How Liberal Professors Are Ruining College

In New England, they outnumber conservatives 28 to 1. Why that’s bad for everyone.

liberal professors new england james miller smith college

Smith College professor James Miller says conservative ideas are presented as “outside the window of politically acceptable thought” at most colleges. / Photograph by PJ Couture

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.