Thursday, April 21, 2005

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Alex Tabarrok on political bias in the academy

Last night the Georgetown IR group took me out to a fabulous dinner, and naturally the conversation turned to whether there was a bias in academia against political conservatives.

I was all prepared to expound on this in a post, but fortunately for me, Tyler Alex has a Marginal Revolution post in response to this article by Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte suggesting statistical evidence of discrimination. Tyler's Alex's basic point: conservatives who cry bias here also need to acknowledge bias because of race or gender in the academy, since the types of cited evidence are awfully similar.

Bravo to Tyler Alex for intellectual consistency. Go check his post out. [So you agree completely?--ed. Not completely, no -- I think there probably is some bias (against women, some ethnic minorities, and conservatives), but the effect is less significant than is commonly thought. But the proposed solutions to these bias are far, far worse than the original problem.]

posted by Dan on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM


Hey Dan, you've mixed up your Marginal Revolution bloggers. That post was by Alex Tabarrok.

posted by: Eric Slusser on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

Actually, I find his argument far less than compelling. It rests on the claim that factors like "work force attachment, ability, and IQ" account for the difference in numbers both male/female and liberal/conservative.

As was noted in a 2004 study, however, those with higher IQs are equally likely to be liberal as conservative. Ability and work force attachment do not at first blush appear to favor hiring liberals either.

He is left with the idea that liberals and conservatives are attracted to different career paths. That may well be the case; however, it is complicated by the fact that historically campuses have NOT been so overwhelmingly liberal -- a fact which suggests that there is nothing in the conservative nature that finds employment in academia repulsive. (As opposed to, say, employment in the federal government.)

posted by: Jamie on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

Two quick comments: objective measures of academic achievement are partially driven by who controls the achievement; there might be some bias in what someone decides is publishable or worthy of a fellowship. This begins very quickly in the academic career. A related point is that unlike in competitive industries, there is no real feedback mechanism (like profits) for measuring whether "managers" of universities are successful (as in many things, this is different for sciences, where there is money to be made in collaboration with competitive industries, in which I include government funding). Thus Tabarok can rely on the Becker's argument about the cost of discrimination and thus the market pressure to eliminate discrimination, while ignoring the difference in the kind of market.

Two: there are laws against discrimination on the basis of gender and race (and religion); there are no such laws against discrimination on the basis of political views. You need to get down to sophisticated regression analysis in the case of gender and race because the law for all practical purposes eliminated the most obvious cause.

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

Here we go again, right Dan?

Here's a thought: the best way to see if conservatives get frozen out of the academy would be to conduct a study of who leaves the profession and why. I don't know who, exactly, would take on such an ordeal (I'm certainly not volunteering) but it would be MOST interesting, for many reasons, not all related to the current topic.

My own experience, however, suggests that neither departments nor universities have much interest in playing the "whatever happened to X?" game, because it doesn't serve their needs in any way.

As someone with a Ph.D. married to another someone with a Ph.D., neither of whom is working "in the field", I can tell you that as far as our respective degree-granting departments are concerned, we do not appear to exist at all. Sure, the university manages to find us shortly after each move courtesy of witness protection (joke), and we are hit up for cash as esteemed alumnae, but to date no one closely associated with our training has bothered to ask why we no longer use it (at least in the originally designed manner).

I can't say that either of us (nor our sundry friends who have also migrated elsewhere) were frozen out for conservative leanings. In my case, conservatism was a post-9/11 thing (though I was frequently chided for not studying the "right" sorts of people--women and the oppressed--and come to think of it, lost out on one job to a woman who studied cookbooks in colonial India, so I guess I could claim discrimination, but I wouldn't want to plead it in a court of law!).

Rather than say that no conservatives aspire to an academic career, I'd argue that our allegiance to the profession is less sticky than that of our more liberal colleagues--meaning they are willing to put up with lousy pay and worse conditions for much longer in pursuit of the dream. Also, in my experience, conservatives have less of a visceral reaction to alternate careers (business, anyone?) than our liberal friends. Naturally, an antipathy towards capitalism makes it that much harder for academic wannabe's to get hired outside the academy, thus leading them to cling ever harder to the slippery pole.

Dan, you might suggest some such study for your own department, as a test case. What are the odds, do you suppose?

posted by: Kelli on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]


Interesting points. Perhaps one sphere in academia you could look at where competitive pressures/market feedback are relatively more strong is in business academia, where students tend to be very demanding consumers of their education.

One example that bolsters Tabarrok's point: The overrepresentation of Indian nationals on U.S. business school faculties, relative to East Asians, which many acknowledge to result from their superior English communication skills. There may be some other covariates that contribute to this (different pre-graduate training, maybe an earlier demographic hump of Indians entering doctoral programs), but my sense is that the last thing a b-school dean wants to hear is complaints from MBA's about a professor's English skills.

