Tuesday, December 7, 2004

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Regarding liberal bias in academia...

David Adesnik has a link-filled summary regarding the spate of recent articles discussing ideological homogeneity in the halls of academe. This has prompted a panoply of blog responses, including Timothy Burke (click here as well), Brad DeLong, Juan Cole, and David Vellemen at a new blog, Left2Right, which is a new group blog of left academics musing about "how to speak more effectively to ears attuned to the Right."

Kieran Healy, though not addressing the ideology question, does have a link-rich post on the tribal patterns of academic hiring that suggests how difficult it is for non-mainstream people to get hired at elite institutions -- even if they are more innovative.

[Um, so what does this meme mean to you?--ed] I've blogged about this before here, here, here, and here. I'm not sure if there's anything new to add now, but if I do, it will take some careful crafting -- for reasons that Jacob Levy outlined more than a year ago.]

posted by Dan on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM


While they are always eager to deny the benefits of affirmative action to minorities, Republicans are always eager to claim affirmative action benefits for themselves, even when no discrimination can be shown. Perhaps one should offer one academic economic position to a Republican in exchange for putting one socialist on a company board.

posted by: Mike on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Mike --

Republicans and conservatives are grossly under-represented in the halls of academe, most particularly in humanities departments because of a combination of self-selection by conservatives and viewpoint discrimination by politicized professors. This is not news and it's not debatable - I'll wager that even the Repbulican faculty is more liberal than the center of the Republican party. (If you consider this point debatable, please provide a list of tenured professors at Ivy League schools who (1) vote Republican more often than not, (2) are openly pro-life, (3) like George W. Bush, (4) favor tax cuts for all Americans regardless of their economic status, (5) favor school choice, etc.).

The interesting issue here is the hypocrisy of the diversity advocates -- they seem to hold to the notion that every kind of diversity is OK, unless it is diversity of opinion.

posted by: Ben on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

But surely diversity is a good in its own right, not a benefit granted to the deserving. Diversity of opinion benefits the academy, and homogeneity in the board room puts the corporation at a competetive disadvantage. Right? Surely racial and gender diversity is just a means to the desirable end of opinion diversity.

posted by: tom harrison on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Mike -

In addition, the issue is not affirmative action, it's discrimination. I don't hear any respectable conservative arguing that discrimination against minorities is desirable.

Tom -

The argument that racial and gender diversity are a means to the desirable end of diversity of opinion fails when the same institutions actively discriminate against people who actually do have different opinions.

posted by: Ben on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Ben, to back up your claim of discrimination, please provide one example of a conservative or Republican who wanted a position in academia and was unable to get it because of their political views. Your argument appears to jump from, "There are far more liberals/ democratic voters than conservatives/ republican voters in academia" to "Conservatives are actively discriminated against in academia." The first claim provides no evidence for the second.

posted by: washerdreyer on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Washerdryer -

(1) I am not necessarily claiming active discrimination against conservatives, but the numbers certainly suggest the issue may be on the table (no, I am not arguing in favor of disperate impact standard). (2) I'm not sure what specific examples prove, because on the one hand they are merely anecdotal and may not prove anything and because absent a verdict or a smoking gun there may be another reason for the failure to hire. (3) That said, I will offer the following specific example: a personal acquaintance of mine received a PhD in history from a highly regarded University about 10 years ago. His PhD advisor was one of the most prominent historians in the USA. He is white, male and conservative. Despite applying literally hundreds of times for academic positions, he rarely receives interviews (because of his thesis topic?) and has never received a job offer for a tenure-track position. In fact, his best offer to date is a part time position at a branch campus of a state university. Is this discrimination? I certainly cannot know the answer to that question and would never be able to prove it if I did. There are many more similar examples.

These types of examples, when taken in the context of the great ideological disperity between universities and society raise questions that need to be addressed -- for the sake of the university more than anything else.

posted by: Ben on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

I wonder what percentage of grad students in the arts and sciences are conservative. Is that percentage significantly higher than the percentage of conservatives on faculties?

If so, that would go a long way toward convincing me of the existence of bias in faculty hiring. But if the percentages of conservative faculty members and conservative grad students are roughly equal, the challenge is to get more conservatives to pursue academic careers - not to attack universities as discriminatory.

