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The Academy’s Leftward Shift?

April 6th, 2005 · 14 Comments

Plenty of bloggers have been discussing stories about a new study purporting to show that conservatives are not only underrepresented in academia (I’m shocked, shocked!) but, in fact, appear to face job discrimination when one compares the quality of institutions at which folks with comparable professional achievements (in terms of peer-reviewed publications, etc.) teach. That’s not a total clincher—the “self-selection” argument for underrepresentation might cross apply here, such that given a choice between middle-tier schools, conservative profs are more likely to choose a slightly lesser institution because it’s perceived as more conservative-friendly. But it is interesting, especially as I’ve always been a little short of patients with conservative (and libertarian) complaints on this score.

Looking at the actual study, though, I notice one finding that seems, at first blush, quite implausible: It claims that the proportion of self-identified left or liberal profs has risen from 39 to 72 percent from 1984 to 1999 while the proportion of right or conservative profs dropped from 34 to 15 percent. Now, granted, I was five in 1984, but that just sounds like it can’t possibly be right: Academics have always skewed left, but they sure as hell haven’t gotten that dramatically more left over the last couple of decades.

I can think of a couple explanations for the apparent shift. One shows up in the study when you break down prof positions on particular issues: They express “strong” agreement with liberal social views at rather higher rates than they do vis a vis (very) left economic views. That may just mean, then, that as political debates are less about economic issues and more about culture, academics who might even hold the very same views as the 1984 sample are more likely to see themselves as being to the left, in that they’re more likely to strongly agree with the liberal or left position on the dominant issues of the day.

Another, related possibility is that, paradoxically, as the country—and academia with it—have moved right, people become more willing to identify as left. Let me explain: The study shows the right/left self-identification among the general population as pretty much static, but we need to bear in mind that political self-identification is a matter of placement on an ever-shifting map. As Robert Anton Wilson likes to say, all it takes is a few decades for a “liberal” to transform into a “conservative” without changing a single one of her ideas. Views that would’ve been considered middle-of-the-road when Kenyes rode high in the saddle would probably be seen as hard left now. The media explosion may have something to do with this as well: To the extent that academia’s a pretty insular environment, someone well left of the general population might well view himself as moderate or conservative relative to academia—at least until Fox News comes along to shatter the illusion.

But it’s probably the shift within academia that’s most likely to have produced this sort of effect on perception. In 1984, “left” didn’t mean, say, Cass Sunstein. It meant Michel Foucault and hardcore Marxists. If there’s a fringe but loud contingent that’s way the hell left, then someone only sorta-left is more apt to regard himself as moderate. The genuine Marxists are a dying and befuddled breed in the academy now, mostly licking their wounds in comp lit departments. Bertell Ollman at NYU—one of the few sincere Marxoids remaining in an actual politics department—still had a decent-sized bunch of doe-eyed Naderite groupies, but what was most striking was how irrelevant and out of touch he seemed. Just guessing here, but probably in 1984 he and his fellow travelers were definition of “left” that other profs would’ve used to gauge their own views; now he’s just a sad old moonbat.

All that aside, and even in light of my impatience with concarping about bias, Michael Munger is surely right to raise an eyebrow at this Gawker piece, which among other things claims:

While there are certainly plenty of liberal professors, never mentioned are inherently conservative departments like economics, right-leaning frats and student groups, the influence of campus ROTC or the fact that for every left-leaning Vassar or Oberlin there is an equally conservative Washington and Lee or BYU.

Oy. Where to begin? Even in econ departments, liberals outnumber conservatives, though not quite as overwhelmingly as elsewhere. And, if you’ll forgive the cheap-shot, economics is “inherently conservative” in more or less the same way that biology is “inherently anticreationist” or physics is “inherently anti–perpetual motion machine.” If there aren’t many full-blown socialists in econ departments, I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that it’s not because Karl Rove gets to vett the macro textbooks. Student groups? Yeah, let’s do a tally of the proportion of progressive to libertarian/conservative ones and get back to me. ROTC? Yes, given its huge influence on the ideological formation of whatever fraction of students participates, it almost seems unfair to liberal profs who only get to discuss their ideas with the student population for a paltry few hours a day. And with a Hillsdale or a Liberty University for every Harvard or Princeton, why, the left scarcely stands a chance.

