Will a Conservative Backlash Hit Higher-Ed in the Pocketbook?

Left-wing protest at the University of California-Berkeley.

Two weeks ago, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato urged Virginia colleges and universities to be friendlier to Republican legislators. His motives were pragmatic. If higher-ed wants more money from state taxpayers, it might behoove colleges and universities to not treat members of the majority party like lepers when they set foot on college campuses.

Sabato identified a big problem for higher-ed — a problem that came into sharp focus with an important op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. In that essay, John M. Ellis, a professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California-Santa Cruz, argues that higher-ed “is close to the end of a half-century process by which the campuses have been emptied of centrist and right-of-center voices. … More than half of the spectrum of political and social ideas has been banished from the classrooms.”

Whereas in 1969, there were overall about twice as many left-of-center as right-of-center faculty, today, the ratio is more like 10 to one. And in the humanities and social science departments — history, English, and political science — the share of left-of-center faculty already approaches 100%.

Ellis laments the impact of increasing philosophical-political conformity in academia on the quality of thought.

Well-balanced opposing views act as a corrective for each other: The weaker arguments of one side are pounced on and picked off by the other. Both remain consequently healthier and more intellectually viable. But intellectual dominance promotes stupidity. As one side becomes numerically stronger, its discipline weakens. The greater the imbalance between the two sides, the more incoherent and irrational the majority will become.

What we are now seeing on the campuses illustrates this general principle perfectly. The nearly complete exclusion of one side has led to complete irrationality on the other. … Campus radicals have lost the ability to engage with arguments and resort instead to the lazy alternative of name-calling: Opponents are all “fascists,” “racists” or “white supremacists.”

Extremism and demagoguery win out. Physical violence is the endpoint of this intellectual decay — the stage at which academic thought and indeed higher education have ceased to exist.

Beyond lamenting the decay in thought, Ellis makes the connection to parents and taxpayers. “The public pays huge sums, both through tuition and taxation, to educate young people, and except in STEM subjects, most of that money is being wasted. Those who pay the bills have the power to stop this abuse of higher education if they organize themselves effectively. (My emphasis.)

Bacon’s bottom line: Millions of Americans regard higher education in the United States as hostile to their values and political views. Millions of Americans send their children off to college, fearing that they will be inculcated with those antithetical values, and they do so only because they perceive that getting a “college education” is the only pathway for their children into the middle class. Increasingly, they resent paying sky-high tuition, and they resent subsidizing the their childrens’ brainwashers with taxpayer dollars. Given the circumstances, how can anyone be surprised if public colleges and universities find eroding popular support for taxpayer subsidies? Only someone warmly encased in an ideological cocoon — like an institution of higher education — could fail to see the obvious.

In today’s hyper-polarized political and cultural environment, Republicans and conservatives increasingly view higher-ed as the enemy — which, in fact, it often is — many in higher-ed see Republicans and conservatives as the enemy! Thus, we see in Congress a Republican move to tax the income of the biggest private college/university endowments, which is seen as a subsidy for liberal-progressive institutions. Meanwhile, in statehouses across the country, legislators have been slashing state support for public higher ed.

Here in Virginia, we must bear in mind that John Ellis is part of the California system of higher education which arguably has the most leftist orientation of any system in the country. The shut-down of conservative voices that occurs in California campuses does not occur in Virginia — not yet. (Unless you count the drowning out of ACLU lawyer Claire Gastanaga at the College of William & Mary, in which case the phenomena has reached Virginia.) The political orientation of Virginia faculty and administrators is assuredly far to the left of the population generally. What we, as members of the public, do not know is the degree to which that is so. Are Virginia institutions as intolerant as California institutions, just more quietly so? My sense, based on anecdotal data, is that a somewhat broader spectrum of views prevails. But I have no hard evidence to back that up.

Ellis suggests that those who pay the bills might “get organized” in protest. So far, I have seen no sign of a broad-based movement emerging here in Virginia. Boards of trustees rubber stamp administrative initiatives. Supine alumni think little beyond the next tailgate party. No one questions the conventional pieties. But university leaders had better beware. But if the general population ever becomes as hostile to higher education as denizens of higher education are hostile to the general population, political support for state funding could deteriorate faster than you can say, “safe space.”

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30 responses to “Will a Conservative Backlash Hit Higher-Ed in the Pocketbook?”