I remember reading (was it Brooks's article?) that the latter is most likely the case - that young conservatives simply are not pursuing graduate study, and academic careers, in the arts and sciences.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Perhaps the problem (and I mean this in all sincerity) is that many conservative positions are poorly supported by the facts, and thus, people who seek to advance those positions are unable to survive the scrutiny of academic experts who are aware of the shortcomings in their arguments.

posted by: Dave on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Note neither Mike nor washerdreyer deny
the extreme leftist over balance in academia.

As to examples of denied tenure I suggest
doing a google search. You will come across
a number of examples. I will leave it as
an exercise to the student to determine
what search string is to be used.

The usual excuse I hear is that Republicans
would rather make hundreds of thousand or
millions of dollars in business rather than
the paltry hundred-thou professors earn hereabouts.

Or that Republicans are too selfish to teach
good writing skills to poorly schooled Freshmen.
Obviously those who think Repubican businessmen
can write well have never, ever worked outside
the "Ivory Tower".

Addtionally, the academic liberal orthodoxy I
hear is that one cannot be a Republican without
having a huge income. At the same time they
explain Bushes apparent election victory as a
tremendous fraud. Because of 'group think'
no one raises an objection.

Those of us who do respond are invariable
called 'fascist reactionaries'. And academics
wonder why they are simply ignored in the
real world.

Once the major donors take note of the situation,
things will change. Until then, the radicals
who run our Universities will still impose
their views on students.

The same students who, once free from having to
parrot their professors views to earn good grades,
will cast a large majority of their votes for ...
wait for it ... Republicans.

Go figure.

posted by: pragmatist on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Dave -

You can't be serious. That comment is so thoroughly incomprehensible to me that I don't even know where to begin. I'll simply note that anyone who thinks there is empirical evidence that socialism works is not looking at the evidence. Similarly, anyone who thinks there is no evidence that tax increases harm economic growth is blind.

There is evidence in support of conservative positions. There is also evidence in support of liberal positions. Each side has some positions that are more likely to be right and some positions that are more likely to be wrong. Neither side has a monopoly on wisdom. Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't belong on a university faculty.

posted by: Ben on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

There seems to be a lot of evidence that the students who were occupying the administration building at Michigan in 196x stayed around and got PhD's. They are now running the show. They were the Voice Party and SDS members. I have a cousin who is an associate professor at Ohio State, whose position is to be a community organizer. He is the one who described he and and his wife as being more progressive than almost anyone else. The University of Minnesota is in a similar state. For a long time, it was easy to get protestors out to stand on overpasses with signs saying something like "No Blood for Oil". It's hard to see how the situation can change. No wonder that untenured associate professors will generally "lie low".

posted by: Jim Bender on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]


It is easy to "go figure". When you keep hearing utter BS from supposedly intelligent, learned professors, the other side looks much better in comparison.

posted by: tallan on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

I think Dave has a good point. Some disciplines naturally encourage people to move towards the left of the spectrum. I was conservative when I started college but swung left as a result of specializing in Latin American politics in grad school. The facts on the ground in that region and in others make it very hard to retain one's allegiance to conservative foreign policy positions. A concrete example: its very hard to hold with the conservative view that Reagan was a great president when you know for an indisputable fact that he paid the contras to blow up schools and hospitals and to wage terror against Nicaraguan civilians living under a regime they had twice elected in fair elections. Those kind of facts are not disputable and they combine with other facts to make a picture of US foreign policy that inevitably pushs people leftwards.
Diversity of opinion is obviously a good thing, but its not like the world is completely unknowable and no consensus can ever emerge on some subjects. The fact that some departments are dominated by liberals tells us only that there is widespread expert agreement on some issues and that on those issues liberal positions have been found most accurate. This isn't a result of some kind of dictatorship of ideas but simply because open-minded people change their views when they become convinced that the evidence doesn't support their old ideas.

posted by: peter on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Peter -

That often happens when you selectively look at the facts. It is absolutely not a "fact" that Reagan directed the Contras to blow up schools. The Contras may have blown up schools, but there is absolutely no evidence that the USA knew about it beforehand. Moreover, in saying that the Sandinistas were "elected" in two fair elections is simply untrue. They were thugs who would never have left office if there were not a significant amount of US pressure for elections that actually were fair.

posted by: Ben on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

All of that said, I agree that some disciplines tend to attract liberals, while others tend to attract conservatives. Some portion of the disparity in academia is attributable to self-selection, but much of it most probably really is about bias. If you actually believe that intelligent people cannot have different opinions about any subject in the humanities you are part of the problem.

