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The Divided Academy

7:09 AM, Aug 16, 2012 • By JON A. SHIELDS and JOSHUA M. DUNN
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Sherkat did note some genuine and much-publicized methodological limitations to the study that we happen to agree with. But that doesn’t mean it should have never been published. Every prior study of gay parents confronted methodological limitations, largely because the small size of the population makes it difficult to study. “If the Regnerus study is to be thrown out,” explained economist Douglas Allen, “then practically everything else [in the literature] has to go with it.”  

This sociological squabble highlights an important change in the politics of higher education. Though political minorities confronted worse persecution during the McCarthy era, at least those threats to academic freedom came from outside the university. Today’s persecuted apostates in the academy are more likely to find enemies inside the ivory tower. The danger of the Regnerus scandal is that it will only encourage young veiled conservatives to stay right where they are—in the closet. That would be bad for social science as a whole.

But this doesn’t mean that universities are uniformly intolerant of conservatives. Though a number of studies suggest that conservatives have a comparatively tough time making their way in the academy, sociology and literature are special cases. While conservative philosophers, economists, and political scientists engage controversial issues like same-sex marriage without disciplinary sanction, a sociologist such as Regnerus is hammered for publishing a study that merely skirts around the edges of the deeper moral issue. Regnerus even acknowledged that his findings suggest that marriage might help gay parents and their children by conferring so many of the benefits that marriage offers, especially stability.

As some fields continue to tolerate (though not always welcome) conservative scholars while others discipline and punish, the academy has become increasingly divided, though not by party politics. Instead, it is divided into those disciplines that are willing to tolerate and engage unpopular perspectives, and those that are illiberal denizens of groupthink. 

Jon A. Shields is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Joshua M. Dunn is associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. 

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