Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Why Are There So Few Conservatives in Academia?

Apparently, survey after survey has shown that academics are, by and large, liberal. Conservatives have been up in arms over this for a while, at least in the blogosophere. Some are even advocating what amounts to an affirmative action program for conservative academics. The debate has become heated, and there are liberals who are only adding unnecessary fuel to the fire. In my view, this is a complete non-issue, and the fact that conservatives are trying so desperately to make it one, when nothing could possibly come of it, says more about them than any of the rhetoric on either side. Liberals would do well to ignore them entirely.

I know what you're thinking, "Why does Chris believe it to be a non-issue?" Well, I will tell you. First, take a look at a typical conservative comment on the issue, from Stephen Bainbridge:
There are a lot smart conservatives out there interested in intellectual matters and the life of the mind. They’re qualified to be academics and likely would pursue an academic career if they had a fair shot at landing one.
Obviously, the first part is true. The second part, however, is complete nonsense. It's absurd to believe that conservatives don't have a fair shot at landing academic jobs. Why, you ask? Once again, I will tell you.

Before I answer, take a look at the list of departments at a university near you (if you don't have any near you, check out the list at your alma mater, and if you don't have an alma mater, then just google any university). As you will probably notice, most universities have several schools with multiple departments. In most of those schools, and in the vast majority of the departments, it would be nearly (if not entirely) impossible to determine a job applicant's political beliefs from his or her work. Political leanings have very little influence on work in engineering, information studies, architecture, the natural sciences, or pharmacy, and most of the departments in most business schools (accounting, management, marketing, etc.), nursing and medical schools, and schools of liberal arts or arts and sciences don't involve politics at all. There are, of course, some departments were politics are important, or may be obvious in applicants' work. In law, political science, economics, social work, and different cultural and ethnic studies departments, for instance, politics may be central to one's research. This is also true of some departments in schools of education (e.g., special ed). Then there are some departments in which politics aren't obvious, but may be important, such as the different fine arts departments, communication studies, rhetoric, comparative literature, English, and the like. The lesson to be learned here, though, is that out of the 80+ departments that you'll find in most large universities, only about a dozen are straightforwardly political, and another dozen indirectly so. That leaves another 50-60 (or more) in which, even if the bulk of the faculty are liberal, conservatives would have no barriers to being hired.

I know what you're thinking: once you're in a department, whether you get tenure is largely dependent on how well you interact with other members of the department. Well, that's definitely part of the story, but any academic who has published often enough (and is publishing in fields that don't involve politics, i.e., the vast majority of academic fields, publishing will not be influenced by the author's political views) and performed adequately in his or hear teaching duties will get tenure, if not in his or her current department, then in another. Research-oriented departments in particular don't get high rankings and more money by denying quality researchers tenure because of their political views.

So here's my question to anyone who thinks this is an actual issue: are conservatives only complaining about those dozen or so departments within which politics can matter, or are they complaining about universities as a whole? Certainly Bainbridge's comment about conservatives not having a "fair shot" at getting academic jobs, or tenure, can't apply to the majority of university departments. Sure, the surveys showing a huge political imbalance in universities apply to most if not all university departments, but the explanation for this in the case of most departments can't be discrimination based on political views, since there's simply no way for politics to come into play in those departments. Given this, the fact that Bainbridge and other conservatives state their points in such general terms leads me to wonder whether they think all conservative intellectuals who might be interested in academic careers are interested in careers in one of those few departments. If that's the case, then he's probably right to some extent. Poli sci and economics could use a few more professors with expertise in conservative political and economic thought, as long as their work is up to par. Maybe the comparative literature department would benefit from some Hayekian literary criticism, too (and no, I couldn't type that with a straight face).

Just because you've read this far, I'm going to give you my best guess as to why there aren't many conservatives in physics or marine sciences departments. Making academics a career almost always requires receiving a terminal degree. In most fields, this means a PhD, and perhaps a masters along the way. That could take anywhere from 4-10 years after the completion of undergraduate studies. Those 4-10 years are spent in abject poverty by most graduate students, and in the end they can know that, unless they're in a field like marketing or finance, they're never going to make 6 figures. In fact, they're going to be thirty, and starting their career with a $45k annual salary and little job security before tenure. For that $45k, they get to work their butts off teaching the courses that no senior faculty members want to teach, and (at least in the sciences) trying to publish somewhere between 1 and 4 scholarly papers in peer reviewed journals every year for 5 years, so that they can get through a tenure review. If they're lucky, they will someday get some sort of fellowship or endowed chair, and make $120,000, or sell a book and get the royalties from the 300 other experts who buy it.

Now, if you're a conservative, this reality probably doesn't sit well with your political and economic philosophies. Why on earth would you go through all that to make half (or less, perhaps much less) of what you could make in the private sector? Hell, most liberals wouldn't think this was wise. Sure, there are some conservatives who will do it because they love the work, but I think what the preponderance of liberals is strong empirical evidence that fewer conservatives than liberals are willing to work in academics for the love of it when they could make more elsewhere.


Anonymous said...

I think your ending comments are quite correct. Heavens, that's why I decided to bow out of grad school. I instead started up my own business and hope to retire early so I can study physics at my leisure the way physicists worked back in the 18th century. (grin)

On the other hand even in the sciences there have been political battles. I've heard stories from friends about politics creeping into departments it ought not.

I also think Bainbridge makes some good points regarding law. It isn't exactly obvious to me why someone ought to be rejected simply because one disagrees with their political beliefs. And I do think that occurs more than I think some liberals might wish to admit. Perhaps in English departments one could argue that you want professors who agree with the general vibe of the department. However I do think that some intellectual diversity would be very helpful in such departments. What counts as diversity though tends to be very subjective and I think a lot of views are hypocritically rejected.

Of course I have low views of most such departments, so the whole conservative bit seems like the smallest of their problems. 

Posted by Clark

Lizzie said...

Or maybe it's just impossible to be conservative (a current day Republican) if you're well-educated. I'm not entirely kidding.