The other day, New York Times columnist John Tierney published a column on the liberal tilt in academia. Because Tierney is held hostage by TimesSelect, non-subscribers won’t be able to access the article, so I’ll give a brief recap: Tierney challenges several common (liberal) assumptions about why relatively few conservatives go into college teaching, such as, “conservatives do not value knowledge for its own sake,” “conservatives do not care about the social good,” “conservatives are too greedy to work for professors’ wages,” and “conservatives are too dumb.” In response, he points out, for instance, that “plenty of smart conservatives have passed up Wall Street to work for right-wing think tanks that often don’t pay more than universities do, and don’t offer lifetime tenure and summers off.”
Tierney argues that the reason for the glaring political imbalance on college faculties (according to a recent study by Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, 72% of professors self-identify as liberal/left and 15% as conservative/right) is “the law of group polarization”:
“If people are engaged in deliberation with like-minded others, they end up more confident, more homogenous and more extreme in their beliefs,” said Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. “If you have an English or history department that leans left, their interactions will push them further left.”
Of course, the dynamics of group interaction also suggest that people who spend all their time among like-minded others will start to assume that theirs is the only legitimate and acceptable point of view. A person who doesn’t share conventional left/liberal beliefs is viewed as a moral leper, as “not one of us.”
Yesterday, the Times ran four letters in response to Tierney’s column, all of them critical (and all of them from academics). James Henle, a professor of mathematics at Smith College, takes issue with Tierney’s claim that the political imbalance is explained by liberal bias:
[I]f this were a significant factor, wouldn’t we see a difference between the makeup of a political science department and that of a mathematics department?
Mathematical scholarship has no political coloring. Politics doesn’t appear on the résumé of a mathematician. Politics doesn’t come up in job interviews. But from where I stand, mathematics departments are as liberal as any in academia.
Any explanation of liberals on campus has to explain bleeding-heart geologists, socialist computer scientists, tax-and-spend physicists and knee-jerk mathematicians. Bias can’t do that. But one idea, not mentioned by Mr. Tierney, could.
Perhaps in the marketplace of ideas some ideas are winning – and some are losing.
First of all, there is a difference between political science departments and mathematics departments. Here are the percentages of self-identified conservatives among professors in various departments in the Rothman/Lichter/Nevitte survey, conducted in 1999:
Political science 2%
Computer science 26%
Obviously, conservatives are a minority in all departments, but the disparity is far more pronounced in the humanities.
Second, I’m not at all sure that subtle political prejudices cannot operate in departments in which the fields of study are apolitical. I may be wrong (my academic experience consists of teaching a 4-week course on feminism and gender issues in the political science department of Colorado College), but don’t prospective hires arriving on a campus usually spend some time socializing with the faculty at lunches, dinners, etc.? In such settings, it would hardly be unusual for the conversation to touch on political issues, and that’s where the “not one of us” factor could come into play.
And third: since there is no marketplace of political ideas in science and mathematics departments, what exactly is Professor Henle implying? Conservatives are dumb?
An even more revealing letter comes from Neil J. Diamant, associate professor of political science at Dickinson College in
Pittsburgh Carlisle, PA:
John Tierney’s column about bias against conservatives in academia only proves liberal skepticism about conservative scholarship.
He quotes a conservative professor at Emory who suggested, Suppose that “you were a conservative who wanted to do a sociology dissertation on the debilitating effects of the European welfare state.”
The professor claims that because of liberal bias, this hapless conservative would face mounting and politically motivated obstacles to getting his work published, and therefore would be unlikely to get tenure.
But the problem isn’t liberal bias; it’s basic scientific methodology. This conservative has already concluded that the effects of the welfare state are debilitating. The question is biased.
Good scholarship begins with an open-ended research question, not one whose results are prejudged. Hmmm … why does this sound vaguely familiar?
Now, I wonder: Would Prof. Diamant have the same critical reaction to the mention of “a feminist who wanted to do a sociology dissertation on the debilitating effects of sexism”? Somehow, I doubt it.
Maybe the professor’s letter mostly proves conservative suspicions about liberal bias.
In the same vein, many critics of the notion of left-wing bias in academia argue that conservatives of a traditionalist bent are hostile to the scientific method. In this follow-up to their article (free registration required), Rothman, Lichter and Nevitte write:
Indeed, within the academy the most prominent attacks on scientific method … come not from the Christian right but from the ideological left, in the forms of postmodernism, deconstructionism, and some variants of radical feminism. As a thought experiment, imagine a debate between the academic right and left on [the] proposition that the university’s mission is to apply scientific reasoning to determine the truth. Representing the right are Harvey Mansfield, James Q. Wilson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Robert George. Representing the left are Stanley Fish, Stanley Aronowitz, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Wendy Brown. Now ask yourself which side argues in favor of the proposition and which side argues against it. (Hint: Pick the side that is more likely tosurround the word “truth” with quotation marks.)
Finally, Melvyn Conner, an anthropology and human biology professor at Emory University asks rather plantively if liberals can’t have at least one institution, a “marginalized and ridiculed” one at that, to themselves. I’m not sure an institution where people pay $12,000 to $30,000 a year (or more) to send their kids is all that marginalized and ridiculed. But that aside, the political one-sidedness of the academy is the academy’s own loss. It’s not good for any group of people to spend a lot of time listening only to like-minded others. It’s especially bad for a profession whose lifeblood is exchange of ideas.
My own take on the subject, from last April, can be found here.
Update: See the comments for some very interesting discussion, including responses from Prof. Henle and Prof. Diamant.