Why Conservatives Must Not Abandon Universities: A four-point plan
The way forward is to abjure easy and satisfying libertarian reflexes like abolishing tenure or cutting funding to universities, grants and loan programmes...
Written by Eric Kaufmann.
Conservatives cannot afford to give up on universities by cutting funding, nor can they rely on a tiny number of private conservative institutions like Hillsdale, or conservative-friendly ones like the University of Austin. They must use the state to reform the Leviathan that is higher education.
There is little doubt that universities are ideologically captured by the left – something that is now affecting public opinion. A new Gallup survey shows that Americans’ confidence in universities has tanked from 57 percent in 2015 to 36 percent in 2023. Part of this is due to soaring fees and student debt. Yet Republican voters’ confidence has plunged most, from 56 percent in 2015 to 19 percent today.
Other studies find similarly large partisan gaps, with New America reporting that 75 percent of Democrats, but just 37 percent of Republicans, agree that universities are having a positive effect on society. I found that only 34 percent of Republicans trust social sciences and humanities (SSH) professors, compared to 81 percent of Democrats. For science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the gap is narrower at 89 to 67. This is not because college voters have migrated to the Democrats and populist voters tend to lack degrees. Among Republicans, trust in professors is the same for those with and without a degree.
What explains the trends? Leftist academics outnumber conservative ones in SSH disciplines at a rate of between 9 and 14 to 1 across Anglosphere countries. In the US, leftist students at R1 colleges outnumber those on the right 2.5 to 1 (rising to 5 to 1 in the Ivy League) and in Britain by approximately 6 to 1. A survey of elite SSH academics in the UK, US, Canada and Australia by Matthew Goodwin found that 70 percent of left-wing SSH academics are hostile to conservative voters. By contrast, just 36 percent of the small number of right-wing SSH academics disliked left-wing voters.
Conservative voters in the US seem to be aware of the fact that universities, especially SSH disciplines, are hotbeds of left-wing activism, and that many staff and students disdain right-wing voters. The message has yet to reach most British voters, with 66 percent of Conservatives still expressing trust in SSH academics (compared to 85 percent of Labour/Liberal voters). British voters thus seem to be roughly where their American counterparts were before 2015. How long this can hold in the face of steady media coverage of campus excesses remains to be seen.
Conservatives often default to a free-market comfort zone in which funding cuts and individual choice solve everything. But in order to stem the woke cultural revolution there is no substitute for getting into the weeds and reforming what is taught and researched at universities.
To understand why, we must think of higher education in terms of two tiers, elite and mass. Of 4,000 institutions in the US, only the 146 R1 research-intensive institutions (and of those, mainly the top 50) are in a position to influence the wider culture. Eight Ivy League universities have disproportionate clout, with many others imitating their administrative innovations. The same is true of the UK’s Russell Group (crowned by Oxbridge). Though the prestige hierarchy is more diffuse in Canada and Australia, there are still lines of influence from more prestigious colleges to the rest.
The economic problems with higher education – exorbitant fees, rising student debt, administrative bloat, poor economic prospects for frivolous degrees – are concentrated in the lower half of the sector, which has no real influence.
While one might claim that lower-tier institutions indoctrinate students into progressive mores, numerous studies show this effect to be minimal. In my survey of 18-20-year-old Britons, I find that young people who are planning to attend are as or more politically correct and left-wing than those already at university. Those with no plans to attend are less left-wing, but not more right-wing, than those at university. Even here, the effect is not large and could be linked to personality differences such as scoring lower on the Big 5 trait of openness.
What this means, in a nutshell, is that diverting more young people from low-value courses and last-chance universities to apprenticeships may help the economy, but will scarcely leave a ripple in the culture. There will be no reversal of the disastrous woke youthquake that has led to two-thirds of young people supporting Google’s firing of James Damore, a preponderant share viewing Winston Churchill and Thomas Jefferson as villains, and 74 percent of students saying that a professor who offends students should be reported to the administration.
Pruning the lower branches of the higher education tree may save some money, but in order to shape the wider culture, conservatives need to find a way to the apex. One route is to create new institutions such as the University of Austin, which can try to ascend the prestige hierarchy. However, this may take time because university systems display self-fulfilling network effects, which mean the rich get richer and then remain so. The system has few of the characteristics required for markets to work, limiting space for the kind of creative destruction that has transformed the media.
There is a good reason why top universities, unlike corporations or media outlets, are rarely created or destroyed, with rankings stable over long periods. Endowments fund the bagmen who keep the donations rolling in; influential alumni have a personal stake in the status of their alma mater; college reputations become embedded in the social currency of the elite; stringent entry requirements and high fees buoy status and drive applications.
I recall being stunned when, in conversations with staff during a job interview at Northeastern, they related how the university had deliberately hiked fees, resulting in higher quality applicants – increasing both income and prestige. To this we can add the social function of elite universities as finishing schools, recreation camps, meet markets, status markers and IQ sorting bodies.
The right needs to find a way to re-enter this juggernaut, which is integral to the status system and wider culture. I recognise that 80 percent of Humanities articles and 33 percent of Social Science articles are never cited, and most of the rest are barely read. On the other hand, the system funds a whole lot of progressives to research and write. The influential ones drive citation indices and metrics, producing a tsunami of information that swamps anything the few researchers at conservative think tanks and magazines can muster.
