In New England, they outnumber conservatives 28 to 1. Why that’s bad for everyone.
By Chris Sweeney | Boston Magazine | January 2017
The freshman had his hesitations. “I am somewhat ‘in the closet,’” he emailed me from the safety of his dorm room. It was near midnight on a Thursday in late October, and the young man was still adjusting to life at Brandeis University. While he was open to the idea of doing an interview, he worried about the consequences of revealing his true self. “I fear that many of my classmates would jump to conclusions about me,” he wrote, “should they all know I am a conservative.”
To be clear: This student, whom I’ll call Ben, is not an alt-right provocateur railing against multiculturalism or a bombastic neocon. He is a skinny, stressed-out, 19-year-old Jewish kid from New Jersey who bounces his leg when he talks and prefers the Wall Street Journal to Breitbart. As with so many college students, he’s wrestling with his political identity and trying to figure out where he stands on some of the biggest issues of today, from the humanitarian crisis in Syria to police violence in America. Exploring his conservative viewpoints, though, is proving difficult to do on campus: There’s the econ professor who cracks jokes about Republicans during lectures, Ben says, not to mention the orientation event during which the speaker understandably talked passionately about the importance of Black Lives Matter, but glossed over the social movement’s assertion that Israel is an apartheid state that engages in genocide—a particularly thorny issue at a school where the undergraduate population is, according to Hillel, 47 percent Jewish.
All of this makes Ben feel like an outsider. The way he sees it, coming out politically a step to the right is the fastest route to social isolation on campus and the surest way to invite ridicule from his professors. So he bites his tongue in class and retreats to his dorm room to read and listen to conservative commentary alone. “I think it’s a shame,” he tells me. “A lot of people have negative preconceived notions about conservatives…we’re intolerant, racist, homophobic.”
The definition of conservatism has never been more muddy—depending on who you ask, it can range from white nationalists espousing hate to moderates such as Governor Charlie Baker. At many of New England’s most prestigious colleges, political conservatism has been reduced to stereotypes, conflated with the alt-right and branded as being so wrongheaded that it’s not even worth considering, let alone hiring professors who embrace right-leaning ideas. Long known as bastions of progressive thought, and home to the likes of Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, our region’s schools have always been suspected of putting the “liberal” in liberal arts college. Until recently, though, no one had quantified just how far left higher ed here had drifted.
Last spring, Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College, in New York, decided to run the numbers. From the start, he certainly expected liberal professors to outnumber conservatives, but his data—25 years’ worth of statistics from the Higher Education Research Institute—told a far more startling tale: In the South and throughout the Great Plains, the ratio of liberal to conservative professors hovered around 3 to 1. On the liberal left coast, the ratio was 6 to 1. And then there was New England—which looked like William F. Buckley’s worst nightmare—standing at 28 to 1. “It astonished me,” says Abrams, whose research revealed that conservative professors weren’t just rare; they were being pushed to the edge of extinction.
This phenomenon has been quietly unfolding for years. Abrams, who describes himself as a centrist and earned a doctorate from Harvard, sees the decline as a canary in the higher education coal mine, undercutting the mission of college and diminishing the value of six-figure educations. When the student and teacher activists of the 1960s marched across many of these same leafy campuses, they were often fighting for freedom of expression. After all, isn’t that what being a social progressive is all about? Today’s movements, on the other hand, are widely aimed at preventing the established power structure from harming less-privileged groups. Consequently, student activists have banded together—sometimes alongside faculty—in support of safe spaces, protective speech, and trigger warnings. It is the best way, the thinking goes, to align with and support all identity groups. To some people on the receiving end, however, progressive rhetoric can sound shrill and an awful lot like suppression of speech and intolerant political correctness. The result? Many conservatives on New England’s campuses are feeling more marginalized and alienated than ever before.
