How Trump Let Us Down on Higher Ed, and How He Can Make Amends in 2021
I'm rooting for Donald Trump to beat the odds and get sworn in for a second term in January 2021.
I'm also praying that in a second term, he'll pick up one of the balls he dropped in his first term. The ball to which I refer is the persecution of conservatives in higher education.
By now, conservatives have spent so many decades complaining about anti-conservative bias on college campuses that it feels as though everybody has stopped listening. I contributed one chapter to a recent book, Church and State, in which I discuss the long history of complaining about liberal domination of the university, including the famous figures of William F. Buckley, Allan Bloom, Dinesh D'Souza, David Horowitz, Ben Shapiro, and Charlie Kirk.
All these commentators became famous while college liberalism only got worse. It stuns me that so few people have ever stepped back to ask why this could be. How is it that more we complain about liberals in higher education, the more liberal colleges become?
The root problem facing conservatives in college education is a system of unfair labor practices. Higher education's dual track professorate separating tenure-track from "temporary" instructor lines has been thoroughly criticized because of its exploitation of adjuncts and graduate assistants. People fighting racial discrimination have long noted that tenure yields underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos.
As I point out in a chapter of Church and State, conservatives are another group mistreated by the abusive nature of tenure. The same cultural snobbery and labyrinth of unwritten rules that have allowed the liberal professorate to shut out other "people who don't fit in" also shut out conservatives, and through the same mechanisms. The tenure system introduces a great deal of subjectivity and arbitrary discretion into personnel decisions. This system allows people at the top to regulate and police themselves, which is always a bad idea. The tastes and social inclinations of people in power (in this case, the full professors) become magnified in importance in the mind of unchecked chairs and deans. The full professors convince themselves that people who are simply not chummy or good sports according to their stuffy worldview are really bad scholars, teachers, or community leaders.
In academia, non-white people and conservatives both face different kinds of "racism." In Church and State, I point out that according to one study, in the humanities, blacks and Latinos make up 30% of the population but only 7% of full professors. Conservatives make up around 36% of the population but only 4% of full professors. (Even that 4% must be viewed skeptically, since scholars tend to group free-market libertarians in the Koch mold with social conservatives when they arrive at such statistics.) Conservatives face greater discrimination and are being actively purged, so these statistics will grow starker.
These distorted proportions do not come from a vacuum. The core of academia's ruling class consists of urbane Democrats who enjoy worldly tastes and conspicuous sympathy for certain disadvantaged groups as signs of high social status, even as they are notoriously bad at relating personally to such disadvantaged groups. Blacks and Latinos are often too straightforward or working-class for such a pretentious clique. Conservatives in academia tend to be received poorly by full professors based on the same social prejudices. Since many conservatives who dream of becoming professors are Christian, their religious sensibilities come across to the snobbishly secular higher-ups as too fundamentalist, even barbarically superstitious.
While both non-white people and conservatives suffer under the discriminatory nature of tenure, conservatives have it worse because persecution against them does not need to be shrouded in euphemisms or camouflaged, as is the case with the persistent pockets of racial animus. Entrenched liberal professors must hide their personal prejudices against blacks and Latinos. If they hate conservatives, they can do so openly and without remorse and be applauded for it. If they don't hate conservatives, they must pretend to hate them lest they fall under hostility from liberals around them.
Conservatives have two choices when it comes to higher ed. They can treat the liberal domination of colleges and universities as a question of targeted persecution, resulting from unfair labor practices. Or they can give up college campuses entirely and encourage right-wing Americans to learn trades and get a library card to teach themselves the world classics. I don't see either of those two options as better or worse than the other.
Conservatives have to get out of their current rut of complaining about being excluded yet pursuing no structural change. They want their time at the podium. They want conservatives to be highly placed among the scholars and lecturers, to be treated with the same warmth and reverence that retiring liberals get after forty years of teaching at a college campus. But they don't want to fight the system that leaves this vision out of reach.
Conservatives have sought to build up student conservative clubs, but this is like building sand castles, since young people's ideology fluxes unpredictably and most youths dislike the conservative constraints on their pleasure even if their hale and healthy bodies are well suited to a free-market model sans safety nets. Oftentimes campus outreach initiatives heap money on student recruitment schemes only to scoop up a handful of "socially liberal but fiscally conservative" types who flood Washington, D.C. and turn into Shepard Smith clones in a few years.