  1. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

    On Sunday I found a Collegiate Times, the Va Tech student newspaper, from September 12, 2017. On its front page a picture of Ed Gillespie was positioned with this headline – “Op-Ed: Gillespie for Governor, Gubernatorial Republican candidate Ed Gillespie advocates for equal education opportunities for all.”

    There have been conservative, including ultraconservative, students on our campus as long as I have been around. The environment today means that these students are empowered to speak and do. Faculty I know focus on getting students TO think, not telling them WHAT to think.

    VT has supported principles of diversity since 2005 and has a broad diversity program. Check out the basics at https://inclusive.vt.edu/vtpoc0.html

    That story being pushed about all campuses being ultra liberal is just that, a story. It’s not fact. Please stop repeating the old saw and recognize that even though some complain, diversity of perspective and the expectation that all will speak up is reality.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” That story being pushed about all campuses being ultra liberal is just that, a story. It’s not fact. Please stop repeating the old saw and recognize that even though some complain, diversity of perspective and the expectation that all will speak up is reality.”


    apparently folks who say the colleges have moved “left” were not around in the 1960’s … when things were REALLY LEFT!!!

    Colleges haven’t changed much.. what’s changed is the right.

  3. LocalGovGuy Avatar

    I’ve posted before, and I’ll post again…it is beyond laughable to call today’s college campuses “leftist” from an economic perspective.

    From the 1930s through the 1980s, most econ and business faculties had a number of faculty members who were “left” in sense of advocating for democratic socialist economic policies and being strong advocates of labor. Back then, maybe there was some validity to the criticism.

    Today, even the business and economic faculties at Brown and Berkeley (easily the 2 most “left” elite institutions in America) are dominated by neoliberalism advocates who disdain socialist economic policies and the labor movement.

    Outside of a few tiny liberal arts colleges in America, I really doubt you’d find many institutions of higher learning that have more than a handful of econ or business professors teaching Marxist or democratic socialist or labor-friendly economics.

    1. So… the numbers cited by Ellis are just a figment of his imagination?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        did he provide references? I think I saw a lot of claims but not many facts.

        besides if Conservatives were REALLY principled they’d REFUSE to send their kids to these institutions that violate their values!

        They let that “market” speak!


      2. LocalGovGuy Avatar

        Go to the Darden School for a week and tell me how many Marxists or even democratic socialists you meet on the faculty. I seriously doubt you’d meet more than one. Go to Virginia Tech’s econ department and spend a week. Again, I seriously doubt you’d find anyone who is a Marxist. Maybe one or two profs might have a bit of sympathy for a Scandinavian model (light democratic socialist). But the vast majority would be neoliberal in outlook. This idea that our universities are teaching Marxist economics is simply not true. Neoliberalism is the dominant outlook for most economics departments in higher ed.

        1. LocalGovGuy, you’re cherry picking the schools/departments with the most intimate acquaintance with market principles. If you’ll find conservatives anywhere, it will be in economics departments and business schools.

          Your choice of a yardstick — the percentage Marxist professors — is misleading. I don’t think anyone is saying that higher ed generally is dominated by Marxists (although some departments are). They’re saying higher ed is overwhelmingly left of center, which includes a fair amount of room for non-Marxists.

          However, I would concede that there are different types of conservative — there are cultural conservatives and market conservatives (who used to be called liberals once upon a time). College campuses probably are most hostile to cultural conservatives.

          1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            Jim – I guess Bernie Sanders getting all those millions of votes of young folks votes was just a bad dream. Sure proof that a fish will forever deny that it lives in water.

            Meanwhile back in the real world, see this:


  4. The comments about universities being more economically conservative are valid. However, I believe Bacon is referring to cultural, post-modern values and political correctness, from which there was a major backlash in the election of 2016. Jonathan Haidt and others have formed the Heterodox Academy to deal with this lack of political diversity on campus.

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I think a broad bipartisan consensus remains that higher education is an essential state service. The problem is that state resources are badly stretched by other priorities (Medicaid being the fastest growing, but hardly the only one squeezing out other things), the schools have little motivation to control costs and the state leaders are able to push more of the cost onto the students. They can do that with higher ed, but not (for example) corrections, so slowly they have. I don’t think the erosion of state support is due to ideology. The liberal ideology that worries me is the “from each according to his means” theory that well-to-do families ought to be paying $30K per year at a state-owned school, and should be overcharged to subsidize others, just because they can “afford it”.