In some subjects, such as the sciences and math, there is much that is not debatable -- i.e., 2 + 2 = 4. In subjects such as history, on the other hand, it is sometimes not debatable what actually happened at a given time (assuming perfect or near-perfect information, which doesn't always exist), but it is almost always debatable what that event means. It is that debate which is often lacking in academia.

The problem of bias in academia is a problem for society at large, in that society has a general concern related to education. It is much more a problem for academia, however. The fact that academia's consensus views on a huge number of subjects varies so dramatically from the views of society at large means that people are less and less willing to listen to what academics have to say. I, and a lot of people I know, will invariable take anything said by a professor of humanities with a grain of salt, because I begin with the assumption of bias. I may change my opinion after investigation, but the point is that I do not give the views of academics the weight that those views probably deserve.

posted by: Ben on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

When I was in college I remember wondering of some of my professors, "if they were not in academia, what would they do for a living?"

I wondered that about some good professors as well as about some inferior ones. The point is that academia by its nature can attract very bright people who for various reasons are alienated from the broader society. One reason they might feel alienated is ideology -- non-academic America doesn't have much place for Marxists, for example. And a job teaching at a university can be relatively undemanding work, sort of like campaigning for reelection in a district that has been drawn to include only Democrats or only Republicans. A certain type of personality is bound to find that way of life attractive.

I'm not saying that all or even most professors are misfits. But a lot of them sure looked that way when I was in school. Perhaps things have changed.

posted by: Zathras on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

I suspect that there is a tendency for grad school students to move left that is based more on practical grounds than on ideological ones.

The foundation of the social sciences (obviously) is that social phenomena can be explained scientifically. Once a social scientist starts down the road that science can explain social and economic interactions, it's a small step to adopt the position that social science can solve social and economic problems. A socialist, welfare-statist, Keynesian, or other left-leaning position seems natural.

In the humanities, especially in the first few decades after WWII, it seems to me that a grad school student of average talent, searching for a dissertation topic, would be naturally tempted to adopt a leftist - Marxist, deconstructionist, etc. - approach because they offered a fresh approach to very old subjects. Campus radicalism mixed with intellectual opportunism to help create a very leftist faculty.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

At some point the Republicans will realize this is a useable partisan issue. Due to the ideological polarization of the parties, academic bias in hiring, retention and promotion has effectively become partisan, as in "No Republicans Need Apply."

I.e., Republicans are being excluded from public employment because they are Republicans. This is a useable issue because taxpayer funding is involved.

And there is suitable methodology for proving this, and implementing corrective action, courtesy of affirmative action programs.

But it will be necessary to take decisions on faculty hiring, retention and tenure away from the faculty and force it on administrators, who won't be happy with the responsibilty (another way to get fired) and work.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]


About Nicaragua. Do some reading. I mean real research. All the elections held under the Sandinista regime were found to be fair by impartial international observors. The Sandinista support base was cross-societal and initially included even business groups and landholders. True, that support declined over the 80s for a number of reasons but thuggery wasn't one of them.
As to US policy towards Nicaragua, who would you hold responsible for the mining of Managua's harbour if not Reagan? And what is this nonsense about Reagan and his administration not knowing before hand that the Contra's blew up hospitals and schools? It was an ongoing strategy over a period of years. Moreover, destabilization through terror was the basic strategy of the contras for the very good reason that they couldn't win a conventional war or a guerilla war precisely because the sandinistas had so much popular support.
The above sort of observations aren't really controversial amongst people who have studied the region. And there is lots of debate amongst academics about the interpretation of such observations and what they mean to larger pictures. What there isn't much of is blind refusal to accept clear facts and stubborn insistence to try and build theories based on false premises. And that is a good thing.
That the rest of society often has different opinions is a result not of academic bias but of popular ignorance. And that more than anything shows the value of the academy to society.

posted by: peter on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

To comment on an earlier post of yours. You remark that anybody who thinks socialist economics works isn't looking at the evidence. Perhaps a reason why it isn't taught in universities anymore. Would you like it to be reintroduced in the name of diversity? I presume you would resist first year students being given a solid grounding in classical Marxist economics on the grounds that it is nonsensical. Same goes with a lot of mainstream ideas in region studies.

posted by: peter on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Peter -

I'm glad to hear there is debate between the left and the far left. I have no real interest in debating our Nicaraguan policy of the 1980's, other than to say that your view about what is fact is not the only view that exists -- it is the accepted view in academia precisely because there is often a lack of real debate in thta forum.

