Abby Jackson at Business Insider recently published an in-depth exploration of a trend in higher education begun by University of Colorado-Boulder four years ago. Since 2013, UC-Boulder, one of the most liberal colleges in the United States, has instituted what Jackson calls “affirmative action” for conservatives, creating a position for a “Visiting Scholar of Conservative Thought and Policy” to be filled by a different conservative academic each year as a response to criticisms that such schools have become left-wing echo chambers.
One visiting position hardly qualifies as a quota system, much less affirmative action of the recent American variety, but Jackson or her editor presumably want to be provocative in using the term. The question remains: how should conservatives view this development, which has spread from UC-Boulder to other overwhelmingly liberal schools such as Wesleyan University in Connecticut?
I wrote recently of the need for conservatives to enter academia and revise it from within, despite the fact that their distrust of such institutions is rational. Jackson’s story highlights how some of the most liberal colleges in the country are proactively responding to criticism of leftist bias as well in their own way. Liberals are opening doors specifically for conservatives, which is a good sign that they recognize their failure up to this point to foster intellectual diversity, but the manner in which they are going about rectifying the situation speaks to the lingering legacy of the left-wing campus echo chamber.
The first professor to fill the position as visiting conservative scholar at UC-Boulder was Steven Hayward. Jackson describes his coming to the university in the following way:
When Steven Hayward stepped onto the University of Colorado Boulder campus he saw event postings for the transgender community. He saw ads for vegan and gluten-free products.
This was 2013, and to him this was the lion’s den. He started documenting his findings on Facebook, like a conservative anthropologist. “Whoa. What’s this crunchy sound ringing in my ears?” he wrote next to a photo he took of a woman he perceived to be dressed in a bizarre fashion. “Yeah, this is a look I haven’t seen before.”
Hayward called Boulder a “self-generated bubble” and mocked administrators for advising professors to address students according to their desired gender pronoun. Boulder administrators said nothing. They wanted him there.
Hayward reacted to his fish-out-of-water experience by acting like someone visiting a zoo, seeing liberals in their natural habitats. It was a new experience for him — he is the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, one of the few strongly-conservative schools in the United States — but it was also unusual for people on UC-Boulder’s campus to encounter a conservative. As Jackson reports:
Boulder students and professors were even more liberal than the University of Colorado system as a whole. When asked how they describe their political philosophy, 53.1% of students called themselves liberal, 18.1% moderate, and 20% conservative. For faculty, 60.3% called themselves liberal, 15.4% moderate, and 8.4% conservative.
If Hayward was witnessing liberals in their natural habitat, he was a carnival attraction to the overwhelmingly left-wing population there. A single position, dedicated to conservative viewpoints, might not do anything to change that. Subjects to be studied at least ostensibly in a scientific manner are approached from a detached perspective by the researcher. By setting aside a position for conservatives and their thought and policy, schools might expose students to conservative thought, while still perpetuating the image of “otherness” that liberal students hold of conservatism. There is no corresponding position dedicated to studying liberalism. As such, there is no mechanism to make students on the left recognize the intellectual worldview that surrounds them. Like the proverbial fish in the sea, they are not fully aware of the water in which they swim.
In addition, the inclusion of a visiting conservative scholar probably won’t in itself have a significant effect on the number of conservatives who choose to enter academia themselves. To do so, they need to want to attend graduate programs and ideally to study under and develop a relationship with a professor whose research interests they share to at least some degree. If the conservative scholar changes yearly, conservative students in multi-year graduate programs, such as — most importantly for futures in academia — doctoral programs, have no chance to perpetuate a degree-long relationship with a sympathetic professor on campus.
Still, it seems that the overall effects of the decision are good for conservatives in academia. First, it has started a trend of adding conservative perspective to hard-left colleges and universities. Hayward went on to take a position at University of California-Berkeley, another of the most liberal schools in America, because they too have become interested in at least some level of intellectual diversity among the professorate (even if the students haven’t). His influence in liberal academia is spreading and the UC-Boulder position got that ball rolling. Other schools have followed, such as the aforementioned Wesleyan. Furthermore, UC-Boulder has continued the initiative each year, inviting Bradley J. Birzer, Brian Domitrovic, Francis Beckwith and, most recently, Robert G. Kaufman to visit, making conservative inclusion at least semi-permanent.
Second, if the policy does not make conservatives less unusual to the populations of liberal campuses, at least exposure to them allows them to be seen as decent people. That can make a big difference. For example, Hayward invited Charles Murray, the social scientist controversial to liberals, to speak at campus while Hayward was a visiting scholar. Unlike this year at Middlebury College, when professor Allison Stanger was attacked and injured by students angry that Murray had been invited to speak, there “was no fuss” at Boulder and the audience numbered about 300.
Though Murray has noticed a significant uptick since the 2016 election in student belligerence toward speakers who hold non-liberal opinions, he also believes
The advantage of having a Steve Hayward at Colorado is not that he is presenting a conservative perspective, but that he is letting college students see that you can have a conservative who is not a monster, who doesn’t want to starve welfare children, who is thoughtful and also funny and good natured and a good teacher.
That may have made the difference in the reaction to Murray’s two visits.
In and of itself, UC-Boulder’s decision is a step in the right direction, but even taking into account the ripple effect to other institutions, it probably will not make a huge difference to higher education in America. However, if more conservatives begin looking to enter academia, they will now find that they are marginally more welcome among the professorate. Conservative students will be more likely to find professors on their side of the aisle — a good experience even if it is transient. Those at least would be positive effects.