    As to any disconnect between the electorate and the political climate at the schools, you may be misreading the electorate. Or did you sleep through last week? The threat that worries me is that the net cost to the student has gotten so high that the people feel they just can’t swing it, or if they do it is no longer worth it. What will my two VA grandsons need in 15 years – $200-250,000 EACH? Maybe.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Was the climate more liberal in the mid 70s? Probably as liberal. They had Nixon to beat on, just like Trump today. The head of the Religion Department was a resigned priest, married to a resigned nun, a crony of the Berrigan brothers. My favorite prof was a huge Humphrey Democrat. But my favorite econ teacher was an advocate of Milton Friedman and my intro anthro prof actually made a good case that there is no such thing as “race”, it has no basis in biology but is just a cultural construct – a theory that would get him run off today. What I never felt was pressure to accept it all as given, or pressure to avoid publicly disputing with them – in fact it seemed to be encouraged. I just hope that hasn’t changed. If it has, I suspect the problem is just as much the students as the faculty.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    The 60’s were without question “leftist” with marxists, anti-establishment, black panthers, feminists , peace protesters, you name it.

    A dozen or more cities were burned during the race riots… something that if happened to day would – no doubt be called antifas “terrorism”.. and they’d truck the troublemakers off to Gitmo!!

    It’s like some of these folks were living in caves in the sixties or in some “protected” enclaves for “conservatives”. It’s like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater never existed!

  7. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “A dozen or more cities were burned during the race riots…”

    My recollection was there were riots in some 58 or more cities in one year. You might want to double check. This is does not include several assassinations, plus multiple kidnappings, bombings, armed robberies, hostile armed takeovers and strong arm jobs, plus multiple cocktail and dinner party fund raisers by the New York glitterati grandstanding their hipster liberalism.

  8. musingsfromjanus Avatar

    This is an apple.

    The media, academia, the inchoate Federal apparatus, and Democratic and Republican parties have been moving left since Roosevelt. During the Obama administration the country was jerked significantly leftward creating a very large chasm between the values and beliefs of most of geographical America and dense, urban populations on the East and West coast.

    On most campuses today, to be openly conservative or a Republican is to invite scorn, violence, harassment, and a very hostile environment. Statements which do not conform to the Liberal lexicon can cost a person his/her job, extreme ostracism, public and private ridicule and worse.

    Liberalism has morphed from a set of beliefs about the best social and economic policy to a secular religion genuflecting to any who attack virtually any aspect of traditional American values, religion, or whites and virtually anything is legitimate to exterminate, humiliate, silence, and extinguish the apostates.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      re: ” moving left since Roosevelt”

      according to the hard right -yes – but most folks not really – and you find this out when you ask for specific examples of “moving left” … for instance the “shift to the left on College campuses..jeezey peezy – they’ve ALWAYS been left and the hard right has ALWAYS decried it.. it’s not “new”.

      but perhaps you can name some more convincing specific examples…that you think everyone left or right would agree with?

      I think it’s more a matter of perspective and the folks on the hard right – not the moderate (establishment) right – have a different perspective .. and today with the advent of the internet they have gotten a bigger voice… but their actual numbers are still less than a third of the electorate.

      And that’s a dilemma … because the right needs BOTH the far right and moderate right – to be able to gain a majority to govern and even then it’s dicey as we saw in the last election.

      The right, when elected, wants to represent their own values not the majority.

      1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

        It is absurd to think the country has moved “left” in the past 40 years.

        There was a time in American history (1930s to early 1970s) in which labor unions were treated as legitimate pieces of the economic puzzle in America. I believe that at one point in the 1950s, nearly one third of all private sector workers were unionized. Today I think that number is at either 5 or 6% depending on who is counting.

        And you can tell that many posters on this blog simply don’t talk to anyone under 60 except their own children. Get out and talk to 20 and 30 somethings. They openly mock and roll their eyes at the mention of labor unions. It strikes almost all of them as an outdated concept.

        Somehow that is “moving left.”

        Or take a look at who uses AirBnB, Uber, etc. It’s 20 and 30 somethings for the most part. They view everything as a market. But somehow that is “moving left.”

        Or take a look at the working patterns of 20 and 30 somethings. They have no problem working at midnight on a project or on weekends. They even check and reply to emails while on vacation. The idea of the FLSA and a 40 hour workweek is absurd to most of them. But somehow that is “moving left.”

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          Labor Unions today are far more powerful than ever before. They control the administrative arms of our State and Federal governments, and many of its agencies. This includes modern day “deep states ” that infest growing segments of our national institutions, such as for example, public schools and a growing portion of our system of higher education, giving unheard of power to these public unions to do long lasting harm to the American people. All of which we witness today in abundance.

