October 15, 2005

What keeps conservatives out of academia?

John Tierney has another column (behind TimesSelect) about the lack of conservatives in academia. He paraphrases the justifications various professors have offered:
1. Conservatives do not value knowledge for its own sake.

2. Conservatives do not care about the social good.

3. Conservatives are too greedy to work for professors' wages.

4. Conservatives are too dumb to get tenure.
Tierney rejects all of that, and blames the disparity on "the structure of academia, where decisions about hiring are made by small independent groups of scholars":
They're subject to the law of group polarization, derived from studies of juries and other groups.

"If people are engaged in deliberation with like-minded others, they end up more confident, more homogenous and more extreme in their beliefs," said Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "If you have an English or history department that leans left, their interactions will push them further left."

Once liberals dominate a department, they can increase their majority by voting to award tenure to like-minded scholars. As liberals dominate a field, conservatives' work comes to be seen as fringe scholarship.

"The filtering out of conservatives in the job pipeline rarely works by outright blackballing," said Mark Bauerlein, a conservative who is an English professor at Emory. "It doesn't have to. The intellectual focus of the disciplines does that by itself."

Suppose, he said, you were a conservative who wanted to do a sociology dissertation on the debilitating effects of the European welfare state, or an English dissertation arguing that anticommunist literature from the mid-20th century was as valuable as the procommunist literature.

"You'd have a hard time finding a dissertation adviser, an interested publisher and a receptive hiring committee," Bauerlein said. "Your work just wouldn't look like relevant scholarship, and would be quietly set aside."

That sounds accurate to me.

Tierney concludes that the phenomenon ultimately hurts liberals in the political sphere because they can't draw on the ideas of liberals in academia, who have veered too far left to produce ideas that are appealing to American voters.


Dave said...

So do you pay for access to TimesSelect?

Or do you get it free as an academic?

Seems to me that someone who rightly complains about TimeSelect would not want to also pay for access to it.

Just curious, as all I have heard about it has been universally negative.

erp said...

It doesn't stop at tenure decisions, students are also affected. My son, an excellent student at a first tier institution and a double history/French major, was denied honors at graduation because his senior thesis (NATO & France) did not reflect the history department's worldview. Luckily he had no interest in making academe his career and it didn't hurt him any in Silicon Valley.

Ann Althouse said...

Dave: I am a long time subscriber to the paper version and that entitles me to TimesSelect. So I paid nothing more for it. I think it is a mistake and expect it to be withdrawn.

Erp: Terrible. I imagine there are many stories like that. Probably more students just get the message of what they are supposed to say and cynically say it.

Dave said...

Interesting. I susbscribe to the paper version as well. Had no idea I was in such rarified company.

PatCA said...

And in the humanities, much of what is termed "research" is just propaganda. They don't even see it. A Vietnam war literature class, for instance, is billed as "balanced" because it includes anti-US books from both the Communists and us! No anti-communist novels, though.

Occasionally, a student will write a thesis contra this world view or demand that the Communist Vietnam flag be taken down, but it's a struggle. The presence of a professor (or student) thinking outside this reality is just too threatening so they self-select their own.

Sissy Willis said...

The cluelessness of the standard justifications academics offer to explain the phenomenon suggests an appalling lack of self-knowledge.

Craig said...

The overbearing-campus-liberals meme is tired. I'm sure that college professors as a group do not mirror the American populace as a whole in _many_ ways (a statement which is almost certainly true when abstracted to any meaningful subset of the population). However, the notion that conservative students are pariahs unable to gain any traction in the university setting is overplayed. Every university (small, large, university, LAC, US News favorite, regional school) at which I've spent any time has had a significant conservative student population and relatively well-known conservative professors. The fact that the university is a social setting which requires people skills to negotiate is neither surprising nor improper.

It seems to me that this phenomenon (complaining of the liberal academy) is in some real sense a masterful turn of the right, using the left's programme and argument structures against it, in the very same way that, say, Hardt and Negri contend that the post-modernism has been used so effectively against the cultural left.

(Note, of course, that Professor Althouse, who may not be on the far right but is certainly not on the far left, is a tenured professor at a university that has as liberal a reputation as they come -- a university, I might add, that has active College Republicans - http://uwcr.rso.wisc.edu/, Objectivists - http://objectiv.rso.wisc.edu/.)

cyfartal said...

My problem with the article is that Tierney doesn't actually make the link between academics being liberals (which they tend to be) and the academic work produced. Given that tenure is awarded on the basis of your academic output, we might well expect a self-perpetuating bias if only "liberal questions" were considered valid.

But I'm just not convinced that the link is there. I'm a social scientist, and can think of three people who study the debilitating effects of the welfare state (albeit in the US, not Europe), all of whom have been awarded tenure or are in tenure-track positions.

I don't know their political leanings, but I do not believe that the questions they ask are considered "conservative" and nor are they shut out of the discipline for trying to find answers to them.

Ann, I've been a longtime reader and am always impressed with your sharp analysis of the validity of arguments. I'm disappointed that you felt the Tierney piece sounded accurate when the crucial link in the argument isn't backed up.

Too Many Jims said...
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Too Many Jims said...

I think the third choice is written in far too perjorative terms, but if it would be written in better terms I think it would explain a big part of the discrepancy. I can't read the article to see if he actually addresses the point. One of the reasons I say this is the disrepancy is true (though not to the same degree) for virtually every field one can imagine. I understand the arguments about intellectual intimidation and groupthink in the humanities and social sciences but how about engineering? Are there really engineering departments out there that say "you voted for 'x' so you can't possibly teach engineering"?

Ron said...