If you believe that plurality, open discourse, and exposure to conflicting lines of thought are critical to a complete education and to a fuller understanding of how the world works, this relatively recent shift should set off alarm bells. It certainly did for University of Chicago dean of students John “Jay” Ellison, who penned a letter notifying incoming students that “freedom of inquiry and expression” will not give way to so-called trigger warnings or safe spaces “where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” After all, the more viewpoints we are exposed to, the better equipped we are to understand one another so we can make decisions together. “Creative problem-solving is going to suffer,” Abrams says, arguing that ideological homogeneity does not prepare students for life after graduation. “The goal of college is to give you multiple viewpoints and to grow your mind, not to just be comfortable in your own bubble. The real world is not full of progressives.”
At a time when Donald Trump is setting up camp inside the West Wing, our ivy-gilded campuses in the foothills of Vermont and the suburbs of Boston are emerging as some of the most contentious ideological beachheads in the country. In response to Trump’s ascendance, campus politics are primed to swing even more to the left, potentially further alienating those college conservatives who are confounded by Trump and trying to find their political selves in today’s climate. These are the same students who may be susceptible to right-wing radicalization if we allow one of the most important forums for debate and intellectual exploration to devolve into just another partisan war zone. “New England’s college campuses,” Abrams warns, “are a powder keg ready to blow.”
Conservative professors weren’t always so heavily outnumbered here. In 1989, according to Abrams’s data, the ratio of liberal to conservative professors in New England was 5 to 1. The divide widened slowly through the 1990s and then tore open shortly after the turn of the century. Then, between 2004 and 2014, conservative professors essentially fell off the face of the Northeast.
At first, even Abrams had a hard time believing the 28-to-1 ratio was accurate. He checked and rechecked his work, accounting for every variable he could think of—tenured versus untenured professors, age, income, type of college, the selectivity of the college, which departments the professors belonged to. Time and again, though, the results showed that geography was among the strongest determining factors when it came to the political diversity of professors. After Abrams took his findings public in the New York Times, academics were floored. “That number, 28 to 1, does give one pause in thinking about what ideological diversity is and what an institution’s responsibilities are in thinking about it,” says Isabel Roche, provost and dean of Bennington College, in Vermont. “It’s a really important educational question.”
So how did our colleges and universities become such a liberal monoculture—and why is it so pronounced in New England? To this end, Abrams’s research has fueled ample criticisms and theories. Nobel laureate and Times columnist Paul Krugman has argued that professors actually haven’t become more liberal, but rather that the meaning of conservatism has changed and the Fox-ification and now Trump-ification of the Republican Party has pushed highly educated members of the right over to the left. Others contend that it’s solely because conservatives don’t go into academia. There is also the argument that political identities are social constructs that are far too complex and fickle to capture in a simple survey, as well as evidence indicating that the more highly educated a person is, the more liberal he or she tends to be.
Abrams acknowledges that Krugman has a valid point, but says none of these forces is strong enough to explain why the ideological rift in New England widened to the point of 28 to 1. A multitude of factors is at play, Abrams says, including generational displacement. At the college and university level, jobs are rare and don’t turn over as frequently as in many other professions. That means professors from the Silent Generation—those born between 1925 and 1945, who likely cut their teeth as instructors on the campuses of the 1960s—began retiring in large numbers during the early 2000s. In turn, this opened the door to younger, more activist professors, who have since been tenured. It’s no coincidence that the rise of political correctness on campus coincided with the sharp uptick in liberal professors, Abrams says: “It’s all part and parcel.”
On a warm day in the spring of 2014, Michael Bloomberg stood before a crowd of thousands at Harvard and delivered a speech to the school’s 363rd graduating class. Sporting a lavender tie and a light-blue shirt, the Democrat turned Republican turned Independent offered boilerplate platitudes and praise for “America’s most prestigious university.” Several minutes into his remarks, though, he flashed his fangs and began excoriating students, administrators, and professors for fostering a “modern-day form of McCarthyism” that censors speech and muzzles discourse. “Think about the irony,” Bloomberg told his audience. “In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas. Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species.”
