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Higher education doesn’t adequately support conservatives and their academic freedom (opinion)

I am a conservative in the social sciences and humanities at Towson University. I would say “the” conservative, but I have one good right-of-center colleague who teaches there, as well. The university has upwards of 1,000 full-time faculty and 25,000 students.

One day last spring, I was gobsmacked by my beloved university — one I have cherished and about which I have bragged for more than 45 years, despite its periodic shortcomings in living up to its academic freedom pretensions. I was in a meeting of the Academic Senate, of which I had been an elected member for over four decades. I proposed that the words “ideological perspectives” be added to the long list of identity categories and religion protected in hiring and treatment of Towson employees.

I pointed out that conservatism was under attack at public colleges and universities throughout the country. I noted that statistic after statistic of the ratio of liberals to conservatives corroborated this fact, often 12 to one and worse.

But my motion failed to get a second, which meant that it would not even be discussed. That was the first time in my 41-year history at the Senate that a proposal of mine failed consideration for lack of a senatorial second. To not second a motion means that the entire legislative body is stating that there is no value addressing the matter at hand whatsoever, that it has no merit.

I sent an email the next day to my colleagues, which included the following.

Dear Colleagues …

Yesterday was the nadir of the Towson Senate meetings over the last 41 years of which I have been a member … My disillusionment at yesterday’s refusal to discuss protecting conservatives is impossible to exaggerate … conservatives throughout the nation at public universities in social sciences and humanities find it increasingly difficult to get jobs, [get promotion], get tenure, get published, participate in campus administration or even to publicly acknowledge … their politics … That is not what academe is supposed to be about.

As is characteristic of Towson, a liberal university with many high-integrity people, following my email, I received some apologies from members of our Academic Senate — two. Our excellent American Association of University Professors representative, who could not make the meeting, apologized to me for the (in)action of the Senate. In addition, a good and decent colleague contacted me to express her sincere regret for being distracted and not even knowing that the proposal was on the floor. As for the other 23 members of the Senate? Crickets.

It is typical that the most discriminated-against higher education employees — conservatives — are ignored in public colleges and universities, ostensibly but falsely obsessed with diversity. If you look at mission statements and other public college and university faculty and administrators’ documents, you will rarely find any diversity formulations that include concern for conservatives’ academic freedom and the marketplace of ideas as it applies to them.

I have been on the front lines in the fight for academic freedom for conservatives for most of my career. During my more than four decades at Towson, I have been one of the more active professors in my field in teaching, scholarship and service. Yet throughout my professorial tenure, I have encountered overt discrimination, including attempted suppression of my writing and speaking on conservative topics and issues.

To be fair, I have also experienced tremendous support from many old-style liberals both in my university and in my field who have been appalled and embarrassed at the turn academe has taken to crush conservatives and conservatism in public higher education.

The American Association of University Professors, the pre-eminent membership association for faculty members and other academic professionals in the United States, proclaims prominently on its website, “Academic freedom is indispensable for quality institutions of higher education. As the AAUP’s core policy document states, ‘institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.’”

But the reality of the nationwide academic movement against conservatives and conservatism is that few people demonstrate any concern for those of us on the center-right or right — or even comity with us. That said, again, it is always somewhat complicated. I found some nationwide academic organizations to be as openly hostile to conservative thought as one can imagine, especially since the presidential election in 2016. Meanwhile, some regional organizations, such as the Eastern Communication Association and the Southern States Communication Association, are liberal but fierce defenders of academic freedom.

The sine qua non of the academy is freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas. This is not just phatic rhetoric — it is a claimed, but disingenuous, solemn dedication to academic freedom. It is comparable to encomiums offered to voting and universal suffrage for hundreds of years in America while the United States simultaneously through de facto and de jure methods arbitrarily eliminated and/or limited the right to vote of people of color, women and others.

And just as most Americans historically have through unconscious doublethink ignored such inconsistency and hypocrisy, the thorough discrimination against conservatives that has led to their leaving the academy and conservative students’ being treated as second-class citizens is rarely ever publicly discussed. None of this attenuates the regular self-congratulatory celebrations of academic freedom in the academy while conservatism’s diminishment proceeds unabated.

The hope for alleviation, if not eradication, of the conservative lot in academe requires attention — attention to the overwhelming prejudices against those who think like Edmund Burke, George F. Will and William F. Buckley.

Speaking of Buckley, conservatives in academe need liberal faculty and administrative leaders to join us and be “someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop,’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

Richard E. Vatz is a professor at Towson University. He is the author of The Only Authentic of Persuasion: The Agenda-Spin Model (LAD Custom Publishing, 2021) and the co-editor of Thomas S. Szasz: The Man and His Ideas (Transaction Publishers, 2017).

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