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Why Isn’t My Professor Conservative?

A drop in right-identifying faculty doesn't prove a rise in academic bias.

The Heterodox Academy blog is circulating an overview of political opinion among college faculty. As the graph shows, more professors lean to the left today than even a few decades ago. HERI-graph-left-tiltAt National Review, Michael Strain raises questions about this trend. As a member of the mere 5% of professors who identify as conservative, I have some ideas about the answers. My thoughts are interspersed with Strain’s questions below.

1. What drives this? Is there much actual discrimination against conservatives in hiring and tenure decisions at universities? Or is the relative absence of conservatives in humanities and social science departments almost entirely driven by self-selection — is it instead the case that people who go into Ph.D. programs are majority liberal, and that people who graduate with Ph.D.s and who choose to go into faculty positions are (nearly) exclusively liberal?

There’s no single cause. As the original post points out, this is partly a matter of generational replacement. The cohort of professors who started their careers in the’50s and early ’60s was more balanced, with a lot of moderates as well as some conservatives. When they retired, they were replaced by Baby Boomers who came of age in the heyday of the student movement. Some radical activists and sympathizers liked college so much they stayed on. That explains part of the shift around the early ’90s.

Paul Krugman raises a second possibility: that the right took a turn for the extreme that alienated erstwhile sympathizers. The problem with Krugman’s analysis is that it depends on a conflation of conservatism with the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives. A more plausible explanation that emphasizes political events is that the big dip in conservative identification after 2004 reflects opposition to the Iraq War.

Like most conservatives, Strain wonders whether discrimination plays a role. My sense is that there’s not much intentional exclusion. In the natural sciences and many professional fields, politics would be very unlikely to come up in the hiring and promotion process.

Ideology is more obvious in the humanities and social sciences. When talking about discrimination in these disciplines, it’s important to distinguish among “flavors” of conservatism. Speaking broadly, economic libertarianism or foreign-policy hawkishness are considered eccentric but tolerable. Public criticism of the sexual revolution, on the other hand, is not okay. Of all the tribes of the right, conservative Christians face the biggest obstacles.

There may be another contributing factor: the adjunctification of the faculty. During the same period the graph covers, instructors working off the tenure track have become a considerable majority. Adjuncting is not an experience that promotes enthusiasm for conservative principles. A more precarious faculty is a likely to be a more left-leaning one.

2. Let’s say it’s driven by selection. Then why are progressives so much more likely than conservatives to get Ph.D.s? What is it about being a professor and doing research and teaching that are more attractive to liberals than conservatives? What is it about the university environment?

All these considerations have to be taken into account when we think about self-selection. Conservatives are less likely to pursue academic careers because they don’t think they’ll find success in an already Darwinian job market.

They’re probably right, and not just because of discrimination. A more fundamental issue is that conservatives tend to be skeptics about the progressive epistemology that defines the modern university. According to this vision, the goal is to “discover new knowledge”. As a result, research is treated as more important than teaching, and teaching is understood as an assault on prejudice rather than the continuation of tradition.

This conception of the academic enterprise makes  it tough to get through grad school if you see teaching as your main work or are inclined toward curatorial forms of scholarship (even though research is a relatively small element of most academic positions). Conservative social scientists may have fewer objections to this bias toward novelty. But it’s a real challenge for conservatives in the humanities.

3. Is overwhelming liberalism among humanities and social science faculty actually a significant problem? Does it affect research and teaching in the social sciences and the humanities in a non-trivial way?

It is a problem. The absence of conservatives means important questions won’t be asked and possible answers won’t be proposed and tested. A conservative presence is also important for ensuring that the curriculum includes certain classic works and unfashionable topics or methods. Finally, in a monolithically leftist academy, students won’t be exposed to a wide range of arguments and perspectives, leaving them dependent on conventional wisdom. In this respect, a stronger conservative presence is actually essential to the progressive task of challenging prejudice.

On the other hand, these are not the biggest problems the academy faces. More serious than the relative absence of political conservatives is the double threat to liberal education posed by corporatization and grievance politics. Conservatives might wish that students would read more Dante, say, or Tocqueville. But the real danger is that administrators and social justice warriors will agree that they don’t have to read anything they don’t want to.

The real question is what to do about this. Strain argues—and I agree—that ideological affirmative action is a bad idea. A more promising strategy is to reinvigorate conservative intellectual life outside the university, paying more attention to scholarship and the arts and less to politics. We’ll have a stronger case for admission to the academy when more of us make arguments or create works that can’t be ignored.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.