Bloomberg didn’t single out any specific cases, but one doesn’t have to look very far to find examples that help explain why a man who champions a number of progressive causes—contributing millions to Planned Parenthood and funding research for tighter gun-control policies—used his platform as Harvard’s commencement speaker to shed light on the shifting cultural norms on campus. Earlier in the school year, students at Brown University had protested and compelled administrators to cancel a lecture by New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly, a registered Independent and the architect of a failed stop-and-frisk program that disproportionately targeted minorities. “Discourse facilitated, legitimized, and moneyed by the few in power is not true ‘discourse’ at all,” then-Brown student Doreen St. Félix wrote in the Guardian, defending the protests. Then, at Smith College, the all-female school in Northampton, the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde—called “one of the most accomplished and powerful women in the world” by the Washington Post—was forced to cancel her commencement speech after faculty and students took offense at certain IMF lending policies. Today’s college progressives “don’t simply think you’re wrong, they think that you’re dangerous,” says Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “I might agree if they were talking about someone way out on the fringes, but they’re talking about Republicans and Libertarians.”
The examples go on forever, and are not limited to students upset with guest speakers. In one of the more widely cited instances of campus PC culture gone haywire, the Asian American Students Association at Brandeis put up signs meant to teach students about microaggressions against Asians, which included slogans such as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” Another group of Asian-American students took offense, deemed the exhibit itself to be a microaggression, and demanded that it be removed. The student president of the group that put up the posters ultimately apologized in a campus-wide email, expressing sympathy for classmates who felt injured by the exhibit.
Brandeis, among the 35 most competitive universities in the country, was founded in 1948 and named for the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis—a man deemed by his successor as “a militant crusader for social justice.” Since the university’s founding, social justice has remained at the heart of its educational mission and a pillar of the curriculum. Like many universities, though, it has struggled in recent years to accommodate the heightened sensitivities of students without infringing on personal freedoms. Brandeis is not without conservative students, but those on the right are admittedly fearful of sharing their views.
At the start of the fall semester, the Brandeis Hoot, one of two campus papers, asked 509 students a series of questions: How do you identify politically? How comfortable are you sharing your political views on campus? And why are you hesitant to share, if applicable? Of the 13 percent of respondents who identified as conservative, three-quarters said that they chose not to express their political views on campus. Some feared verbal attacks from classmates; others didn’t want to be harshly judged by professors. “Politics is something I don’t talk about with many people at all because of the ramifications,” says Mark Gimelstein, a senior at Brandeis and president of Brandeis Conservatives. A small campus group, it drew a handful of attendees to the weekly meetings I sat in on throughout October. None supported Trump; one student present was a liberal who kept showing up because he enjoyed the conversation; and several other members leaned more libertarian than conservative.
Gimelstein describes himself as a “conservatarian,” someone who favors small government and fiscally conservative policies. When it comes to social issues such as gay marriage, he says, the federal government should stay out of them. As for the alt-right, he says, “I think my last name gives it away—Gimelstein wouldn’t be welcomed.” To be openly conservative on campus, many members of the conservative club agree, requires thick skin. “People mock us,” Gimelstein told me, claiming that roughly half the students who approached his club’s table during a sign-up event scoffed at the notion that Brandeis even had a club for conservatives.
Gimelstein speaks highly of the quality of education he’s received, but says there is an undeniable liberal slant among his professors that has ranged over the years from annoying to detrimental. “My intro to microeconomics course, I won’t name the professor, but he literally yelled that he hated Republicans in class,” Gimelstein says. Though it was intended to be more humorous than mean-spirited, it had a chilling effect. “While all my classmates were laughing along, I wasn’t laughing,” he says. “It was kind of insulting and it made it harder to have a productive conversation.”
Michael Musto, a Brandeis senior who is a double major in politics and history, has seen similar events play out in class. When the influential conservative Phyllis Schlafly died this past September, Musto recalls, one of his professors quipped, “There’s a special place in hell for people like her.” A month later, when Tom Hayden, a co-author of the Port Huron Statement and founder of the Students for a Democratic Society, died, the same professor eulogized Hayden’s contributions to the left. “The average student who is just trying to study gets the impression of, ‘Oh man, those evil right-wingers,’” says Musto, who identifies as a Libertarian. Frustrating as it is for him, Musto keeps a low profile for fear of being that guy in the eyes of the person who will be grading his papers. Like other Brandeis conservatives, he says, “I never really speak up.”