Seriously now; crap like that makes me sympathize with the whiners.

Tags: Academia



14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 h // Apr 6, 2005 at 9:02 am

    Let me make a little clarification: the student body of Washington and Lee may be inherently conservative, Texan, and whiter than than vanilla ice cream, but the professors’ leanings depend on the department. As a graduate of the bastion of Southern conservatism who emerged from four years there to be even more bleeding-heart, I know this well. You’ve got the die-hard right wing Jefferson Davis Futch (yes that is his real name)in the history department, but then you have all the First-Amendment enthusiasts in the journalism department who range from libertarian to liberal. The philosophy department leaned left, but then the commerce school was mostly right.

    So despite the balance, you’re right. Try having intelligent, free-thinking professors discuss ideas with students who often refuse to think outside their own family’s situation, their own social status and their own social schedule.

    It’s not the “left” that doesn’t stand a chance; it’s thought in general that seems to be disappearing.

  • 2 Brian Moore // Apr 6, 2005 at 4:52 pm

    Even though I went to a primarily engineering university, the skew was definitely towards the left (Certainly not as much as others.), especially any time I took a history course — 100% left-wing slant. My economics courses were more balanced, 50/50. The engineering professors seemd to be somewhat Democratic, but it rarely came up in the academic setting.

    We had the typical “social justice” student group: “Catalyst” who believed that capitalism was the bane of humanity and Ralph Nader was the next messiah, but we mainly just made fun of them.

    Although, one of my physics professors was the guy who complained about David Horowitz’s “student getting an F for defending George Bush.” He’s pretty liberal, but he never let it interfere with his class.

  • 3 anon // Apr 6, 2005 at 5:45 pm

    Another explaination for the dramatic increase in self-identified left or liberal profs since 1984 can be the retirement of older, more conservative, professors in the past 20 years.

    I mean, even if someone went to college as far back as the 1940s, they’d be in their sixties in 1984, and still of teaching age. Now they’d be well into their eighties. (Professors who went to college in the 1950s would be in their seventies).

    Though I’d have to study the demographics to back this up, I’d guess that the bulk of current professors came of age either as campuses became radicalized in the 1960s, or since then. So the dramatic shift since 1984 does not come as a shock to me.

    The self selection hypothesis seems the most plausible way to explain the left’s dominance in universities. And ironically, I believe that the more conservatives vilify academia, the more they will discourage young conservatives from wanting to pursue academic careers.

  • 4 Brad DeLong // Apr 6, 2005 at 11:08 pm

    I wouldn’t call us “inherently conservative” so much as “inherently libertarian”: there’s a presumption that the libertarian road is the right one (that can be rebutted by modern-liberal or by non-libertarian conservative arguments)…

  • 5 M1EK // Apr 7, 2005 at 9:43 am

    Why doesn’t anybody ever skewer this with the obvious retort:

    We know that people with graduate degrees skew self-identified liberal. We know that the more degrees they have, the more they skew. You have to have a PhD to be a professor. Given all that, one would EXPECT quite a large liberal skew among professors; if we DIDN’T see one, it would be suspicious.