          Of course this is a problem thought out the Western World, witness the European Union and its convergence with totalitarian societies, as we have seen time and again and again in the past, the surge of the modern state since the rise of Henry the 8th and the French Sun King.

  9. I was almost drafted in 1972 as a college freshman (first year they got rid of student deferments) and observed much campus unrest. But I would say we have less violence, but more divisiveness. Maybe blame the Baby Boomers for that, some have said.

    One interesting change to me has been the military, in those Vietnam days on the liberal’s deplorables list, has remediated itself and is widely respected in bipartisan manner. Part of what helped that change was getting rid of the draft. In college I wrote a ethics paper on basically how military + petrochemical industry were on the deplorables list (I did not use that word “deplorables” of course). But when Hillary said that, it struck a chord with me as to the characterization of today’s liberal attitude.

    The only thing I can imagine as the cause of that attitude is possibly having Pres. Obama in the White House gave liberals hopes of rising expectations that the liberal agenda had clear sailing (no viable opposition).

  10. Going back to the 1960s when I worked for VT and going forward I would say that liberals in the 1960s+ were more radical than they are today even though it seems that there are more today. Conservatives were more cautious but then there emerged a conservative economic centered focus among a minority of faculty. But these were not as welcome as the more centralist or liberal voices. For example, in the 1980s when I worked at GMU we were able to recruit conservative faculty from across the country who felt a little uncertain about their campuses. For example, James Buchanan who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in the 1980s was once at U. Va. but felt uncomfortable and went to UCLA. Then he came back to Virginia at VT but did not feel comfortable with certain administrators. So he and others and brought his whole group to George Mason and created a new center. There were faculty from across the nation who transferred to GMU.
    Buchanan won the Nobel Prize and the rest is history.
    But the administration at GMU, while liberal arts centered, was open to a range of thoughts and that made the difference.
    So administrative leadership, like the late George Johnson a former English professor, is key to having a open dialogue and range of experts today just like in the 1970s but we do not have a raging war now…and hope we are not moving in that direction. (Actually, politically we are beginning to look like Europe in the 1920s.)

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I agree with your history lesson and thanks for filling in many details about which I was unaware. The “founders” of George Mason deserve much credit, their private work for public benefit is a model for other private citizens as to how to make a lasting public contribution. I say this while I also believe that the Fuller demographic operation unfortunately became in my view far too captive of private interests to the detriment of good growth policies locally. I also sense that recently George Mason has come under the undue influence of federal government monies now too often disbursed to promote partisan political objectives. This is a growing problem throughout higher education, but likely George Mason’s location makes the siren song of “easy” federal monies and the intention behind those monies nearly impossible to resist. In my view federal monies always pose a far greater threat than private monies, such as Koch brothers, and/or their liberal counter-parts. Individuals of all persuasions have a right to express and to fund their political views. Taxpayer funded partisan politics is FAR DIFFERENT, easily a fatal disease.

  11. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I think categorizing the U.S. as more liberal or more conservative cannot be done. It’s just too complex. Generally, we are more tolerant of government economic regulation, government spending and private behaviors. Yet, we are generally more resistant to taxes (Fairfax County voted for Hillary Clinton and against the Meals Tax) and interference with gun ownership. And a large number of people think labor unions add no value to society and others believe the MSM is a whore for the Democrats. And others think much of the new media spouts ideology instead of reporting. Of course, I’m writing from the 50,000 ft. level and recognize there are many, many people on the other side of these issues.

    At the same time, intolerance is growing on both edges of the political spectrum. I need not go into details.

    1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

      I am in 100% agreement with your post. It’s much, much too complicated to generalize about America or even academia. For every radical left professor at Berkeley, you can find a reasoned market-oriented econ or business professor.

      I also agree that while there may be some tolerance for limited gun regulation, overall, the American populace is much more fierce in liberally interpreting the 2nd Amendment today than say, the 1930s or 1960s. Even in liberal hotbeds, you don’t find people calling for banning ownership of handguns like you heard in the late 1960s.

      It’s the extremes that are getting more extreme. But the other 80% of Americans both inside and outside of academia? I just don’t think one can say the population or academia is any more “left” today than 1936 or 1964.

      I can say, without a doubt, that young people, both college grads and non college grads, today are much, much more market-oriented than they were in the 1960s.

  12. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” I can say, without a doubt, that young people, both college grads and non college grads, today are much, much more market-oriented than they were in the 1960s.”

