Inclusivity, respect for diverse perspectives, fostering discourse. All are hallmarks of the student affairs profession at public universities that research has shown are perceived by Americans as mostly liberal environments. But a narrative study based on interviews with 10 conservative student affairs professionals finds the landscape very different.
Published in the April 2020 volume of the Journal of Social and Political Psychology by three researchers from the University of Northern Colorado’s Department of Higher Education and Student Affairs Leadership, “A Narrative of Conservative Students Affairs Professionals: Silenced in an Inclusive Profession?” seeks to better understand “how conservative ideology influenced relationships, professional engagement, and overall work environment” for this group of self-identified conservative student affairs professionals.
The team—Jeremy Davis, Matthew Birnbaum, and Rosa Law—analyzed the stories of the professionals through the lens of the spiral of silence theory, which suggests those with opinions that diverge from the majority tend to remain silent for fear of negative consequences. Like stigma theory, both rely on the perceived existence of a reference group of “normals” that have the ability to identify divergent opinions.
“Previous studies have used the spiral of silence to understand and predict behaviors,” they wrote. If there is a perception one’s opinions differ from the majority, a “silence as a strategy” can come into play where strategies like evading questions, walking away, and refusing to participate are often employed.
Interviews were conducted and transcribed verbatim to allow for first- and second-round thematic coding using Johnny Saldana’s Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers. Relying heavily on direct quotes from the participants, the researchers were able to identify thematic narratives that emerged. They also described the sociopolitical context that allowed for an expansion of the cultural and social contexts of the data collected.
Following a review of existing literature, they were able to note the lack of agreement on the origins of conservatism but did identify three recurring themes that have characterized the conservative identity in a sociopolitical context: As a reaction to social changes before World War II (social conservatism), free market capitalism (fiscal conservatism), and Christian-based conservatism based on morals associated with religious standards.
“While these three approaches to defining conservatism are limiting, it is our hope this study can further the scholarly discussion around the conservative identity, particularly in the student affairs profession,” they note.
The researchers did point to existing literature that discussed challenges facing conservative faculty and students in public institutions, in general, but found only a handful of studies that examined the sociopolitical diversity of student affairs staffs. Two separate phenomenological studies, one involving conservative librarians, and the other, student affairs professionals, both suggested conservative staff experienced the student affairs landscape differently than their liberal colleagues. In one case, participants reported having to hide their identities to avoid negative consequences, and in the other, participants that were committed to social justice causes said they avoided engagement in that work for fear of rejection from colleagues.
A survey of 900 student affairs professionals conducted by Sarah Lawrence College professor of politics Samuel J. Abrams that was released in 2018 found that liberal student affairs leaders outnumbered conservatives 12 to 1 and that only about 6% identified as conservative.
For this narrative study, the only characteristics for individual participants was to self-identify as conservative and be a full-time professional in student affairs at the public university where they worked. Questions were related solely to sociopolitical identities and no other demographics were sought out.
“This decision was the result of numerous conversations about the ways in which participants might view us having an existing anti-conservative bias, a concern we heard often from participants. Some did self disclose identities, such as being white or male, but we did not include this in our analysis for two reasons: at the time it did not seem relevant to our research questions, and some participants expressed strong concern about the possibility of being recognized by their colleagues. They were adamant about not being described with such identifiers as a particular church, gender, or age,” the researchers said.
Hoping to avoid generalization and focus on highlighting the narratives of conservative student affairs professionals, conversations with the 10 participants showed there were perceived consequences by sharing among liberal colleagues and self-censoring to avoid stereotyping and isolation.
“Supporting different perspectives is purportedly a cornerstone of student affairs values,” the researchers note. “Conversely, our participants described a work environment where they choose to disengage and retreat to silence because of perceived negative consequences. The findings suggest our participants perceived a double standard in student affairs, especially regarding inclusivity of sociopolitical identity.”
Most of the participants were reluctant to describe their conservative identity or to define conservative and liberal thinking. “Those terms are so loaded,” one participant said. But through attempts to clarify their views, the participants did fit into one of the three definitions of social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, or Christian-based conservatism.
“Christianity was one of the most prominent themes in our study, and for some participants, it directly influenced their practitioner work,” the researchers found.
Still, most participants were reluctant to share their faith values on campus for fear of being labeled regarding social beliefs associated with Christianity or for fear coworkers or supervisors would make assumptions about how their faith may impact job performance.
Navigating and evaluating the campus environment, considering perceived consequences for sharing identity, the perception of a double standard, and the choice to be silent were all identified as traits within the participant group. A primary concern was stigma or isolation for disclosing their conservative identity.
“We try not to do or say anything that would expose ourselves,” one participant said.
Participants said they would rather disengage than disagree with a group decision, that they feared negative stereotyping, and that there was a double standard in place when it came to inclusivity and open-mindedness.
“I’m supposed to value your perspective, but you can’t value my perspective,” said one participant. Another added, “For everything they say, we need to be open-minded, I think they are not open-minded when you are a conservative. I think they kind of shut you out.”
If the student affairs profession wants to continue to place significant value on respecting individual differences, one area for taking responsibility would be to ensure conservatives feel able to express divergent opinions in the workplace, they write. To prevent disengagement and increase the comfort of expressing varying viewpoints, the team offered several responses that might be effective in helping “dismantle the perceived double standard in the profession and welcome conservative perspective in higher education.”
During decision making, administrators should ask team members to think about matters from another perspective and encourage different viewpoints.
- Make efforts to curb homogeneous thinking, check assumptions of sociopolitical identities, and refocus meetings if participants digress on political conversation.
- Facilitators of dialogue should implement guidelines for discussion and support sharing among sociopolitical diverse staff. Discourse and training around varying belief systems may help challenge stereotypical assumptions of conservatives.
- The diversity within an identity is an implication for engaging in dialogue around values.
A number of perspectives were encountered during the research that integrated social justice into their sociopolitical identity.
“Supervisors and administrators may hold responsibility to ensure conservatives feel able to express divergent viewpoints in the workplace. We need to be especially conscious of stereotypes made about conservatives and work together to challenge assumptions,” the team wrote. “Our analysis demonstrates how diverse our participants were within this sociopolitical identity.”
They also noted that similar implications for practice also existed when serving conservative students, who may also be feeling equally excluded.
Davis, J. D., Birnbaum, M., & Law, R. I. (2020). A Narrative of Conservative Student Affairs Professionals: Silenced in an Inclusive Profession? Journal of Social and Political Psychology