My ex was in a Womens Studies program and wanted to do a 'Women in the Military' thesis of some type. The only potential idea that was even tolerated was 'Women in the Soviet tank corps.' But what about those women anti-aircraft gunners in the SS?
They weren't hearing that! And writing about women in the US military would be viewed as 'active encouragement.' Sad, really...

L. Ron Halfelven said...

Odd how this subject keeps coming up. When we hear that not many bankers (for example) are liberals, no one considers it worth their while to claim, or dany, that this somehow reflects badly on liberals. What's so special about academics?

Jonathan said...

Set 1: People who believe that the relatively low proportions (as compared to their proportions in the population as a whole) of women/minorities in various non-academic fields is prima facie evidence of discrimination.

Set 2: People who believe that the relatively low proportions of conservatives/libertarians in academia is evidence of the general unsuitability of conservatives/libertarians for academic work and not evidence of discrimination.

How much overlap is there between these two sets?

David Banner said...

I'm a tenure-track closeted conservative at UW.

On the job market, I had ten on-campus interviews at different schools. At eight of these I was in situations that I felt were designed to feel out my politics. Two were formal interview settings, the rest were at informal gatherings.

Since arriving at UW, I have attended many search committee meetings. In one, the comment was made: "I'm glad our short list is all liberal, because I wouldn't want to bring another Republican into the state." I have never yet seen a job interview here where politics were not discussed in a manner to bring out the political leanings of the applicant, including my own. Without exception, these have been conversations in which expressing a conservative viewpoint would bring stares. I have seen applicants take a range of approaches to these situations, from the "smile and nod" to fervent agreement.

I try to keep politics out of the classroom entirely. But I have had guest lecturers in my classes make political statements to the class, out of the blue and for no apparent reason other than their assumption that I and other students agree with them. After the last election, one guest lecturer said to the class, "I'm glad I live in Madison, I can't believe how stupid people are in the rest of the state." We're a state university -- those "stupid people" are my students' parents and relatives, not to mention the students themselves! I can sympathise with the powerlessness that conservative students must feel most of the time, since the norm is for professors to make politics part of their classes (and my field is not political science).

I can't say that I know that political leanings have disqualified anyone from a job here; without tenure I have not participated in the closed-door meetings where hiring decisions are made. And I believe that research quality has been the main factor.

But I'm not normally one to fear making my opinion known. And I fear anyone finding out my politics before I have tenure. I believe that I would be denied if anyone found out.

grumpyTA said...


I was in a Women's Studies program and I can't imagine any professor being hostile to the idea of studying women in the military, or your ex's thesis.

Perhaps it was just her particular program.

erp said...

Craig, you're so much of a type, I can actually hear your academic stutter in your prose.

How did our hostess get tenure despite her somewhat right of center views? Checking her profile offers no clues, so until she disabuses us, we may suppose that she kept her opinions to herself until she got tenure. Very politic of her.

You may be right that students today have a conservative presence on some college campuses, faculty I'm not that sure, certainly not in the humanities or soft sciences. My son graduated 25 years ago when there was a total blackout of non-leftwingery on college campuses.

cyfartal, research and asking questions are fine as long as the correct conclusions are reached, i.e., the received wisdom of the left is confirmed and being in a tenure track position implies nothing about the outcome of the tenure committee's recommendations.

Jonathan, now you know why my definition of a liberal is one who can hold opposite and opposing opinions at the same time.

knoxgirl said...

Craig said:

"this phenomenon (complaining of the liberal academy) is in some real sense a masterful turn of the right, using the left's programme and argument structures against it..."

So... it's not really true that conservatives are marginalized in academia, it's actually some sort of strategy crafted by the propaganda machine of the Right.

We're all just imagining it, and John Tierney has even fallen for it! And conservatives must be really smart to come up with such a ruse! Or wait, no they're dumb... er... rather...

Kurt said...

Thanks for telling your story, David Banner. As an undergraduate, I was more sympathetic to the left on campus than I am now, but I knew then that I could never be part of the academic left simply because my parents are very conservative, and the arrogance of asserting that that meant they were stupid always turned me off.

Despite my misgivings about academic leftism, I went on to get a PhD in English. During graduate school in the early 1990s, political criticism was on the ascendency in the guise of "cultural studies"--as a corrective for the seemingly more apolitical (but nevertheless always left-wing) postmodernism which had been so dominant in the '80s. The most influential texts and theorists always seemed to be variants of or offshoots of Marxist theory. In one seminar, I remember hearing a classmate remark that "there was no room for a Republican English department," and I got to wondering if such a thing existed anywhere in the country.

The more familiar I became with the world of academic leftism, though, the more I noticed another irony about academia. University Presidents are often criticized on the right for being left-of-center, but some of the most visible and successful ones are more conventional liberals than many academic leftists. They often talk of reason and selfhood in the sort of positive terms that the influential leftist academics would have excoriated.

Goatwhacker said...

Odd how this subject keeps coming up. When we hear that not many bankers (for example) are liberals, no one considers it worth their while to claim, or dany, that this somehow reflects badly on liberals. What's so special about academics?

I can think of at least two ways in which academics are "special". One is that as a group they are tasked with teaching receptive students their respective subjects. The concern would be that these topics would be taught in a one-sided or incomplete manner and eventually have a disproportionate effect on eventual public opinion. Obviously this would be a larger concern in the social sciences as opposed to physical.

The other is that academics have an implied, if not stated, goal of free expression of ideas and consideration of differing viewpoints. Bankers have no such goal, they just want to run their bank.

Pat Patterson said...
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Aspasia M. said...