My CSPI colleague Richard Hanania is correct that if conservative intellectuals and wonks focus their energies on policy-relevant work and outreach to legislators they can punch far above their weight. But it’s also the case, as in war, that numbers count.
Elite academics are instrumental in training the next generation, and as academia has become ever more politically homogeneous and intolerant, conservatives are losing the ladders of opportunity that might once have helped candidates for research institutes, news outlets and bureaucratic appointments. Even right-wing papers such as Britain’s Telegraph are mainly staffed by left-wing journalism graduates. Meanwhile, conservatives fail to find suitable candidates for government posts that are vital for reforming the bureaucracy. Dissenters are being squeezed from the system.
The way forward is to abjure easy and satisfying libertarian reflexes like abolishing tenure or cutting funding to universities, grants and loan programmes. Instead, conservative governments need to work with sympathetic academics, political advisers and policy wonks who understand the system – to patiently reform it. That was key for our success with the UK’s Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill. Education matters for intrinsic reasons, not just instrumental ones. If we give up on the world of ideas and theory-building, much less the Western tradition, we simply roll out the carpet for progressives to complete their cultural revolution.
Here's my four-point plan for conservative reform:
Protect free speech on campus. Britain’s new legislation creates an academic freedom directorate on the sector regulator, which has the power to fine universities if they fail to protect and promote academic freedom. And it gives staff and students the right to appeal to an ombudsman. The Academic Freedom czar, Arif Ahmed, who strongly believes in the mission, can issue guidance and compel universities to cease no-platforming speakers, cancelling professors, enforcing speech codes, empowering bias response teams and other censorious practices.
Enforce political neutrality. All universities in receipt of public funds or loans should adhere to the 1967 Kalven Report, which debars universities from taking political positions except where narrowly relevant to their truth-seeking mission. The University of North Carolina has taken the lead on this front. Presidents down to department heads should be prevented from advocating political positions without qualifying that they are speaking in a private capacity. Department notice boards should be free of material taking political positions. Academics can express their political views, but administrators and institutions cannot if they want to receive public funds.
Abolish DEI or ensure ‘equivalent action’ between race/gender and partisanship/ideology. The latter means political or ideological discrimination should be treated as seriously as race or gender discrimination in hiring, promotion, grants, ethics review, and marking. Any programmes to improve representation on grounds of race and gender must be matched with programs to improve the representation of conservatives and Republicans – or else removed. Diversity statements should be abolished as politically discriminatory compelled speech. Grant agencies must remove rewards for grant holders who push DEI or affirmative action to get ahead. All equity policies, even if implicit, should cease unless there is equivalent action on conservative representation as on race/gender. This also means that courses that take a Critical Race or Gender perspective should be required to carry a ‘cigarette warning’ label and be defunded (but not banned). If these are required for a degree subject such as Sociology, the entire degree should be defunded. The message to students is clear: you can take activist courses, but understand what you’re doing. Universities will know that the taxpayer won’t pick up the tab for lecturers who wish to propagate controversial anti-white and/or anti-male narratives, leading to natural wastage of these courses.
Introduce conservative or classical liberal centres within universities to create viewpoint diversity. Florida and Ohio are taking the lead by writing this into law, and other red states are following suit. It is vital that these centres control tenure lines and funding streams, with full independence from the rest of the university. Leaders and trustees must closely manage appointments to leadership positions. While there are some 150 such centres across the US, many are privately-funded off-campus institutions, and those which operate inside universities are often at their mercy. They must watch their step, and often succumb to leftist takeover. For instance, when I spoke at the Stanford Academic Freedom conference, the conservative Hoover Institution pulled out late in the day for fear of upsetting relations with the progressive Stanford administration. It is hardly independent. While a change of government can imperil centres, as in Arizona, private funds can tide them over. And when the left destroy successful conservative centres, this helps to elevate education as a partisan issue, ensuring that left-wing parties pay a price for actions seeking to eliminate the little political diversity that exists on campus.
These measures require attention to the curriculum in order to detect bias and focus bans or defunding on biased content without becoming overbroad. It is more labour-intensive and requires specialised staff and stamina, but this hits elite universities where it counts, carving out space for a thriving conservative and classical liberal intellectual ecosystem.
This ecosystem can nurture the cadres who then go on to staff positions in right-of-centre media, agencies and political administrations. With the effective implementation of my four-point plan by conservative governments, students in institutions of higher education will come to understand that public mores have shifted against the current campus regime of anti-conservative discrimination and progressive propaganda.
As with seatbelt and smoking laws, culture often lies downstream of politics. For this reason, the right must resist the easy fix of cutting while dreaming of a parallel system. Patient reform of the existing system is the only way.
The same holds for schools. By analogy with Twitter, school choice is at best a Gab or Parler jab, rather than an Elon Musk knockout. Choice cannot stem indoctrination: Even if non-woke schools were available, most parents only have the time and resources to focus on performance metrics. With progressive educators dominating the ranks of teachers and curriculum materials, Zach Goldberg and I find little difference in pupils’ reported exposure to critical race and gender theory between public, private, parochial or homeschool.
With schools as with universities, government-led reform based on cultural content, not cuts and choice, is what’s needed to move the needle.
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