  • 6 William Newman // Apr 7, 2005 at 3:11 pm

    Inherently libertarian? Economists seem to respect a style of in-the-limit analysis which ordinary folk are content to ignore. Outside of economics departments, it is respectable to support policies which would clearly be costly in some high intensity limit without bothering either to estimate the cost at one’s preferred intensity, or to explaining how one picks an intensity so far from the limit that the cost is negligible. (Price controls, minimum wages, marginal tax rates, zoning and other limits on new housing, environmental and other limits on new manufacturing…) Somewhat similarly — another kind of limit — a lot of respectable opposition to trade is based on arguments which taken to a logical conclusion would make international trade, or all commerce, pointless or harmful. Economists seem to avoid holding policy positions which have this kind of problem, instead of just ignoring the problem like a normal academic, and so for many policy questions they sound like libertarians. But many other policy questions don’t have such obvious limit analyses, and there mainstream economists don’t seem libertarian to me. E.g., total government control of money issuance doesn’t break down like a $5000-per-hour minimum wage would, and government discretionary control and insurance of every bank account doesn’t break down like 100% income tax would. And lo, mainstream economists are quite different from libertarians on money and banking. Perhaps Professor De Long believes nonetheless that mainstream economists are inherently libertarian, and are dragged to mainstream monetary positions (arguing skeptically all the way) only because the mainstream positions are less naive. But I’ve seen truly skeptical students, notably physics students being dragged to quantum mechanics. I would need some convincing to believe that something analogous goes on for mainstream economists: a good start would be to be pointed to some analogous books. My impression is that mainstream economists take to central control of money more like physicists take to classical mechanics, and that therefore books addressing libertarian students’ skepticism are as rare as physics books addressing students’ deep misgivings about classical mechanics. That doesn’t necessarily make the mainstream economists wrong, of course, but it does seem to make them something not inherently libertarian.

  • 7 Atrios // Apr 8, 2005 at 10:27 am

    As an economist, I think being trained as an economist does tend to push people more to the right on economic issues in a neoliberal sort of way, but certainly doesn’t make you a conservative more broadly or make you vote Republican. You know, “we care about poor people but that doesn’t mean all these government programs are helping much.”

  • 8 Atrios // Apr 8, 2005 at 10:33 am

    …and, to add, if you are rather conservative being trained as an economist provides you with an infinite arsenal with which to continue the great fight as described by Galbraith:
    “The modern conservative is engaged in man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”

  • 9 Daniel // Apr 8, 2005 at 10:54 am

    There are a thousand different ways to approach this, the most frustrating of which is that ââ?¬Å?now what is a liberal anywayââ?¬Â argument that attempts to undermine the study itself. (Libertarians would come up as liberal on a whole bunch of the questions used to identify a professor as liberal or conservation).

    Whatever, my biggest question on this study is: so what? Even if I accept the questionable notion that academics have gotten more liberal over time, it doesn�t seem to matter. It�s not as if these liberal professors are so influential to their poor, naive students that they�ve turning all America�s undergraduates into crazy liberals.

    And what is the solution to this ââ?¬Å?problem.ââ?¬Â I went to this awful thing at AEI when this study came out and the solution proposed by a horrible woman on the board of directors at the State University of New York, which disturbingly seemed to be very well received by the people at the seminar, was this sort of vetting of the political leanings of applicants for academic positions. The goal of this was to make sure that academic departments were evenly composed of liberal and conservative professors. This bureaucratic, 1984ist solution was proposed by conservatives. What would be a conservative solution to this ââ?¬Å?problem?ââ?¬Â

  • 10 Gold // Apr 8, 2005 at 12:56 pm

    I think that you might want to reconsider your comment that “Economics departments are ‘inherently conservative’ in more or less the same way that Biology departments are ‘inherently anticreationist'”. First, I think Jeffrey Sachs would take issue but also it denotes some fundamental disagreement between the principles of economics and the principles of “democratic liberalism” in the modern American sense. I don’t see how they are at odds. It is more likely that as economics departments deal in the realities of monetary and fiscal policy as well as incentivization they are dissuaded from making very many “should” statements as their hypotheses must be necessarily based in fact (Unlike some of the softer “sciences”). The third world is currently mired in poverty, should they be (Insert Hume’s Guillotine here)? Absolutely not but economists must submit solutions based on theory and data that are not as amenable to interpretation as, say, sociological arguments against globalization. Thus the statement that Economic Departments are “inherently conservative” is misleading in the least. Perhaps it would be better to say that Economic departments, while earnestly searching for solutions to liberal causes such as global economic disparity, are constrained by fact that they must be implemented via a system based on collective self-interest? Otherwise interesting article. All the best.