What's the breakdown of political affiiliation in the math/ hardsciences/ computer science/ information technology fields?

Liberals make up a higher proportion of the faculty in University departments from my ancedotal evidence. Does Tierney address the liberal to conservative political affiliations science and math departments? Or is he only writing about the humanities departments?

Umm...so at your school the English department doesn't appreciate anti-communist literature? What about Bulgakov's _The Master and Margarita_?

pst314 said...

Paul Zrimsek wrote: "When we hear that not many bankers (for example) are liberals, no one considers it worth their while to claim, or dany, that this somehow reflects badly on liberals. What's so special about academics?"

Well, when I hear that not many bankers are liberals I regard the speaker as ill-informed and blinded by stereotypes. I have worked for banks--large banks--and have found that the political opinions are very similar to those of the community as a whole. I even knew a manager who donated money to the Sandinistas (oy.)

The businesss world is, in my experience, far more tolerant of diverse viewpoints than academia. For the vast majority of business people, the focus is on getting the job done, and somebody's personal opinions are irrelevant and largely not an appropriate matter of concern. In academia, however, I have met many "progressives" for whom one's ideology is a centrally defining question which has a great deal to do with whether one will be respected or despised, included or ostracized. There have been numerous reports recently on examples of ideology-based discrimination, from inappropriate treatment of dissenting students to hiring decisions. The problem is certainly not pervasive but it is real and documented.

pst314 said...

For those who want to read the New York Times but not pay for a subscription, many libraries have not just print subscriptions but online access including complete searchable archives. Very handy.

pst314 said...

My previous comments notwithstanding, I do agree with Tierney and Althouse: Although hostility and an uncomfortable social climate can be significant, the greatest single factor is the tendency of liberal academics to regard conservative ideas as simply irrelevant or intellectually inferior.

Aspasia M. said...

For the commenters that are complaing that academia is filled with faculty that have intolerant ideologies, ect. -

I don't believe you all are talking about most of the departments in any given University. Are you seriously claiming that your complaints are addressed towards mathamaticians, the faculty in the computer science department, or the bio-statisticians (to name just a few examples)?

So do you all really think that in computer science departments the faculty hiring committee is even interested in the political affiliation of the new hire?

How do Tierney's arguments apply to disciplines such as Math, Science and Medicine?

And if his arguments do not apply to these departments, you all are apparently upset over a specific set of academic disciplines.

Of course, these arguments do not explain why faculty with liberal political affiliations might make up the majority of the research faculty in math or science departments.

Do is the entire University dominated by liberal faculty, or not?

erp said...

Short answer, yes.

If you're unconvinced, do some research into scientific research and you'll really be dismayed. Notice how many medical and other scientific breakthroughs are coming from Japan and elsewhere?

sep said...

after four years of TAing in the social sciences, at UW I can tell you that some politically conservative students often take up this type of argument when they simply do not have the facts to back up their assertions, have not done the necessary research on their topic, and don't understand why they can't use a conservative talk-show's website as a scholarly source. their counterparts, the politically liberal students often take up the same argument (for the same reasons) - they usually say that i'm just too conservative to see their point as valid - an interesting point since all my student know I'm a socialist. the fact of the matter is that most undergrads are not politically active at all and those that are often use their political activism as an excuse for sloppy research. and, even though I "come out" as a socialist in my classes I've always had conservative students tell me what a constructive space I created in our discussion sections. it's not your politics that determines your worth as a teacher - it's your ability to let all sides have their say and respectfully discuss the issue as well-informed adults, not ideologues. failure to do so is a pedagogical crime, not a political one. if our universities spent more time teaching us how to be better teachers conservative and liberal academics would find a common home.

L. Ron Halfelven said...

Anyone who doesn't like bankers as an example should feel free to choose a different one; the specific example isn't important.

Backing up a step, I guess the basic oddity I see here is that in all the usual explanations that usually get batted around for ideological imbalance in the academy, the causation flows in one direction only: from having particular beliefs to becoming or not becoming an academic. But if we look at other professions whose members we think of as having particular political beliefs, aren't we a lot likelier to assume that their beliefs come at least partly from their profession? Just as businesspeople are going to be drawn, more often or not, to an ideology that trusts businesspeople to make the right decisions most of the time (even if we leave self-interest out of it), we shouldn't be at all surprised to find academic experts drawn to an ideology that's more likely to overrides the decisions of businesspeople and others based on the advice of academic experts.

None of which is to say that we shouldn't be concerned about this state of affairs. I just don't think we need to be puzzled by it.

Aspasia M. said...

Are there any conservative math, science, or medical researchers who read this blog who would like to defend the state of their field's research?

Erp has suggested that because liberal predominate at Universities, and therefore are prevalent in departments such as medicine, that American researchers are not able to contribute important research to their fields.

1) So is it a general consensus, with those who agree with Tierney, that liberal dominate Math and Science departments in America?
(I would like to see the evidence that liberals do dominate these departments.)

2) If those who agree wtih Tierney believe that liberals have "taken over" math, science, medicine, ect. -- Why do you all think this has occurred?

Liberal philosophies and or voting records are not particularly relevant to many research questions...in, say...finding a a vaccination for the bird flu or for West Nile disease.

So why would liberals predominate in medicine? or math? or biostatistics? or computer science departments?

Mind you, I am not suggesting that they have numerically taken over these fields. I still want to see the numerical evidence that liberals predominate in these University departments.

Gerry said...

"Tierney concludes that the phenomenon ultimately hurts liberals in the political sphere because they can't draw on the ideas of liberals in academia, who have veered too far left to produce ideas that are appealing to American voters."

