Why are there so many liberals in academia?
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Why are there so many liberals in academia?

This article in the NYT has been spread far and wide across the blogosphere, and tackles an age-old question: why is there such a predominance of liberals in academia, or conversely, why is there such a paucity of conservatives in academia? I obviously have a few thoughts on this, but first let’s get a measure of the problem.

Discrimination is always high on the agenda at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s conference, where psychologists discuss their research on racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, stereotype threat and unconscious bias against minorities. But the most talked-about speech at this year’s meeting, which ended Jan. 30, involved a new “outgroup.”

It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.


The politics of the professoriate has been studied by the economists Christopher Cardiff and Daniel Klein and the sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons. They’ve independently found that Democrats typically outnumber Republicans at elite universities by at least six to one among the general faculty, and by higher ratios in the humanities and social sciences. In a 2007 study of both elite and non-elite universities, Dr. Gross and Dr. Simmons reported that nearly 80 percent of psychology professors are Democrats, outnumbering Republicans by nearly 12 to 1.

Anyone who has been on a university campus in any capacity knows this — faculty, staff, undergraduate student, graduate student, researcher, cafeteria lady, whatever. For me, there’s basically two related questions here, and the answer to each affects the answer to the other.

Question number 1: Is the dearth of conservatives in academia a problem worth worrying about?

Question number 2: Why are there so few conservatives in academia?

On the first question, the point to make is that almost no profession has a perfectly proportional representation on ethnic, racial and gender lines. Cab driving has an over representation of men. Nail salons have an over representation of Korean ladies. Big banks (particularly in higher ranks, and particularly a generation ago) have/had an over representation of (generally conservative) men. Non-menial jobs in the Jim Crow South had an under-representation of blacks. The political leadership in Pakistan has an under representation of Ahmedis.

Some of these are problems. Some of these are not. The thing to ask is whether the lack of conservatives in academia “looks” like the gender breakdown of cab-drivers and nail salons, or the religious breakdown of the political leadership in Pakistan.

The answer to that obviously depends on whether you think conservatives are positively and expressly discriminated against in academia. If you do, then it looks more like the lack of religious diversity in Pakistani politics; if you don’t, then it looks like the Korean nail salon.

So why are there so few conservatives in academia? I honestly have no idea. There’s a bunch of hypotheses that float around that we are all aware of:

1. Academia is not a particularly rewarding profession, monetarily speaking, and since conservatives value money and its attainment more than liberals, they stay away from it. In other words, conservatives have only themselves to blame.

2. Academia is for smart people, and conservatives believe stupid things like “evolution is false” or “global warming is a hoax”. Since the purpose of academia is primarily to acquire knowledge by taking known and verified understandings of the world and advancing them, this is not a place for a conservatives. You can see an example of such thinking in Paul Krugman’s post on this topic. Even more hilariously, you can see it in this quote from Duke philosophy professor Robert Brandon a few years ago:

Robert Brandon, philosophy chairman, drew the ire of several students and garnered national attention when The Chronicle quoted him Tuesday as saying:

“We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill’s analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican Party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia.”

3. Academia is the last bastion of liberalism, and liberals jealously guard it being taken over by discriminating against conservatives and not offering them jobs. Liberals’ so-called beliefs in equality and social justice suddenly evaporate when it comes to academic jobs. You can see an example of such thinking in Megan McCardle’s post on this topic.

4. Conservatives tend to view the world in more individualistic and less structural ways, and that form of thinking doesn’t lend itself to social science. You can see an example of such thinking in Noompa’s post on this topic.

I certainly don’t buy number two at all — yes, the average Fox News-viewing conservative doesn’t accept evolution and believes Obama is a Muslim, but those aren’t the conservatives most likely to want to get in academia. There are plenty of highly educated, smart conservatives out there.

My view is that conservatives have probably given up on academia as a viable career option — partly for monetary concerns, partly for cultural reasons (all those jibes about tweed jackets), and partly because they perceive (correctly?) that they are unwelcome there. I simply have no idea if discrimination, willful or unwitting, is at work.