I agree that the value of the academy to society is that it shows the value of real debate. I disagree that the debate that occurs there is real debate. Given that the academy has such a severe underrepresentation of certain widely held viewpoints, I question the quality of the debate.

As to your second opinion, I think fact should be taught as fact and opinion should be taught as opinion. I certainly am not arguing that marxist economics should be taught for "diversity," although I have no problem with marxist economics being taught. As with any theory that is taught, however, the professor has an obligation of full disclosure - the actual experience of societies that implemented such policies must be examined.

posted by: Ben on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Ben argues that Marxism should not be taught for reasons of diversity, but should be taught to show its futility in practice.

That opens a can of worms that can't be addressed here. Marxism is a historicist philosophy that can only be countered philosophically, not practically. Personally, I think Marxism is silly, and Karl Marx's life story is a tragic one. But to say that any country has "implemented" Marxism seems inappropriate. Stalinism is not Marxism-Leninism; Marxism-Leninism is not Marxism.

Teaching "fact as fact" and "opinion as opinion" isn't as easy as it sounds. The academic ideal in any social science or humanities discipline would be to teach interesting ideas, regardless of source, and regardless of how they've been used or abused.

I had many professors who did just that - and who cares whether they were leftists, rightists, or whatever.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Andrew -

I do not necessarily argue that Marxism SHOULD be taught; rather, I argue that IF it is taught, intellectual honesty demands that its actual effects be a part of what is taught.

Also, my "fact as fact" and "opinion as opinion" reference needs to be understood in the light in which it was used - in response to a comment that only liberal ideas have factual support - the parochialism of which comment rises to the level of the absurd. It is simply demonstrably true that in many most aspects of the humanities there is room for differences of opinion. Facts are what they are, but people who believe that only liberals or conservatives have opinions backed by facts clearly do not know the difference between facts and opinions.

posted by: Ben on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Ben, I suppose what it comes down to is that you feel that opinions lodged in the mainstream should be taught even if they have no factual basis just because they are popular amongst the uninformed. I feel universities should be places where opinions should prove their value by demonstrating factual support.
Also keep in mind that academics know full well what the mainstream is thinking about, say Nicaragua. Its not like those views aren't considered. They are. They have to be because they are all around us. I can't talk about Nicaragua with anyone without getting into a debate about it and hearing the same old tired inaccuracies repeated. Academics do consider mainstream opinions. And sometimes those opinions are utterly rejected as being spurious and poorly supported by the evidence.
Alright, you don't want to talk about Nicaragua. Fair enough. I suspect you are largely uninformed about it the same way I am uninformed about loads of places. And consequently I have to suggest that your claim that my view is the accepted academic only because of bias in the academy is unwarranted and indefencible. Learn something about Nicaragua and you will find that my view is the consensus because it is based on facts and logical analysis.
I'd also like to emphasize that I am not saying only liberals have opinions based on facts. I am saying that people who study one particular area or topic may well move to a consensus opinion that may differ from popularly held opinions and that those popularly held opinions don't have any special value just because they are popular.

posted by: peter on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

If I can get past the Nicaguaran thread, I do have a real story about bias in academia.
When I was a graduate student in economics at Stanford (and in Economics there is little penalty for being conservative) a friend of mine was in the English department. She was a big fan of James Joyce and wanted to write her dissertation on Ulysees. At her orals, one of the members of her committee said to her
"What you are saying is that James Joyce a man can write about sympathetically and knowledgeably about a women like Molly Bloom." My friend said "Yes a great writer can write about either gender fairly" The professor said "Well you have not read enough theory have you?" Later she found out that she failed her orals and this professor had browbeat the other members of her committee to fail her. My friend left academics after that.

posted by: Larry, San Francisco on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

I have served on many job searches and gone on many interviews. The few times I experienced "bias" was anti-quantitative bias in small liberal arts colleges. Never have I had any information about someone's political affiliation, nor seen any attempts to find it out.

