When he came to Wake Forest University, he was a vocal, card-carrying Obama supporter. It helped him fit into his department and develop good relationships with his colleagues. A few years later, something happened. He always was open to the arguments of conservative students, and was often impressed by their intellect and ability to discuss issues. After several years and a lot research, this professor changed his views and became comfortable as being identified as a conservative thinker. When he made this shift, he joined a small group of professors who hide in plain sight at Wake Forest and realized the unique set of challenges conservative professors face.
Wake Forest University has an ideological diversity problem. After researching the party identification of 396 tenure-track, tenured, and teaching professors in the Undergraduate College using North Carolina’s Public Voter Search, the Review found that only 11 percent of professors at Wake Forest are Republicans or lean Republican. Several departments at the University had less than 11 percent, with only 2.3 percent of foreign language professors, 4.5 percent of humanities professors, and 4.65 percent of literature professors are Republicans or lean Republican. For more data and information about our party identification study, go here.
I sat down with 6 conservative professors at the University who each requested anonymity in order to speak openly. All of them said that the university lacks a commitment to ideological diversity, which has created an environment where politics trumps the intellectual pursuit of truth.
An Ideological Vacuum
“The problem is that whenever you are on the liberal left, to some degree, you don’t really see conservative ideas as even valid or worth the time and effort to allow because you have a sense that you know more and you know better.”
“Politics has replaced the pursuit of truth,” said a professor in the social sciences. “Ideology gets in the way of the pursuit of truth,” said a professor in literature. “It certainly lacks integrity to say I get to bring my political views to the table but someone else doesn’t,” said a professor in the humanities. Across the undergraduate college, political ideology is getting in the way of academic freedom and intellectual pursuits.
Professors said that there are questions that are not allowed to be asked and assumptions that are not allowed to be challenged for political reasons. “It’s such a flawed way to explore new ideas when you just rule out ideas as beyond the pale when half of the populace has these ideas and act like there are no replies to their own ideas. This is as debilitating to them [professors] as it is to their own students,” said a professor in the social sciences.
A different professor in the social sciences believes that this problem stems from intellectual arrogance, “The problem is that whenever you are on the liberal left, to some degree, you don’t really see conservative ideas as even valid or worth the time and effort to allow because you have a sense that you know more and you know better.” This arrogance creates what another professor described as an “ideological vacuum.” In this vacuum he described, professors do not acknowledge counter-arguments on issues or challenge their own assumptions.
Provost Rogan Kersh noted that Wake Forest’s ideological diversity is “similar to that nationwide. Inside Higher Ed performed a study last year showing that around 11 percent of U.S college/university faculty identify as conservative; at private four-year universities, that figure is roughly 8.5 percent. Our similar numbers could certainly mean that ideological diversity is absent on our campus, but I haven’t found that to be the case, in private or public conversations.”
“Conservatives can’t even get their foot in the door in a ton of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities unless they completely disguise it and fly under the radar.”
Most of the professors I interviewed do not openly discuss their political beliefs with their colleagues. There is an overwhelming assumption in many departments that every faculty member identifies as left of center. “In certain departments, they assume everyone is of the same ideology,” said a professor in the social sciences. One professor said that even if he tried to express his conservative views, his colleagues would suffer too much cognitive dissonance to recognize them. The assumption that all faculty are liberal has led to open derision and ridicule of Republicans and conservatism, according to a different professor in the social sciences, which has caused a sense of hostility against conservative faculty.
The inhospitable environment at Wake Forest has stoked the fears of conservative professors. Five out of the six professors I interviewed strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that being openly conservative makes it harder to advance in a career in academia.
Due to these factors, many of these professors have decided to stay in hiding. One professor said staying in hiding makes it easier to get hired, “Conservatives can’t even get their foot in the door in a ton of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities unless they completely disguise it and fly under the radar.” Another professor believes that disguising his beliefs creates a better work environment,“I would lose harmony and congenitally if I was more open about some of my views.”
One professor has chosen to stay in hiding to avoid association with harmful labels. “There are a lot of things people mean when they say are right of center or conservative, and we all don’t mean the same thing by that, which is important to keep in mind,” she said. She believes assumptions based on these labels, “really undermine your career opportunites, your ability to lead effectively and to interact well with others and collaborate because people made a whole bunch of assumptions about you.”
Provost Kersh responded by expressing concern. He said, “It’s distressing whenever any member of our community—faculty, staff, or students—feels actively excluded from the intellectual and extracurricular opportunities on our campus. In an academic institution, it’s all the more troubling when that apparent exclusion is based on one’s ideas or political views. In my formal role—reviewing tenure and promotion cases, for example—I have not experienced department or school colleagues to be punitive in any way based on a candidate’s ideological outlook.”
A Wake Forest Solution
“As an institution of higher learning, we need to be respectful and responsive to the concerns and frustrations of all persons, regardless of their political ideology. Only then will Wake Forest be truly inclusive.”
The professors who I interviewed all believe that it is difficult to solve the ideological diversity problem. This issue, as described by a professor from the social sciences, “comes from the bottom-up.” With a hiring pool that lacks conservatives, it would be extremely difficult for the university to reach statistical parity between Independents, Democrats and Republicans. With that in mind, these professors offered a range of options on how Wake Forest could move forward.
It seemed that there were two ways professors believed the university should move forward. The first was for ideology to be considered in the hiring process. One professor suggested that this could be accomplished if the Board of Trustees “take more aggressive action to make sure the university hires a more balanced pool of people.”
Other professors hoped that the University would take steps to make conservative faculty feel more accepted among their peers. A professor in the humanities hoped for a greater understanding of political and religious biases, saying “Just as wrong as it is to take someone’s skin color and based on that make a series of assumptions about where they are from, what their capacities they are,what opportunities they have, and how competent they are; it’s really dangerous to do that with someone’s perceived political or religious commitments.” A professor from the social sciences agreed. He said, “As an institution of higher learning, we need to be respectful and responsive to the concerns and frustrations of all persons, regardless of their political ideology. Only then will Wake Forest be truly inclusive.”