My best guess is that there must be some discrimination, because the numbers are so heavily skewed and because academia, whether we like to admit it or not, can be very political. I think that discrimination is perhaps less of a problem at the entry level, and more of a problem once tenure decisions are being made. By the time your tenure review is up, your colleagues know you and your political beliefs, and perhaps that can and does sway decisions against conservatives. But when newly-minted PhDs are on the job market looking to get teaching/research jobs, hiring committees usually don’t know a great deal about the applicant’s personal political beliefs.

More generally, I think discrimination in academia does exist, but it tends to manifest itself more in ways that are orthogonal to the left-right divide. For instance, some journals and departments will discourage scholars of a particular methodological persuasion. Others might discriminate on the the basis of their intellectual background or ontology. And so on.

One thing we can agree on is that academia must be an uncomfortable place for conservatives. I know if I was conservative I would be very uneasy. I mean, how would you like to be around people — all day, all the time — who vehemently disagree with you about everything? If I was forced to work with a bunch of mullah types in some office somewhere in Karachi, I know I would quit about a week in. I just couldn’t do it. (Unless I was all the mullahs’ boss — then I would handle it just fine).

On that note, I asked a friend of mine to send me a couple of thoughts on this issue. My friend happens to be conservative and happens to be a graduate student, so this topic is obviously near and dear to his heart. Let’s call him My Conservative Friend, or MCF. I wanted to see what MCF thought about this whole no-conservatives-in-academia thing, and how it makes him feel to be (relatively) alone. MCF sent me this email:

Not being a sociologist or psychologist, I don’t want to make any definitive claims about why fewer conservatives enter academia. However, in describing what it’s like to be a conservative in the academy, I can speak from experience.

First, my political conservatism isn’t “clean”: I have a liberal cultural outlook, and my political opinions on social issues tend to be correspondingly liberal. I support gay marriage, liberal drug laws, few restrictions on abortion, minimal religion in public life, etc. Because these issues are emotional, my liberal views have tended to “inoculate me” amongst my liberal colleagues and friends: I’m a “good conservative,” or something like that. Second, there are many issues on which I have an ambivalence rooted in scientific skepticism: for example, my gut instincts on fiscal policy tend toward moderate suspicion of state involvement, but I am far from a doctrinaire libertarian. Similarly, in foreign policy I am sympathetic to the neoconservative outlook, but I sometimes agree with realists that neocons tend to under-think and overreach. In other words, I am somewhat conservative, but also somewhat eclectic.

Amongst those who know of my rightward lean, I have never experienced any hostility. However, I have experienced occasional condescension, which usually takes the form of statements like, “you’re not really conservative, are you? But you’re…smart!” I also hear the following: “But you are so liberal on social issues—how can you support Republicans?” The latter is particularly frustrating, since it assumes that everyone affords equal weight to the same issues when voting. It also assumes that everyone is consistently left- or right-wing across all issue-areas. I have also been presumptuously told that I’m not really conservative, just contrarian. The effect of these common reactions is that I am guarded with my political opinions, especially around colleagues with whom I am not close, or who I know to have monolithic and rigid liberal views.

I have come to a tentative conclusion that the condescension and bewilderment of some of my liberal colleagues and friends is a consequence of their relative isolation from intellectuals who are openly conservative (we should keep in mind that there are probably a lot of academics who are conservative and hide it). Condescension is hardly a disastrous consequence, though it is unpleasant. More dangerous, in my view, is when liberal academics conclude that “conservative” interpretations of political phenomena are the result of faulty reasoning, rather than different and equally plausible assumptions about the world. The consequence is that liberal academics’ assumptions sometimes remain unquestioned, and their scientific work is biased as a result. If that is true even on occasion, then the dearth of conservative academics has serious consequences for progress in the social sciences. That should be something we care about regardless of our political opinions.

I think that’s fair enough.

One final note I would make is that it may be a mistake to use “academia” as a catch-all term. There is a lot of variation amongst academic disciplines. Just taking the UChicago example which I obviously know best, someone in our economics department, business school or law school is much more likely to be conservative than liberal. The opposite is true in, say, anthropology or political science. So if you do believe that discrimination is what is causing the dearth of conservatives in academia, you have to explain how they happen to dominate some departments. I really don’t know either way.

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