I should have my head examined for getting into this discussion, but I suppose New York Times columnists are supposed to be provocative. In his column yesterday, Paul Krugman discusses why "registered Republicans and self-proclaimed conservatives make up only a small minority of professors at elite universities."
I am a self-proclaimed conservative and I think Dartmouth qualifes under a description of "elite university," so I figure I should chime in here. I'll start by stating as clearly as I can why I chose this profession. First, I enjoy doing research. I have quite a lot of autonomy in what I work on. My work is evaluated by a profession of competent and thoughtful people. And I get to discover new things. Second, I love to teach. From the time I was tutoring my classmates in secondary school, I felt that I had a calling to be a teacher. (See this early post for more.) I presume that these two reasons, or similar ones, explain why most of my colleagues chose this profession, be they liberal or conservative. For the record, I made this decision when I was 18 years old.
I am friends with many liberal professors. At least in the economics department at Dartmouth, I have never in 11 years heard of a single instance where any professor made his or her political viewpoints central to the classroom experience. I've talked to many of my students, liberal and conservative, about the good and bad aspects of my time in Washington during office hours. That's not politics--that's just being a mentor. Before some classes, when there is a topical news story on campus or in the world, my students and I may exchange ideas about it. None of that matters for the class per se--once the group is assembled and ready to go, it's all about the economics. I would consider it a breach of my professional duties to put my own political views into the courses I am teaching. I presume the same is true of my colleagues in the economics department, be they liberal or conservative.
I have been involved in a decade's worth of hiring and promotion decisions. Never at any time has a person's politics come into play in any deliberations. My own experience suggests no evidence of a "left-wing bias" in the way my department is constituted.
I agree with the general terms that Krugman uses to frame his explanation:
The sort of person who prefers an academic career to the private sector is likely to be somewhat more liberal than average, even in engineering.But I do not buy into the remainder of his argument, which can be loosely paraphrased as not enough conservatives believe in the virtue of scholarship to get enough of them to be interested in the academy. Rather, I think the explanation for why liberals outnumber conservatives is that they actively like the way the academy is organized.
An elite university is like a kibbutz hooked up to an ATM. It is the closest thing we may ever find to a socialist enterprise that endures. The key element of the kibbutz--that the workers collectively decide on the activities of the entity--is hardwired into the university via faculty governance. (The departure from the ideal--that some workers are "more equal" than others--is also evident, in that it is faculty, not employee, governance.) The notion that this is a sensible way to organize one's professional life is bound to resonate more with people who have a soft spot for socialist, utopian ideals. In my opinion, that you find more liberals than conservatives in the modern elite university is largely (though not exclusively) a reflection of liberals rather than conservatives feeling at home in such an environment.
Under normal circumstances, we would expect such an enterprise to implode, because some members of the collective are more productive than others, and they eventually get tired of subsidizing the lifestyles of the less productive members of the collective. So what keeps the elite university alive?
It's the ATM--alumni generosity. With outside money, even those who cross-subsidize the rest can feel like they are being adequately rewarded. A place like Dartmouth survives because in good times and in bad, alumni and other benefactors provide it with external resources to make the numbers add up. The federal government provides an assist by making those contributions tax-deductible. At public universities, it is the generosity of the state taxpayers via the state legislature. Take away that ATM, and I wager that a lot of the perks that make the quasi-socialist utopian enterprise so interesting to those who are left-of-center would disappear. Universities would have to conduct their daily operations more overtly like a business, and we would find a more balanced mix of people trying to get jobs there.
I think that there has been too much emphasis in this debate on pernicious explanations. Krugman makes thinly veiled accusations from the left that conservatives have no respect for scholarship, and the David Horowitz crowd makes equally absurd accusations from the right of a left-wing conspiracy. Have I proven that both are wrong? No. I have just offered a much more benign explanation. I don't claim that it is the only explanation. I do believe it is an order of magnitude more relevant than these two extreme arguments.
So perhaps the last question to ask is: would universities be better off by operating more like a conventional business and less like the kibbutz hooked up to an ATM? I think the answer is "no" (or not really), precisely because the money flowing from the ATM is voluntary and not coerced. The benefactors of universities seem to believe in the mission, the personnel, and the institutions to continue to support them, despite their flaws. And there is a tremendous amount of goodwill on both sides of that relationship.
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