  • 11 William Newman // Apr 8, 2005 at 1:27 pm

    Did Galbraith really put a full stop there? I might’ve hoped he would follow with something like “[semicolon] while the modern liberal heirs to the ancient moral axiom of meaningful rights only for tribal members consider their nationalist socialism to be the natural heir to the old internationalist socialists’ mantle of idealism.” It *is* truly impressive with what sincere passion people argue against inherited and market inequality while assuming the rightness of inheriting citizenship and legal restrictions on noncitizens to the point where citizenship is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But if an active commitment to do right by an in-group, a passive claim to care for the out-group too, and zealous camel-swallowing advocates mostly within the in-group, were sufficient conditions for idealism, a lot of pretty ugly tribal and nationalist and racial and sexual and religious ideologies, old and new, would qualify. I would nominate equal rights for all people as a necessary condition instead, and anecdotally report a negative correlation between that necessary condition and one’s prioritizing positive rights over negative rights; hmm. (And, yes, now that it occurs to you: I don’t like it when people cast aspersions on *my* motives for arguing for my preferred policies of markets and negative rights and whatnot, either. In the time since I first started encountering this flak big time, from other 8th graders, markets and negative rights have posted a pretty respectable real-world utilitarian record expanding total output, without some Marxist inequality singularity eating it all up. People can still argue about the pattern, but today I think it’s hard for a non-idiot to think that people claiming to see a markets-increasing-wealth pattern are transparently dishonest, or to argue that real-world attempts to help the unfortunate by enforcing outcomes without reducing overall output have been obviously unambiguously more successful than real-world attempts simply to maximize total output. And all it takes is that ambiguity before thoughtful honest people should become cautious about making or uncritically repeating accusations that classical-liberalish advocacy is “me first, screw everyone else” wrapped in dishonest rationalizations.)

  • 12 William Newman // Apr 8, 2005 at 3:03 pm

    As a still-pissed but more reflective afterthought: I have done a lot of work with computer software. In that field, as in public policy, people have strongly different opinions about the merits of human organizational approaches like consensus, hierarchical control, and trying multiple competing solutions either simultaneously or sequentially. They also have strongly different opinions about software organizational approaches like rule of law (or at least some similar things, not called by that name) and top-down design. But unlike public policy, it is not even superficially plausible to try to come up with cynical self-interested hidden agendas to explain much of the variation in programmers’ opinions about software. So, consider the way that people in this other field are prone to seeing complex systems very different ways for hidden but not selfishly corrupt reasons, and take it as a strong reminder that people can believe things for complicated reasons, and that it is not generally valid to deduce the existence of selfishly corrupt motives simply from one’s opponents’ inexplicable preferences. People are differently weird, deal with it. From my libertarian point of view, it is inexplicable when liberals enthusiastically discussing public transportation and carpool lanes and whatnot, ostensibly to address congestion and affordability problems of transport in a city, never, ever suggest loosening the laws preventing the creation of taxi and shuttle and bus services, and don’t even like the idea when I bring it up. Carpool lanes are OK, so WTF? I have been known to conclude that they fundamentally aren’t particularly concerned about problems like the poor not being able to get around without buying a car, they just like the central control solution for its own sake, and argue for it dishonestly by claiming to be pragmatically concerned about outcomes. Obviously, this is deeply uncharitable. But at least it’s not as stupid as deducing that aha, they must simply be selfish, corruptly in bed with their preferred central control organizations. (Even in cities they will never visit! The world is so logical when you just look at it correctly…) Similarly, leftists can ask “WTF, do they just like markets for their own sake?” and that question can have some plausibility (although Mr. Sanchez has smacked down some versions of it elsewhere on this site). But I think the blanket inference of self-interested dishonesty should stop. (Though more-targeted accusations of self-interested dishonest advocacy are certainly still in bounds, since cases of transparently dishonestly enriching oneself at public expense while claiming to serve the public interest in pro-market or anti-market or mixed-economy ways are too numerous to count.)

  • 13 d. // Apr 9, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    My father, a retired professor, said that the vast majority of profs in his biology department at a major midwestern university were liberal. Why was that, I asked. My father said, and I could not agree with him more, “Once you learn a little bit about the world, you realize conservatism just doesn’t work.”

  • 14 anon // Apr 18, 2005 at 7:33 pm

    Actually, the reason why more are reported to be liberal today has to do with different scaling of the variable in the two surveys. Obviously, more people will answer moderate when moderate =3 on a 5 point scale instead of moderate=5 on a 10 point scale. Yup, it’s that simple!