FWIT, I know some immensely talented Chinese and Taiwanese graduate students from top programs who had to settle with jobs at lesser-tier schools, which we could only attribute to their less-than-perfect English skills.

posted by: George on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

The problem with designing a study to see if conservatives get "frozen out" is that you have to go back very, very far on the educational track to find conservatives who dropped out long before they even entered a Ph.D. program because they knew their odds of finding an academic job upon completion of the program were slim. For example (and this is argument from anecdote, I know--I have no idea how common this experience is, but I'd love to if anyone has more information), I'd consider myself a potential conservative professor who was, if not exactly "frozen out," definitely nudged towards the door. I've got the academic chops for a Ph.D. program in history (top of my class, academic awards, yadda yadda) and I can't think of anything in the world I'd love to do more than being a history professor . . . but not even my undergraduate degree is in history. Why? Because history degrees--at any level--are just not marketable. There are 100 new Ph.D.s granted every year in history for every 1 open assistant professorship. And while I probably would have gone the history Ph.D. route even with the bias against conservatives if it was a competitive job market, I'm not crazy enough to fight both trends -- when there are another 300-400 applicants for the job, any little consistent disadvantage that you have means that you'll never get hired anywhere. (The numbers for the other social sciences vary a little, but none of them fall too far under that 100-to-1 ratio.) I have to think that at the margin conservative students are more likely than liberal ones to look at numbers like those as early as their undergrad years and think, "You know what, this isn't worth it, I'm going into a more marketable field." This is probably doubly true for conservative undergrads who are consistently discriminated against by their professors for being conservative -- some might be tough enough to fight through it and be willing to be twice as good to get half as much credit as the liberal students, but at the margin, more conservative students than liberal ones are going to drop out of the academic track after their undergrad degrees (if not before completing their degrees) because of such discrimination--if you're a bright young adult, why put up with several more years of being attacked for what you believe every day in academia when you can just as easily go get a decently-paying job? So to do a study looking for those "frozen out" conservatives, you'd have to start with a giant sample--multiple thousands of people--and then screen for the ones who by some objective measure (SAT scores? I don't know) appear that they could have finished a Ph.D. program if they wanted to *and* at some point in their lives considered getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor, to get a representative sample. And since nobody both cares enough about why conservatives are underrepresented in academia *and* has the thousands upon thousands of dollars it would take to do such a large study....

posted by: Jules on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

I remember a time at elite poli sci departments that the conservatives used to be truly marginalized, and thought of a stuffy, doddering idiots or worse, totally out of it when it came to issues of race/class/gender. And this was a safe assumption. But as time went on, there was this slow appearance of others who were too embarrassed to identify themselves as conservative. Hence Condi Rice, who never spoke about her own politics per se, yet was launched on the international stage and now has far surpassed even another academic, Kissinger, in her lasting influence on the current administration and imprimature on US foreign policy around the world. So she in a sense has been validated. Steve Krasner has come out of the woodwork. The rational choice people who vowed to take the idealistic, granola-eating comparativists and impressionistic constructivists in IR and show them the light --well, they too have been unmasked, and have now ascended to the forefront of these elite departments to say, yes, politically: it's not about change, it's about hard-edged, uncompromising, non-fuzzy behavior and the world should reflect this approach. No one is afraid to be "conservative" anymore. They don't have to say that they are just failed, or would-be, economists anymore. (Now that's a science, right!)

Look at some of the leading departments, and not just Stanford, Harvard, and Chicago. If their make-up doesn't portend an ascendance of conservatism, I don't know what else does. Gender? Well, Condi made it possible to look beyond being black and conservative. And what about being African-American? It's the end of politics in some way. Why doesn't Berkeley, the supposed seat of liberalism, according to the stereotype, have a single African American professor in the department? Why has there not been one in many years?

posted by: Diego on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

The funny thing is that many of the rational choice people are liberals or use rational choice to justify liberal positions; for example work in comparative political economy shows how all-encompassing peak associations -that underpin social-democratic, corporatist regimes- is great for economic growth.

I would contend that much of the methodology and "battleground" where work is done in political science is done these days is right wing. But apparently, we must have conservative voting members for things to be alright in the universe.

Well, I think that we should fix the anti-liberal bias among church goers.

posted by: Nick Kaufman on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

I would also note that academic conservatives may also choose to work for think tanks, where their ideas are likely to garner much more support. If I were a libertarian academic, that is the route I would probably take.

posted by: Christopher Rasch on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

I know the job market in academics is bad, but I just wanted to comment on Jules' 100-1 PhD to tenure-track job number.

Let's say a typical PhD-granting history department has 30 tenure-track positions (this number doesn't really matter---the argument scales), and each faculty member's career lasts 30 years (this number does matter). Such a department will have, on average, one tenure-track opening per year. In order to get a 100-1 PhD/job ratio, such a department would have to produce 100 PhDs per year, or over 3 per full-time faculty member.

Now, maybe historians are much more productive than physicists, but I seriously doubt that faculty members in history are producing 3 new PhDs every year. I would guess each faculty member produces a new PhD every 2-3 years, or about 10 per year for a department with 30 members. So the new PhD/job ratio is more like 10-1 than 100-1. Still, not too good.