Conservatives have fought to have guest speakers like Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro come to campuses here and there to charm audiences with witticisms and snappy one-liners. This fueled a merry-go-round of snowflake stories in the right-wing press, consisting of details about how delusional liberal students threw strange temper tantrums over the presence of such individuals on their campuses. The problem is that this did nothing to offset the number of conservative faculty driven out of their jobs. Most college students don't go to guest lectures. Many who go to a guest lecture will not be persuaded by simply hearing one speech, which they know has been delivered many times. The vast influence on students plays out in the classroom, the precise place where conservatives have vanished because of the universities' oppressive labor system.
Conservatives have sought to retreat into their own educational bubbles by forming a handful of conservative colleges or Christian campuses. That hasn't worked. Liberals have already gotten into all these campuses, no matter how impregnable they looked, and full conservatives are already no longer welcome at most of them. At best, an anti-Trump traditionalist, unassuming and apolitical in his public conduct, might be able to survive for a bit at some of these campuses. But I've seen them thoroughly from the inside and can assure you that they are already to the left of the average American Thinker reader, and moving farther leftward quickly. Stewing as they must in the cauldron of nationwide academia, their surrender of conservative positions is inevitable.
We needed a presidential commission to investigate and combat persecution against conservatives in academia's labor system. This was precisely what we have never had for a host of reasons. Conservatives relied too heavily on free-market purists who always insisted that any government intervention in education, especially on the side of labor, is socialist and not what conservatives should support. Like many libertarian positions, this unrealistic and out-of-touch perspective on higher education, which is already thoroughly entangled with state money and control, kept right-wingers powerless to stop what was really happening.
Donald Trump inspired a lot of us when he mentioned cancel culture during his July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore. But after several months, it seemed clear that he did not consider this a labor issue. When he spoke of cancel culture, he was thinking, perhaps, of other fields; most likely he envisioned someone famous like Dennis Prager being bounced off YouTube.
Donald Trump signed an executive order threatening to cut off federal funds to schools that do not protect free speech. Absent a reckoning with the deceitful ambiguities of the tenure-track system, this approach would at best protect conservative groups' rights to invite famous conservative speakers to campus. Again, his actions seemed well suited for public intellectuals with a level of celebrity — the Fox News talking head who has a popular book out, etc. — but not for the conservative faculty member struggling to hang on to his job.
Lastly, in the last weeks before the election, Donald Trump announced plans to preserve "religious liberty" on campuses and to form a presidential commission named after 1776 to promote patriotism in the classroom. These are good ideas, but they will face countless hazards in their implementation. Since Christian campuses and organizations are already pervasively infiltrated by the same liberals who took over secular higher ed, "religious liberty" just gives the liberals who run religious schools special leeway to fire and persecute conservatives, depriving them of even the nominal protections they would get at a place like Wherever State University.
Lastly, I can see the value in empaneling a commission on patriotic education, but unless America combats the persecution in academic labor practices, there will be nobody to teach anybody's kids this patriotic content. Since there are almost no conservative teachers left, these efforts would amount to forcing liberals to slog through weeks of curricula they hate and will most certainly subvert in the classroom, with no impunity.
Unless the government intervenes to protect conservative educators from persecution, the enormous damage to the national culture will only increase. This is not easy for me to write because it's a personal issue even as it holds much greater national importance as a political problem for conservatives. I did everything I possibly could during my twenty years as a professor. I knew that each day that I went before students, I was one of the few conservative voices they would ever hear during college. When I was driven out, I didn't grieve so much for myself as for the sad state of the country I really love. The country's children have nobody in a position of authority to provide a truly conservative worldview. The cost to our nation will certainly be enormous.
I voted both times for Donald Trump and pray for God's blessing so he can hold the White House for a second term. But I have to be honest, just as Trump is always honest. I paid an enormous price for signing a statement in support of him in 2016, alongside a little more than 100 other professors. That cost me, effectively, two jobs, my profession, my chance at working with students, and of course my library card to do all the research I like. In 2018, I went to a summit for faith in higher education hosted by the White House. I spent many hours on the phone for the White House briefings and updates.
When all is said and done, Trump let us down on higher ed.
He listened too much to celebrities, famous authors, and think-tank libertarians. He never got out and talked to the workers of academia the way he did with other industries. He didn't connect with the struggling conservative professors who gave everything to defend traditionalism in the most hostile of environments.
I can only pray that if he gets a second chance, he won't let us down again.