Wouldn't this make it a push, since conservatives can't draw on the ideas of conservatives in academia, who have become to extinct to produce ideas that are appealing to American voters?

Ann Althouse said...

Gerry: Here's what Tierney says: "Conservatives complain about this imbalance in academia, but in some ways they've benefited from being outcasts. They've been toughened by confronting skeptics on campus and working at think tanks in Washington involved in the political fray. They've come up with ideas - welfare reform, school vouchers, all kinds of privatization schemes - that have been adopted around the country and the world."

The Exalted said...

color me skeptical as to erp's contention that his son was "denied honors at graduation because his senior thesis (NATO & France) did not reflect the history department's worldview."

extremely skeptical.

what was thesis of the paper?

what did the professors say or write that led you to the inexorable conclusion that it was the paper's slant that prevented the graduation with honors?

just stating it does not make it so.

the cases of so-called liberal bias affecting students that arise out of fox news type media outlets always turn out to be entirely false, so excuse me if i don't immediately buy what you are selling.

XWL said...

Why don't we know/care about the political leanings of bankers (or other private sector professionals)

Because in the private sector what matters most are results, not process and ideology. There is a definable rubric for success of profits and losses.

Very few government or academic sector employees seem to be judged on results and if an attempt is made to bring results oriented evaluations into their sector they often fight, complain and proclaim their exceptionalism (I'm thinking of the No Child Left Behind rigamorale as one example, the Katrina mess on all levels could be another).

Simon said...

I suspect that it's very difficult to be one of the few conservatives (if not the only one) on a faculty, and given how polarized the nation has become, I wouldn't be at all surprised if there isn't an effort to make sure that they are driven out.

I have to admit, reading the letters page of the New York Times last week, which included two letters from ConLaw profs (Manheim and Tomain, I think?), and I couldn't help but feel how absurd and sad it is that these people are in a position to indoctrinate young people, despite their self-evident ignorance of the entire founding purpose of the Constitution and the government it sets up. The imperative of removing these people from positions where they can poison academic discourse is keenly felt, but I appreciate how difficult it is to achieve.

cmtphysicist said...

geoduck2 asked about researchers in the `hard sciences' who would like to `defend the state of
their fields' research'. As a tenured professor of
physics at UCLA, I would like to offer my perspective
on the the political leanings of my colleagues.

John Tierney's thesis may have some relevance
to some of the social science and humanities
and humanities departments, but his explanation
is completely wrong when it come to my physics
department and, from what I know, other physics
departments across the country. I have
sat on various committees for chemistry, mathematics, compter science, and engineering departments, and I think that the same thing
holds true for those departments.

I don't know why there are more liberals than conservatives (or at least more registered Democrats than Republicans, which isn't exactrly the same thing), but it's definitely not because of
the `law of group polarization'.

I can tell you that politics has never, ever come
up in a any hiring or tenure discussion in my department. The discussion has always focussed on
candidates' research output (measured by numbers
of peer-reviewed papers published, numbers of citations, grant money received, etc.), recommendation letters written by their colleagues
students' evalutations of their
teaching, and service to the department. When possible, we have discussed in some detail the
quality of the candiate's scientific ideas. A question
like ``Is he/she a Democrat?'' simply could never
come up. It would be like asking ``What is his/her
favorite color?'' A candidate's politics is so irrelevant
to the discussion that it never even remotely comes up. The same is true in peer reviews of
papers submitted for publication.

To be honest with you, I don't even know the
political leanings of most of my colleagues.
Some of my colleagues are personal friends
of mine, and I know them to be somewhat
liberal, as I am. However, there are over 60
professors in my department, so I don't
know the vast majority of them very well.

So `group polarization', or `filtering out' of
conservatives simply doesn't occur in my
department or, I would think, in most, if
not all, of the other physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and engineering departments across the country.

Keep in mind that the hard sciences
and engineering together make up a very
large proportion of the faculties on most campuses,
especially state universities. The physics department
is one of the largest departments (in terms
of faculty) at my university, and the
engineering deparments, taken together,
are much larger than all of the humanities
departments combined.
(This may come as a surprise. The reason
why science and engineering faculties are
so large and, conversely, English and history
faculties so small, is that the former bring
in lots and lots of grant money, mostly from
the federal government. Consequently,
science and engineering professors typically
have only one third the teaching loads of
humanities professors, even less in some cases.)
So one shouldn't conclude that the
`apolitical' science and engineering departments
are somehow more evenly split between liberals
and conservatives (or Democrats and Repulblicans),
while it is only the humanities and social science
departments which are left-leaning. The poll
numbers could never come out so skewed
if this were the case.

Indeed, this is borne out by studies that
have done a deprtment-by department
breakdown. One poll of a physics department
comparable to mine found a Democrat:Republican
ratio of 28 registered Dems to 2 Republicans (out
of 67 faculty -- I guess that the rest were inedendents). A poll of a smaller department at a private university found a 14-to-3 ratio.
I don't really know what the ratio is in
my department, but I suspect that it is
quite similar -- heavily Democratic.

I'm not going to venture an explanation
because I really don't know why. Someone
should study the problem seriously, rather
than advance facile answer's like Tierney's
which could be proven demonstrably wrong
(as an explanation of the imbalance) by
spending just a week in a typical science or
engineering department.

alikarimbey said...

I think sometimes in academia one hears a lot about "participatory democracy". At first one is very humbled at such discourse. But when "digs deeper" then only those who share the same world view are allowed to join in this so called "participatory democracy". If you are someone who has an open mind about intelligent design for example. Then if you open your mouth during a discussion on evolution to share your open-ness, then could possibly get into trobule, say during tenure process or committee assignments.Did I get this correct?