Brandeis president Ronald Liebowitz, who previously served as the president of Middlebury College, in Vermont, is troubled by the notion that conservative students are reluctant to express their views in the classroom. During his 30-plus-year career in higher education, he has heard concerns of liberal bias play out time and again. At both Middlebury and Brandeis, parents and alumni have told him that they wanted to see more ideological balance among the faculty; some suggested going so far as to impose an ideological litmus test during the hiring process to ensure a greater diversity of viewpoints. Liebowitz isn’t keen on the idea. “I think what we have to do instead,” he says, “is ensure that the classroom does not become politicized.” As for Musto’s and Gimelstein’s stories about professors poking fun at Republicans, Liebowitz says these comments don’t rise to the level of suggesting an adversarial environment for conservatives at his university. “I would think that Brandeis students, Middlebury students—smart students—would have the mettle, the ability to question this or push back a little,” he says.
Many people argue that a professor’s bias, to the right or the left, does not affect the quality of instruction or mean that students are receiving a one-sided education. But as Musto and Gimelstein point out, that’s giving little credit to students who are trying to learn in an atmosphere where to be liberal is to be in on the joke, and to be conservative is to be the punch line.
Students are not the only conservatives on campus hiding their political identity in the closet. Several years ago, Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn interviewed 153 conservative professors for their book, Passing on the Right. In it, the duo say that within the context of college campuses, conservatives are a “stigmatized minority” and cite research suggesting that, in many instances, conservative professors are forced to rely on the same “coping strategies that gays and lesbians have used in the military and other inhospitable work environments.”
Shields, an associate professor at Claremont McKenna College, in California, is quick to emphasize that the experience of a closeted conservative professor and a closeted gay person are not equivalent. Still, most of the research on closeted behavior in the workplace focuses on the gay and lesbian experience, Shields explains, and he discovered that many of the conservative professors who spoke with him used that same language. Of the more than 150 professors he interviewed, a third admitted that they kept their conservatism a secret or passed themselves off as liberals until they were granted tenure. “They have an identity that is stigmatized in the community they are working in,” Shields says, “so they conceal those identities from those around them. Sometimes that requires outright lying.”
Climbing the career ladder in academia toward tenure is a years-long undertaking that typically demands that a professor publish scholarly research. This can be a perilous undertaking for young conservative academics who may find themselves being vetted by a left-leaning tenure board. Consider the case of James Miller, an economist at Smith College who arrived on campus in 1996. In hopes of attaining tenure, he taught several classes each semester, cranked out academic articles in reputable journals, and authored a book on game theory. Along the way, he also wrote a few op-eds, including one for National Review in which he asserted that the dominance of liberals in academia skews scholarship to the point that aspiring professors are forced to pursue research pleasing to the liberal gatekeepers, who grant or deny tenure with the ruthlessness of Caesar at the Roman Forum. “Practically the only way for a women’s-studies professor to get a lifetime college appointment,” he wrote, “is for her to contribute to the literature on why America is racist, sexist, and homophobic.”
When Miller came up for tenure the following year, he was denied by two votes. In letters explaining why board members voted for or against Miller, one of the professors wrote that she voted against him because Miller had publicly criticized the economics of tenure policies in his book. Another professor wrote that she found the views expressed in Miller’s National Review op-ed to be disturbing. “They didn’t say I was wrong,” Miller says, still sounding defensive more than a decade later. “They said I shouldn’t have said that.”
The incident snowballed, and soon Miller found himself on The O’Reilly Factor, where he was cast as the poster victim for how liberals are systematically stamping out conservative thought in higher education. After more than a year, Smith’s board of trustees intervened, overturned the tenure committee’s decision, and cast Miller in a lifelong starring role as the college’s token conservative. Miller is not shy when it comes to critiquing his liberal colleagues, whom he views as being so afraid of offending one another or their students that they are simply teaching affirmation rather than information. “Conservative ideas,” he says, “are presented in a way that this is evil and unthinkable and outside the window of politically acceptable thought.”
