Can Conservatives Make American Universities Great Again?

Can Conservatives Make American Universities Great Again?

By Sean Braswell


Because fair and balanced is not just an approach to news.

By Sean Braswell

When Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News in 1996, few could have imagined the juggernaut that Fox, and its many conservative friends, would become in today’s media landscape. But over that same period another right-wing revolution has quietly taken shape — one that could forever alter the landscape of a different left-leaning institution: U.S. higher education. While conservative scholars have been busy lamenting and critiquing the bias of the “liberal academy,” they’ve also been busy working with sympathetic donors and philanthropists to construct viable alternatives within and alongside the ivory tower’s walls to ensure that conservative and libertarian scholarship and ideas find expression on campuses across the country. 

From establishing endowed chairs, fellowships and campus groups to a growing online presence and a network of 150-plus right-leaning academic centers, the conservative movement is slowly cultivating a shadow university system, one where students can take courses on the “morality of capitalism,” participate in seminars on Ayn Rand and interact with guest speakers like Donald Rumsfeld. And though this burgeoning higher-education movement is still, as its media counterpart once was, somewhat fragmented, it’s not too early to wonder whether a viable, conservative ivory tower could eventually emerge — and what such a Fox News of higher education might look like.

Perhaps the best preview of such an eventuality comes within the academic centers themselves. Although conservative, mission-driven colleges such as Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, have been around for decades, most of these, as Jay Schalin — the director of policy analysis at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a right-leaning nonprofit institute in North Carolina — tells OZY, “are Christian first and conservative second.” The biggest current trend in conservative higher ed is really the growth of academic centers, says Schalin, whose recent report “Renewal in the University” claims that more than 150 such centers now dot the college landscape, including at elite schools like Princeton and Duke

Many conservative scholars would prefer to be part of a single, diverse ivory tower.

Once content to throw stones at the citadels of higher learning, conservative scholars and donors have now started to more aggressively colonize those very institutions, whose faculty members, according to one recent estimate, are three times more liberal on average than the U.S. adult population. Such colonization began in earnest in 2000 with the creation of Princeton’s James Madison Program, a politics institute that has spawned dozens of similar centers across the country. A network of centers at universities like Wake Forest and Clemson funded by the banking giant BB&T’s charitable foundation focuses more on free market economics and the study of capitalism.

While most of these centers are founded by a handful of philanthropic foundations and donors, including the billionaire Koch brothers, there is not much in the way of a unified strategy marking their growth, and the vast majority — including those like the Madison Program that offer a litany of courses, fellowships and research appointments — still have nothing like their own major or degree program for undergraduates. And breaking into the real brick-and-mortar business of higher education could prove even more of a challenge to constructing a conservative ivory tower. In addition to the high startup costs of founding a college, it can take decades, or even centuries, to establish a good academic reputation, says David Fontana, a law professor at George Washington University; “money and ambition, regardless of their abundance, are not sufficient to generate status.”

Yet with the recent growth of online education offerings, bricks and mortar may no longer be required to build the ivory towers of the 21st century, and “although the rest of the world may not see it yet,” says Schalin, “there is considerable activity to create alternative [online] schools that lean right.” Take, for instance, Liberty, which already claims a global online enrollment of more than 95,000. Many conservative educators see online education options as crucial avenues for exposing students to a broader intellectual offering. “Online education ventures have an opportunity to be independent and intellectually diverse,” says the Pope Center’s president, Jenna Robinson. “They don’t have to worry about breaking into the status quo of an educational institution.”  


Although we may be years away from Fox News U, online or offline, if current trends continue, you should expect that the influence such centers have on their parent university’s curriculum decisions, course design and degree programs will grow, alongside the development of their own minors and concentrations. How, though, will such a newfound academic prominence affect conservatives’ traditional critique of the “liberal academy”? After all, “attacking liberal professors as elitists serves a vital purpose,” writes Neil Gross, author of Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, in The New York Times. “It helps position the conservative movement as a populist enterprise.”

Even so, many conservative scholars would prefer to be part of a single, diverse ivory tower, rather than a competing one. After all, as Sita Nataraj Slavov, an economist at George Mason University and a visiting scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, points out, colleges, unlike news outlets or think tanks, are in the business of educating students, and not just disseminating ideas, and therefore it’s far more important to have diversity within institutions. A conservative ivory tower, says Slavov, would only replicate the shortcomings of the liberal one, and not introduce real balance. Rather “it would be an echo chamber for conservative ideas, and conservative students [like liberal students today] would graduate with little tolerance for opposing views.”

Whichever path — internal reform or outside competition — conservative higher education takes, both roads lead to engagement. And, as Mark T wain once observed, “It is easier to stay out than get out.” Or, as a more conservative philosopher put it similarly on the Pentagon website, in a list known as Rumsfeld’s Rules: “It is easier to get into something than to get out of it.”