XWL said...

I'm going to hazard a conjecture about the seeming unbalance amongst 'hard science' professors.

Though the groupthink and hostility towards competing viewpoints doesn't exist as virulently as it does in the humanities (I know, false assumption, there is no liberal bias in the academy, it's just that they are too smart to be conservative), I think we have a case of selection bias rearing its head.

Physicists, engineers and the like who are conservative politically are also more likely to be more business minded and therefore take advantage of the many commercial opportunities available to someone with their skill set, while those interested in theory, teaching and pure research are going to be more 'crunchy granola, recumbent bicycle (to recall an old thread)' types who enjoy the very different cadence and pace of the academic atmosphere. That those types would lean towards the Democrats should be no surprise and that the former group leans Republican also shouldn't shock anybody.

The reason that these issues seem foregrounded far more than they have ever been is a direct result of the increased polarization and demonization of those with opposing viewpoints.

The liberal side seeing the reins of power in the wrong hands are choosing to exert as much influence as possible in all the areas they still dominate (whether by design or unconsciously, doesn't matter), but the effect will only make the problems worse for them and make them seem like undemocratic sore losers and drive the moderate middle into the arms of the extremist on the other side.

Kurt said...

xwl makes some good points. But I think it's also a cultural thing. If you're comfortable in the left-wing, pc environment that dominates most campuses, you're more likely to try to stay, and if you're not, you decide to get the hell out of there when you've finished your degree. Sometimes, I wonder how much it isn't a matter of conforming to expectations, as well. If everyone around you assumes that "all smart people think a certain way about politics" or even that "conservatives are just not cool," then you might be more inclined to start thinking that way, also, or at least to try to start thinking that way.

I have a friend from college who--during the first years of his undergraduate career--was conservative and bold enough to argue with very left-wing professors in public forums, no less. He majored in computer science, got a job in Silicon Valley, and then started graduate school at Stanford, first in computer science, and then in Electrical Engineering. And I've been intrigued to see how he has become increasingly more left-wing in his politics. He's pretty far left now, indeed.

During the years of the Clinton impeachment, I also taught for a while at a small liberal arts college in the midwest. I was no fan of Clinton, and I was watching the whole impeachment debacle with a certain amount of detached amusement. I was often interested to hear what my colleagues had to say about it. And though I didn't argue with them or tell them my perspective, I was often dismayed to see how poorly-formed and poorly-supported their arguments were. In my writing classes, I taught my students about reason and argument and how to avoid common logical fallacies. But I often found my colleagues' comments--no matter whether they taught in the humanities, the social sciences or the sciences--about Clinton or Ken Starr riddled with fallacies and with little evidence to support them. And naturally they assumed I agreed with them.

I also think that you're more likely to find conservatives teaching in law and business schools than in other fields. In those fields you often have to engage with conservative thinkers who are practitioners; in the humanities or the social sciences, or even in the sciences, you're less likely to have your assumptions about the world beyond your field of inquiry challenged with the same rigor.

vbspurs said...

Craig wrote:

However, the notion that conservative students are pariahs unable to gain any traction in the university setting is overplayed.

It's not played enough.

Especially not by the media, who would be outraged if academia were the preserve of Conservatives rather than those of left-leaning tendencies.

Then we wouldn't see the end of the stories about this sad, depressing phenomenon, which has personally affected me in both undergraduate and now post-graduate work.

erp wrote:

My son, an excellent student at a first tier institution and a double history/French major, was denied honors at graduation because his senior thesis (NATO & France) did not reflect the history department's worldview.

Which is exactly my case reading History at Oxford.

I had to rework my entire thesis to conform with the accepted Marxist dialectics of power structures etc.

Fortunately one of my 3 committee tutors gave me an extension to finish it.

Other students all over the world are not so fortunate, especially in the Sociology Departments, and other departments traditionally leftist (Literature, Philosophy, PoliSci, and Religion amonst them).

From the WaPo article on this topic in March:

By their own description, 72 percent of those teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15 percent are conservative, says the study being published this week. The imbalance is almost as striking in partisan terms, with 50 percent of the faculty members surveyed identifying themselves as Democrats and 11 percent as Republicans

And I thought when I reached Medical School, a field after all, not in the Social Sciences, that my professors would not be political.

I was wrong.


Aspasia M. said...

Thank you emtphysicist for your interesting info. My husband is in a Comp Sci department & much of the faculty is rather liberal. My liberal parents are in the fields of Math and Biochemistry. We don't eat much granola, but I do like spinach.

I also think many of the conclusions of Tierney are facile. A sociologist should take up this topic as a dissertation project.

David Brooks has written about the imbalance of Democrats to Republicans in many jobs that cannot be explained by a evil cabal that controls academia. For example, Brooks writes that librarians donate money to Democrats vs. Republicans on a ratio of 263:1.

While it might be amusing to imagine a conspiracy theory of evil librarians who exclude conservatives from Library Science programs - well, let's not jump to rash conclusions.

Librarians tend to be liberal. (I betcha poets and ficiton writers tend to be liberal too.)

And really, is anyone on this list surprised? In your high school, think about who the English and theatre geeks were. We didn't have a lot of ideological conservatives joining the theater club at my school. (I'm not saying it couldn't happen - I'm sure there are conservatives who love Shakespeare.)

A English grad student needs at least 5 more years of grad school after his undergrad education. That's five more years of living in near poverty while your friends start making morgage payments on their nice houses.

