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.
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.