This past November 2, less than a week before election day, Miller and a liberal professor from the economics department debated the merits of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in front of an auditorium full of Smith undergrads. After the event, Miller chatted with a young student and told her that she’d better be prepared for a Trump presidency. The student chortled and rolled her eyes; she appeared dumbstruck that a professor at Smith actually thought Trump could win.
A few days after midterms, Ben, the Brandeis freshman who didn’t want to use his name for fear of being outed as a conservative, finally agreed to an interview. When he signed on to attend the famously progressive school, he knew its history of social justice as well as its liberal reputation. The first few weeks on campus had their ups and downs, he told me, but after watching his professor make fun of Republicans in class and gauging just how seriously other students took their progressive beliefs, he decided the only truly safe space was in the political closet. “Politics is a big part of who I am,” he confides. “I definitely spend a lot of my downtime reading or listening to news and politics-related content. [At Brandeis], I have done that in secret.”
The past two months have proven to be an emotional pressure test for New England’s campuses. The extremes of political viewpoints have erupted in crude actions from both camps. Not long after Trump secured the presidency, two students from Babson College drove through Wellesley College—Hillary Clinton’s alma mater—flying a Trump flag and allegedly yelling “Make America great again” as they passed by the Harambee House, which provides support to minority students. Eighty miles west, at Mount Holyoke College, conservative student and commentator Kassy Dillon reported that classmates yelled profanities at her on campus, including “Fuck you, fuck Trump, I fucking hate Trump supporters.”
Around the same time, at Hampshire College, several towns over, someone torched an American flag and thrust the school into the national spotlight. The liberal arts college decided for a time to stop flying the flag altogether. In predictable fashion, Trump took to Twitter, suggesting that anyone caught desecrating the American flag should be punished with either jail time or the loss of citizenship. Then came the “Professor Watchlist,” a website detailing the names of professors who allegedly push a liberal agenda and show prejudice against conservative students.
In a perfect society, colleges and universities would be the last places where discourse should be allowed to crumble. After all, they were designed as the original safe space—a sanctuary where scholars were encouraged to plunge into difficult and dicey questions without fear, guided by data and rigorous research, no matter how unpopular the subject may be. “The more diversity of perspective we have, the better,” says Robert Johnson, a professor of Africana Studies at UMass Boston. “If there is a conservative perspective, even one bordering on racism, I think that’s legitimate within the academy. The test of a great university or college is the ability to discuss any issue in a civil manner.”
For many students, the four years spent on campus serve as a temporary layover in life that gives them space to find an initial path and purpose. Instilling a sense of tolerance during that precious time is more important than ever, but doing so requires that everyone acknowledge that tolerance and intolerance cut both ways. If conservatives are made to feel that their perspective is wrong or offensive, they may head for the political fringe. Some radicalized groups are looking to exploit this: A month after the presidential election, for instance, a white nationalist group called American Vanguard plastered more than half a dozen posters on Emerson College’s campus urging white men to “Take Your Country Back.” When asked about the posters by a local TV reporter, American Vanguard reportedly responded, “The more the left overreacts to our posters, the more people join our cause.”
As for Ben, he’s not sticking around long enough to find out how campus politics play out. Instead, by this time next year he hopes to have transferred. The political climate at Brandeis isn’t the only reason he wants to leave, but it’s a significant factor. If he’s going to graduate buried in student-loan debt, Ben says, he’d at least like to spend his money going someplace where he doesn’t feel like such an intruder. As we say so long, he jokes that his year of living right in the land of the left should make good fodder for admissions essays to other colleges—none of which, unsurprisingly, are located in New England.
Chris Sweeney is a staff writer at Boston magazine. He’s previously contributed to Men’s Journal, Playboy, New Times, and other publications. Sweeney’s interests include the environment, global health, international development, and crime. He was once hit by a fire truck while riding his bike.