Tenure track English PhDs make, what, 35K if they are lucky? You have to love reading, researching, and teaching fiction to choose that career.

Grad school isn't easy. Lots of students do not make it to the PhD.

Conservative kids who want a career in the humanities should be encouraged to do so. Nobody is going to ask you who you voted for when you apply to grad school.

Quite frankly, if you submit a paper on Walt Whitman to one of the several scholarly journals devoted to his work, no one in the blind peer review cares who you voted for.

If this kid wanted to specialize in Shakespeare, Fielding, Chaucer, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman or Renaissance poetry then he can find a dissertation adviser. (Check out the faculty at Stanford's English Department.) If you want to study Spenser, then apply to a grad school with faculty who studies Tudor English poetry.

Remember what your mother taught you and don't push your religion or politics in profession situations. Really, it isn't professional and academics are quite aware of this.

Erp, I'm sorry for your experience. You aren't the first grad student to be screwed by your committee, and you won't be the last.

My dad remembers a friend in Biochemistry who was so frustrated with his department chair that he threw all of his belongings in his car and drove back to his parent's house. (about 11 hours in one day.) Then he got drafted to fight in the Vietnam war. His struggle with his chair had nothing to do with politics or ideology. It had to do with his lab work.

Grad students - let this be a warning to you - don't put the professor in love with Marxist theory on your committee unless you agree with his scholarship.

But a grad student could get in just as much trouble if you put the Chekhov and Chaucer scholars on your committee if they are in some sort of debate with each other.

Your kids are much more likely to fail in grad school (or get a C on their Shakespeare paper) if they can't keep up w/ the work.

Hey, I'm not denying that there's some flaky research out there. But English professors themselves make fun of it. Read some David Lodge. _Small World_ and _Trading Places_ are both hilarious fiction books.

If your kid comes home from college and tells you that he got a C in Shakespere because of his politics -- well, take it with a grain of salt and read his essays. But it's an original excuse for why he got a C on his analysis of _The Tempest._

Stacy said...

And I am sure that none of you are bemoaning the lack of liberal academics in engineering, physics and business at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

No, you are not.

This just in: conservatives are not an oppressed group. Get over it. Maybe if you spent less time worrying about whether "art" is obscene, israel is being fairly treated in classroom discussions and whether or not all dissent is treasonous, you wouldn't have such a hard time with all of this.

Academia has always been political but it has less to do with liberal vs. conservative ideology and more to do with entrenched academics who resist change and who fear competition from differing views that could challenge their positions.

Too Many Jims said...

XWL said...

"Physicists, engineers and the like who are conservative politically are also more likely to be more business minded and therefore take advantage of the many commercial opportunities available to someone with their skill set, while those interested in theory, teaching and pure research are going to be more 'crunchy granola, recumbent bicycle (to recall an old thread)' types who enjoy the very different cadence and pace of the academic atmosphere."

Isn't that a kinder (or more positive towards conservatives) way of stating "Conservatives are too greedy to work for professors' wages."

I think this is largely right mind you. I just think by labeling "desiring to be paid well for one's intellegence, hard work and investment in education" as "greed" it sets up a straw man which is easily knocked down.

Wacky Hermit said...

I'm a conservative math adjunct professor. Politics never entered the picture in any of my math departments. Of course, we should also note that many math departments are so hard-up for talent that they can't afford to be picky. If you can fill a space on their teaching roster for Fall semester, you're in. I've never had trouble finding work.

The closest I've come to a political opinion in the math department is the department's sponsorship of an annual event to encourage girls (and only girls) to learn more about math. While I myself (being female) benefited from similar programs in the past, I'm frankly not picky about whether it be girls or boys going into math, as long as we keep the "fresh blood" flowing into the department. The opinion that girls need more encouragement to go into math appears to be a political one, as more than half of my fellow math undergrads were women, and my Master's program was evenly balanced. (True, there are many fewer female professors and doctoral students, but I think that the higher numbers in the lower-level programs prove that women are not in general intimidated by math nor discouraged by society from going into it. You don't invest 4-6 years in studying a subject you've been discouraged from taking. Rather, something else is going on here.)

My professors have never exhibited political bias. And while some of the professors ride recumbent bikes and eat granola, to this day I have no idea what their political leanings might be, and couldn't even hazard a guess.

cmtphysicist said...

XML made the following statement (repeated by jim)
"Physicists, engineers and the like who are conservative politically are also more likely to be more business minded and therefore take advantage of the many commercial opportunities available to someone with their skill set...''

Again, it's useful to have some data on hand, when
making statements like this. I don't know if there
have been any more recent polls, but I remember on a few years back which found that the membership
of the American Physical Society (which is dominated by physicists in industry, rather than academia)
was heavily Democratic (again, Democrat vs.
Republican isn't the same thing as Liberal vs.
Conservative, but I don't know of any polls
of physicists asking the latter question).

So I don't see any data supporting the claim
that politically conservative scientists and
engineers go into the private sector while
politically liberal ones go into academia.
This is a case in which intuition can lead you astray. For another example, consider that
logic would dictate that most academic
physicists should be Republican since Republican
administrations (prior to this one) have
tended to fund basic science much more
than than Democratic ones, and such federal research grants are the lifeblood
of scientists at universities. Nevertheless,
most university scientists are Democrats.
So things just aren't that intuitive sometimes.