You say there are two methods by which the disparity exists, self selection and bias, and cavalierly assume bias must be most operative.

Why when the evidence for self-selection is so overwhelming? The military is overwhelmingly Republican. Corporate boards are overwhelmingly Republican. Actors and actresses are overwhelmingly Democrat. Is it self-selection or hiring bias?

Finally, I have to post the WTF question: who cares? Unless you can show me a) that political opinions are part of the content of teaching in most disciplines (e.g. does it matter if physicists are Democrats?) and b) that even if it does, that it has any impact on student beliefs (young generations have been becoming less, nor more liberal, so all those Democratic professors must be doing a piss poor job), then I can't get very excited about this.

posted by: the prof on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Earlier it was commented that conservatives aren’t represented in grad school for various reason and that it might be that the faculty accurately reflects the make-up of the students who would naturally make-up the pool of qualified applicants for teaching positions. Didn’t it ever occur to those of the academic left that perhaps conservatives were underrepresented in grad schools because four years of being told you are wrong and having your arguments dismissed out of hand was enough for most?

I’ll give you a personal anecdote: I was a student of political science in the early ‘90s at a university on the Northside of Chicago. At the time I was enrolled in a class on Russian FP. Early in the semester I began a discussion with the professor about the future course of events arguing for a correction in policy along a conservative line: a position that was shared by most of those known to me to share my own personal political beliefs. (this was after the Gulf War but before Bosnia; before Putin was widely known) Conversation pretty much went like this:

Student: I think there is another way that is different from yours
Prof: You’re wrong. There isn’t
Student: Why?
Prof: You just are.

Had several others like that. Worried about the effect on my grades, realized I had to take several more classes from this man in order to graduate with the degree/specialty I wanted and decided to speak up far less in class. Eventually I transferred because I didn’t see the value in a degree where I learned little more than how to write papers/essays that repeated what the professor wanted to read. The school from which I graduated happens to be in a very ‘red’ state. Didn’t find any professors there that agreed with me but was allowed to argue my opinions without being dismissed out of hand. I greatly suspect that has a large part to do with the make-up of the classes there. A prof can shut down one or two students who are conservative when they are the minority of the class but when the numbers are reversed they have a hard time doing the same to 20 or more. I can’t tell you how many papers/exams carried comments like “While I disagree with the premise the paper/exam was well written and supported thus warranting the high marks.” Translation: You’re wrong but write well.

I am all for debate in the class room and by no means think that my professors should have agreed with me when I wanted them to, but how’s about one or two being able to give a little encouragement once in awhile. That is part of their job after all, isn’t it? End of the story is that I skipped Grad School and went into private industry. I work in a large international company that does a tremendous amount of business in Russia, have had occasion to travel in Russia and the Russian businessmen say the same things: Leave the ivory towers for the leftist academicians who think they know how to shape the world, let the rest of us actually do it.

posted by: Phocion on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Ben, It is rich to see your critique of Peter, because you, who think you have facts, have only opinion. It was not the contras who mined and shelled Corinto harbor. The US did it directly; the operatives were mostly Cuban-americans. This is now very well documented. Top officials in the Regan administration knew. These are proven facts. Not opinion. Opinion is "was Nicaragua better or worse off under the Sandinistas?" You can debate this with me all day and I'll respect your opinion.

Was there a Massacre at El Mozote in El Salvador? Yes. Fact. The Reagan administration knew it and denied it. Opinion: "was the US right to help the El Salvador government defeat the FMLN?" You see, I am a liberal professor and I know the difference. In my classes I state facts as facts and I state my opinions as opinions. My colleagues do the same, the vast majority of them, and the handful who do not-- like the person Larry described-- should indeed be disciplined as unprofessional. Most of my "liberal" academic friends hate the handful of lefty stalinists just as much as you do.

But it is the Republicans, not the liberals, who tend to debate not by convincing their opponents of the rightness of their opinions, but by lying about the facts. That is how Reagan pursued his Central America policy: by lying. George F.W. Bush to his credit did less lying. Gerge W. Bush unfortunately emulates Reagan rather than his father.

All this hullaballoo about universities is also a lie. The goal is not diversity. The goal is to shut down the one last place where Dear Leader's propaganda machine is questioned. Certainly they've won in the battle to control the press, and that started the same way-- whining about the "liberal media."

posted by: the exile on 12.07.04 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

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