    Maybe – I note the consternation with dynamic pricing tolls… many do not “buy” the idea that the dynamic toll is set by demand…

    Talking about Uber – more consternation about “surge pricing”… often referred to a “ripping off”.

    Other things like the price of airline tickets and stadium seats seem accepted.

    1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

      Interesting that you bring up airlines b/c that’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’m currently writing an opinion piece about the topic and the death of the idea that consumers have “rights.”

      There was a time, even under the Reagan Administration, where Americans did not just “accept” being treated like literal garbage by the airlines. Regardless of political party or age, there was a time where consumers believed the gov’t had some role to ensure that power was not completely centered with corporations (airlines).

      Nowadays, and especially among 20 and 30 somethings, the overwhelming consensus is “if you want to fly, you have to do whatever the airline says.” This is followed with a dollop of “so long as everything is transparent, it’s up to the consumer to do as he or she wishes, but the corporation has no responsibility except to make money.” Whether you agree or disagree with the sentiment, it amazes me to see so many proclaim the country is moving “left.” That attitude is about as free market as you get, and it’s the dominant form of thinking with young people about airlines.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Unfortunately, the same applies in this country not only to airlines but also too, for starters:

        1/ transportation of most kinds in more places, private and public.
        2/ education of all kinds, private and public, most everywhere now.
        3/ Government services of all kinds, generally, with too few exceptions.
        4/ Insurance of all kinds, with too few exceptions.
        5/ Building and maintenance of public improvements of all kinds.

        The list grows, spreads, and deepens daily. (I fear now our military, or significant parts of it, are growing more at risk, given the civilian culture within which it must recruit and sustain itself and its institutions.)


        Obviously complex causes are at work as manifestations spread. A growing loss of energy, competence, confidence, optimism, and hope among growing numbers of citizens within all strata of our society today manifest adverse consequences in all kinds of new anti-social ways within ever more circumstances of daily living. For far too long this avalanche of pathologies has been ignored, hidden, and encouraged until now, one by one they are to big to ignore.

        This is triggering various forms of mass inappropriate and overly emotional behaviors by incompetent leaders. These too often are driven by fear, anger, politics, ideology or social hysteria and so result in futile, counterproductive, and/or wholly inappropriate responses. Like mass training regimes bent on imposing on people (whether children or adults) mandated social and emotional and politically correct and motivated behaviors that demand skills and attitudes that our citizens either do not need or want, or that they lack by reason of a collapsing culture.

        What is a collapsing culture? Unhealthy families or none at all. Non existent or highly confused belief systems. Failed communities. Absence of systems that support people by protecting them while also demanding of them responsibility, accountability and the will to achieve.

        Thus without these systems we every year for decades have been handing over to schools incompetent and ill-raised kids, schools that lack the means to hold them accountable for learning or behaving, yet must graduate them into a society that itself is increasingly broken if only by reason of the vicious cycle poisoning our society for decades.

        It is a testament to America’s earlier strengths that our bad habits since the 1960s have taken so long to catch up with us. But this too is common in strong, exceptional and long dominate societies and states. A corrupt Rome outwardly thrived, getting richer and richer, until suddenly it fell apart. Here time moves far faster than those earlier times.

  13. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    What’s the point here? To launch a witch hunt? Revive Joe McCarthy? Comparisons to venal Rome?

    In recent years I have helped put two children through school and at no time did I ever hear complaints that professors were pushing unwanted viewpoints on them. One double majored in art history and studio art; the other in English. One went to Mary Wash; the other to the totally evil, leftist-infested University of Virginia.

    Such anti-liberal fervor seems a growing feature on this blog and that is too bad. It reads more and more like a bunch of white, privileged white guys whining about how bad things are today.

    1. Gee, Peter, you’d feel right at home in the academia of today. I would expect your daughters to do so, too. But then on a 1 to 10 ideological spectrum (with 1 representing the Maoist-Trotskyite left and 10 the Nazi/Klan right), I’d say you’re a 3. That’s probably the center of gravity at most universities.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Hey Jim –

        To my great surprise, I find that with age I’ve swung, and are swinging still, a bit leftward. And now, to my delight, I’m sensing the start of a bit a of swing rightward by the university I love, UVa! But we gotta keep at it, not let up.

        As to Peter I’ve put him at a 3- but likely headed higher toward the 10.

  14. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    What an amazing coincidence! 3.0 is also my tennis rating!

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