By the way, I should also point out that
the basic premise of XML's and jim's
comments is wrong. A typical salary for
a full professor of physics in the University of California is $150K per year (I'm sure it's higher
at private universities). But keep in mind that
this is a tenured job, so there is zero risk of losing
one's job. I don't know how tenure should
be valued in dollar terms, but a tenured salary
of $150K is maybe comparable to an untenured
salary of, perhaps, $200K since there's no risk in
the former. Of course, that's just part of the story.
A typical science and engineering faculty member
teaches for around 3 hours a week. Let's suppose
that an equal amount of time must be spent in
preparing for class, office hours, etc.. Well,
that's 6 hours per week. The rest of the week
can be spent on research. And then, of course,
there are three months off during the summer.
So there are ample opportunities for consulting
with companies. (Absolute, rock-bottom minimum
would be $350/day. Three months during the summer. You do the math.)

Most relevant to this their premise is the fact that
faculty members in science and engineering departments frequently start companies
based on their ideas. When you do this, your university gets a share of your patents
(the details vary from one uniersity
to another), but they also deal with a lot of the legal issues involved in obtaining a patent. Scientists
working for companies usually don't have any such rights. In industrial scientist having a good
idea and wanting to cash in on it would have
to quit his/her job, start his/her own company
(thereby taking all of the risk), and, in the
event that the idea succeeds, probably fend
off a lawsuit from his/her old employer.
(When I was in the private sector, I remember
signing all kinds of documents forbidding moonlighting, etc..)

I understand why one might think that
``Physicists, engineers and the like who are conservative politically are also more likely to be more business minded and therefore take advantage of the many commercial opportunities available to someone with their skill set...'' but it should be
clear by now that this wouldn't be the case.
Someone with an entrepreneurial bent wanting to take advantage of commercial opportunities would
be at least as well off (and probably much better
off) going into academia while also starting his
or her own company. The one obvious exception
is a younger person who has a good idea and would
like to start a company right away without getting a PhD, etc.. However, you may have noticed that
the founders of Yahoo!, Google, (or, for
that matter, Microsoft) are not particularly conservative politically.

So I think that the idea that `private sector'
scientists are likely to be more conservative
politically than those in academia isn't supported
by any data and flies in the face of too many facts.
I think that we're all just going to have to accept
the fact that physicists tend to be less
conservative politically than society as a
whole, and I would guess that this is true
of scientists and engineers in general.
There probably isn't any one reasonfor this. I would
imagine that it's a combination of many
of the factors that are commonly mentioned
and probably some that haven't. It really
would be a good subject for some serious research.

One final comment. kurt wrote that ``I also think that you're more likely to find conservatives teaching in law and business schools than in other fields. In those fields you often have to engage with conservative thinkers who are practitioners; in the humanities or the social sciences, or even in the sciences, you're less likely to have your assumptions about the world beyond your field of inquiry challenged with the same rigor.''
I wonder if the first part of the statement is
actually true. Are law and business school
professors actually more conservative? I
would like to see the numbers. I thought
that I heard people complaining that law
school professors are too liberal.
My guess, kurt, is that you're wrong about law school professors. At any rate, the second half
of your statement ``In those fields you often have to engage with conservative thinkers who are practitioners; in the humanities or the social sciences, or even in the sciences, you're less likely to have your assumptions about the world beyond your field of inquiry challenged with the same rigor''
is almost certainly wong. Business schools
are notorious for their lack of rigor. Meanwhile,
the law can be highly politicized. When politics
enters the equation, rigor goes out the window.
Political matters are usually determined democratically, but democratic processes don't
necessarily subject ideas to the same level
of rigor as the scientific method, at least in the
short run. If most people were to believe that the
Earth is flat, then politicians could assert it,
business models could be constructed around it
(and lots of money made), and laws drafted
on this premise. However, such an idea couldn't
stand up to scientific scrutiny. Eventually, the
idea ended up on the dustheap of history, but
in the short run, only those who were willing
to subject the idea to the rigors of scientific
inquiry could see this outcome. Similarly
today, various forms of creationism are being
discussed by politicians, think-tank employees,
and even lawyers and judges. However, it's
really all a waste of time. The idea has not
passed enough experimental tests or made enough
subsequently-verified predictions to merit
discussion. (In fact it has not passed any tests
of any kind, nor explained any otherwise unexplainable phenomena.) If it ever does,
then it should be discussed. Until then, it's
a waste of time. This is the kind of rigor which
is somewhat unique to the natural sciences.
Most of the time in life, you don't have a chance
to really find the correct answer to a question.
You just have to find the best that you can in a limited time and make a decision based on
it. In science, one has the luxury, which is
supported by tenure and taxpayer money,
to hold hypotheses to a higher standard
and actually find the answer to questions.
I think that this is an important role -- in fact,
**the role** -- which science plays in society.

Nathan said...

Letters to the editor re Tierney column (link)


Re "Where Cronies Dwell," by John Tierney (column, Oct. 11):

The liberal nature of journalism and academia (including law schools) is not so much the result of cronyism as of self-selection. The universities aren't hiring conservatives because conservatives aren't applying for the jobs.

People who choose those professions tend to be liberal because that is what those professions require.

Both journalism and academia attract people who have made it their business to observe human society, and both careers usually involve travel and exposure to a wide variety of individuals and viewpoints.

This travel and exposure teach important lessons: a variety of different government styles can work well; societies have destroyed themselves by consuming all environmental resources too fast; individual prosperity is as much a matter of lucky birth as of personal merit.

If you want to debate genuine political issues like the role of government in providing social services, the pros and cons of labor unions or the wisdom of imposing American values on foreign countries, you can find plenty of university and law school faculty members who would be willing to argue these points from a traditionally conservative viewpoint.

Amy Hackney Blackwell
Greenville, S.C., Oct. 11, 2005


Is John Tierney concerned about monocultures or just liberal monocultures?

