the creation of tools and methods to ferret out discrimination and these should be neutrally applied to see if there is evidence of the systematic oppression of conservatives within higher education. If it is occurring, then it can be addressed with methods analogous to those used to address discrimination against women, minorities and otehrs. For example, job descriptions might start including “we encourage conservatives to apply” and affirmative action programs might be created for avowed conservatives interested in academic careers.