With that said, as a liberal academic, I have to support affirmative action for conservatives (despite the irony) for the same reason I support it for other under-represented groups. If diversity in the classroom matters, then it is legitimate for hiring committees to account for it.

posted by: A. Random Physicist on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

The Rothman et al. paper contains interesting data and certainly leads to the hypothesis that there is bias against conservatism in academic circles. To test this hypothesis you'd need to remove considerations of political affiliation from promotion and appointments and see what happens. To some extent, this experiment has already been done and the Rothman et al. paper contains the results. Scientists tend to be markedly liberal in their political and social views. This is true also for academic engineers. I suspect it would be true also for academic physicians, who tend to be considerably more liberal than practicing physicians. Appointments and promotions in these areas are rather unlikely to be influenced by ideological considerations. I spent 3 years on the appointments and promotions committee of my medical school and you can't infer people's ideological positions from the type of material that gets submitted for appointments and promotions. Even if you could, the need to hire and promote people who can do competitive scientific research, either basic or clinical, is simply overwhelming. The criteria are pretty straightforward and reasonably objective.
Now, it is possible that appointments and promotion might be non-ideological in the sciences (and related fields) and things could be somewhat different in the humanities and social sciences but then you'd have to posit one cause in the humanities and social sciences and another in the sciences. Not impossible but unlikely. Bias against individuals with conservative political views is unlikely to be a general feature of academic life. Some other factor(s) must account for the prevalence of liberals in academic life.

posted by: Roger Albin on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

"No one is afraid to be "conservative" anymore."

I can't speak as a potential Ph.D candidate, but I can certainly speak an undergraduate student.

Depending on the professor and university, there sure IS people afraid to be openly 'Conservative'. I've let a few of my professors be convinced I'm liberal, because my grade would suffer otherwise. I've had it happen before, not being stupid again.

posted by: Cutler on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

30-1 argument doesn't work because one faculty retirement doesn't equal one job. Academia is like the auto industry. The union (tenure) is superannuating and not adding younger members. Instead the retiring members are replaced by adjuncts.

posted by: abd on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

I think Alex is right that most of the bias comes from conservatives not having the patience and desire to be part of liberal institutions.

posted by: aaron on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

"I think Alex is right that most of the bias comes from conservatives not having the patience and desire to be part of liberal institutions."

The big problem is: even were this claim true, such claims have been ruled out of bounds in other areas of discrimination theory (invoking some variety of "blaming the victim"), so the cognitive dissonance is hard not to notice.

posted by: Ged of Earthsea on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

I discuss this and other issues on my blog . While I do agree that bias doesn't explain it entirely in the sense that even without bias, I don't think that there will be a 50-50 split of conservatives to liberals. But, if you look at the Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte data, you see that departments like Chemistry, Comp Sci, Engineering have ratios of lib-to-con of 2.5-to-1 or so, which is high, but not nearly as bad as in departments like Poli Sci or English (which were 40-1 and 25-1 or so, respectively). So, while it would be a pipe dream to expect 1-1 ratios, maybe we should acknowledge that bias does exist in the types of departments with 40-1 or so ratios.

As for the comparison to gender discrimination... no dice. The ideological imbalance number is much higher than the gender imbalance number. In academia, it is usually 2-1 men to women. But is around 6-1 conservative to liberal. Certainly, for racial discrimination, there might be an argument to be made. However, a couple of things work against it. First, is that there aren't many black college graduates, and of those, many fewer black Ph.D.'s. However, more college graduates identify themselves as conservative than liberal. Furthermore, while there certainly are more liberal than conservative Ph.D.'s, the ratio isn't 40-to-1!

posted by: Yevgeny Vilensky on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

I'm surprised by Yevgeny's comments. The use of proportions is a little misleading because some are not identified as liberal or conservative. A modest change in the number identified as conservative would make a disproportionately large change in proportions. A more reliable measure would be to look at the percentage identified as liberal or conservative, probably the former as its a larger number with bigger dynamic range. If you look at the Rothman et al. data, take the percentage of faculty identified as liberals, and eyeball the distributions between sciences and humanities/social sciences, they overlap considerably. Its hard to know for sure with these relatively small numbers but if you use a non-parametric inferential test like the Mann-Whitney, it rejects the hypothesis that these 2 distributions are different. On this basis its hard to argue that there is a difference between ideological representation in science versus humanities/social science depts.

posted by: Roger Albin on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

This must be some sort of joke. It is plain to see that conservatives are discriminated in the academy.

1) 90% of academics and students (ah, to be young and foolish) are liberals. That makes the social pressure to conform enormous.

2) Conservatives have different research agendas than liberals or leftists. What they wish to do, the questions they wish to explore, the methods they seek to use: these are all different from what liberals or leftists think legitimate or find interesting.

The traffic of Dan's site seems to have gone down recently. Perhaps this is because by making comments as in this post he exposes himself as either self-deluding or as licking the boots of the powerful liberals in his profession. He's sure not fooling anyone but himself.

posted by: Con Artist on 04.21.05 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

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