When I changed careers three years ago, I traded one monoculture (a corporate management team) for another (an independent high school faculty).

A more interesting question might be, "Why was I in the minority in my last career, and why am I in the majority now?"

If Mr. Tierney can shed light on that question, perhaps we will understand the clustering of common political and societal outlooks (and the effects of this clustering) a little better.

Mark Hammond
Middletown, Del., Oct. 11, 2005


When John Tierney complains about the number of liberals in academia and suggests that this is somehow comparable to President Bush's hiring friends for important government jobs, he misses the point.

Academics aren't hired because they are loyal to a department chairman. Instead, they are hired because they fulfill certain needs and because - get this - they are extremely qualified.

Mr. Tierney hints that self-selection may play a role in the more liberal bent of academia. Would he expect anything different? Republicans and conservatives routinely disparage anything in academia that has no money-making application.

Government money spent on the humanities is anathema to the far right. Is it any wonder that people interested in advancing the understanding of the human condition might lean toward a political ideology that embraces their efforts?

Lance Allred
Baltimore, Oct. 11, 2005


John Tierney tries to equate a preponderance of Democrats in academia with cronyism. If we take cronyism to mean favoritism shown to friends without regard to qualifications, it is obvious that preponderance does not logically imply the presence of cronyism.

There is a preponderance of right-handedness in academia, too.

Moreover, Mr. Tierney provides no evidence for his claim that "tenured radicals" have preferred to hire "ideological cronies" in academia. This may happen anecdotally, but it strains credulity to suggest that top universities, in their constant struggle for higher rankings, would not simply try to hire the best candidates.

Perhaps the more useful question to ask is why the products of top law schools and journalism schools who are interested in teaching future generations are disproportionately Democrats. Do Republicans simply value teaching less?

Maurits van der Veen
Athens, Ga., Oct. 11, 2005

The writer is an assistant professor in the department of international affairs, University of Georgia.


As a graduate of both law school and journalism school, I find it hard to argue with John Tierney's premise that law professors and especially journalism professors tend toward liberalism. But it's harder to argue that either profession favors liberals outside the academy.

Indeed, conservative lawyers, if they are a minority, have a much better shot at judgeships or high-level government positions since it's conservatives who are doing the appointing more often than not.

More broadly, if liberals are channeling their own most brilliant acolytes into law and journalism, that just leaves more space in business schools, banks and corporations for young conservatives. Thus, the conservatives wind up wielding greater power, lacking only vague cultural influence.

If conservatives had concocted this arrangement deliberately, they could have hardly done better for themselves.

Daniel L. Ackman
Jersey City, Oct. 11, 2005


If Democrats outnumber Republicans in elite university faculties by up to 8 to 1, as John Tierney writes, then academia indeed has a problem. But the culprit is not necessarily how universities "go about picking the professors to train the next generation."

Rather, Republicans themselves may choose to forgo academic penury for more lucrative careers in keeping with their party's self-help doctrine.

As a registered independent who stresses the teaching of diverse perspectives, I am troubled if students are hearing mainly from one side of the aisle. But let's not rush to blame demand when the culprit may be supply.

Alan J. Kuperman
Austin, Tex., Oct. 11, 2005

The writer is an assistant professor at the L.B.J. School of Public Affairs, University of Texas.


There is an easy solution to John Tierney's concern about lack of ideological balance among journalism and law professors: Raise their pay enough to make them Republicans.

If those who go into professions "to right wrongs" did not have to take vows of poverty, some of them might show more interest in tax cuts for the rich and other acute conservative concerns.

Robert Stein
Weston, Conn., Oct. 11, 2005

The writer is the author of a new book about the media.

Aaron said...

I would like one example. Just one:

Identify a qualified conservative lawyer who applied to teach at a number of elite law schools, but failed to land a job. Provide the lawyer's CV. Identify the law schools to which this lawyer applied, and the faculty members who were hired instead of him for purposes of comparison of qualification.

After all, surely there is one glaring example of discrimination to back up all of this innuendo.

Justin said...

I had to get to the 2nd comment to read this:

"Luckily he had no interest in making academe his career and it didn't hurt him any in Silicon Valley."

And I chuckled.

Justin said...


It makes me wonder how somebody whose concept of those they disagree is so facile could get tenure and still feel discriminated against. You don't think that Michael Dorf and his ilk can't come up with innovative political and legal solutions from standard-based education reform (a product originating from the left, not the right), drug courts, and a myriad of other political proposals from actually useful health care reform to prison rehabilitation? You're either wilfully making yourself ignorant or you are simply unable to seperate the academic capacity to come up with ideas and the political reality that, since conservatives control the legislature and have since 1994, it is their ideas that get developed into policy, and that even pre-1994, the academic left has been completely out of power.

the pooka said...

I'm with an earlier poster: I think Tierney & Co. have the causality wrong (or at least miss an important aspect of it).

It is conservatives that tend to favor budget cuts for public (including higher) education, the elimination of tenure, and other policy changes that cut directly against academics' interests.

It is conservatives that disproportionately believe in "intelligent design," the absence of global warming, and other ascientific (in fact, antiscientific) phenomena.

And it is overwhelmingly conservatives that paint universities as bastions of vice (Jesse Helms' cost-saving idea to "put a fence around Chapel Hill" comes to mind) and university professors as loony fanatics, incapable of making it in the "real world."

Once I've decided to become a professor and devote my life to higher education, why -- even if I had done so as a conservative -- would I continue to associate myself with a set of beliefs that was so openly (and even celebratorily) hostile to that choice?

Academic liberals are made, not born, and it is conservatives that make them.