Thursday, October 11, 2007

Conservatives in Academia

Some recent remarks by Larry Summers (reported here) about the dearth of ideological diversity on university campuses have prompted a number of posts at my usual blog reads, George Borjas and Greg Mankiw among them.

Here's what was reported about Summers:

Noting that he had served in the Clinton administration, Summers said he identified strongly as a liberal and a Democrat, but that while in Washington he viewed himself as being on “the right half of the left,” in Cambridge, he landed “on the right half of the right.”

In advance of the symposium, Summers ran some numbers from the study. He focused on elite graduate universities and on what he defined as core disciplines for undergraduate education (excluding health professions, for example). When conducting such an analysis, Summers said, he found “even less ideological diversity” than he thought he would, and that in the humanities and social sciences, Republicans are “the third group,” after Democrats and Nader and other left-wing third parties.
Considering his own treatment by the ideological Left at Harvard, "even less ideological diversity" than he was expecting must be pretty low.

In a post written 30 months ago, which began, "I should have my head examined for getting into this discussion," I wrote, in response to an op-ed by Paul Krugman:

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.

I then went on to liken an elite university to a "kibbutz hooked up to an ATM." I commend the whole post to your attention, so that you can see my explanation for the simile.

Taking all of that as background, I would add now that, at present, we are in a low point for conservatives or Republicans self-identifying as such among academics. The reason, I believe, is that my paraphrase of Krugman's argument regarding the virtue of scholarship--while it is not true for most of the conservative- or Republican-leaning people whom I know--seems to be a pretty good characterization of the top Republican in the White House. (And this is coming from someone who spent a year working at the CEA for this Administration and, despite the ample misgivings I have aired on this blog, would do so again.)

Here's a small prediction. When there is a new person in the White House, particularly if it is a Democrat who now has to take on the responsibilities and potential failures of governing rather than merely criticizing the job that others are doing, we will see a bit less self-identification as Democrats or liberals and a bit more as Republicans or conservatives. It won't be anything close to parity in the academy, by virtue of the organization of the academy that I discussed in the earlier post, but it won't be quite so shocking to observers and analysts.


Anonymous said...

Economists are always saying that the rest of us need to stay ahead of global labor arbitrage by increasing our knowledge and skills...

Looks to me like liberals are doing more than their fair share of ensuring knowledge passes to future generations, and that conservatives don't seem to give a damn about them. The Federal budget deficit under recent presidents concurs with me.

Perhaps we can convince more than a token handful of your conservative bretheren to pitch in a little bit in regard to education?

I'm fairly confident that elite universities don't screen for political affiliation... so where is the roadblock keeping conservatives from serving the greater good?

Perhaps the roadblock is an internal/ideological one?

Tom said...

I think we're looking for a hard explanation where an easy one will do. Conservatives have spent the last 50 years criticizing public education and universities. Few young people who self-identify as conservative would enter fields such as education because they have been told by those whom they respect that working for government is for losers.

It's easy to see that this becomes self-perpetuating. An even slightly conservative student will go to college and realize that they don't fit in with academia. People who would make terrific professors (like my boy) laugh out loud at the suggestion in any field but economics and business. Even a college sophomore knows that he'd never get tenure unless he went along with the politics and methodologies of the academy. There are better ways to make a living.

Anonymous said...

A person must be accepted to a graduate program, get funding, get mentoring, and then eventually get hired as an academic. How could that possibly happen if someone were a middle of the road Republican in any discipline other than economics? Its very hard for anyone to make it in the Liberal Arts. They'll take any excuse to blackball you, and being deemed "conservative" or even just "not like us politically" would certainly suffice.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the lack of conservatives lending their effort to improve future generations by contributing to their education has more to to with the type of person who obsesses over the box that says "federal taxes withheld YTD" rather than the box that says "net income YTD"

To wit: me-generation selfishness.

Robert D Feinman said...

"I can't believe the lack of diversity in academia over shape of the earth. Why isn't the flat earth theory given more exposure?"

There aren't always two side to every issue, sometimes there is just fact vs fiction. The human race seems very capable of maintaining academic discussions of fictional ideas for millennia. One of the best techniques used is to cite the lack of contradictory evidence as proof of the positive. Supernaturalism exists mainly because of the lack of evidence that it isn't real. Can you prove that ghosts don't exist?

Several popular economic "theories" use this technique as evidence.

Bruce Bartlett said...

Under the best of circumstances, getting a tenured position at an elite university is very hard. Because you can't get rid of someone with tenure and may be stuck with them as a colleague for decades, it stands to reason that the process of choosing someone for such a position is going to be very intense. For the same reason, the choice is not entirely meritocratic--elite universities don't choose the best scholars as professors any more than they choose the best applicants as students. There are a lot of factors that go into a hiring decision that don't favor conservatives and go beyond simple ideology.

Just to mention one area, conservatives have a tendancy to choose sub-disciplines within academic fields that are not very fashionable. For example, in political science, conservatives tend to gravitate toward political theory--a field that has been out of fashion since at least the 1960s. In history, conservatives often excel at military and diplomatic history--again, fields that have been out of fashion for decades.

One of the basic elements of liberalism is a greater affinity for things that are new and trendy. For conservatives, it is the opposite--an affinity for the familiar, the tried and true. This means that conservatives are always going to be behind the curve in any field where changing fashion is a key to advancement.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the lack of conservatives in academia is due to factors that Bob Altemeyer and others have described: Academia is in pursuit of truth but such certainties are rare; academia breaks down social hierarchy; academia is a challenge to us all (in terms of self-growth and education) such that authoritarian personalities tend to become less so after a degree course (Altemeyer) - conservatives may react more negatively than most to the requirement to drop order and control and immerse oneself in the flux of life for a while; and as Bruce Barlett (above) puts it, the kinds of studies in which conservatives do have an interest that would help them through a degree tend not to be in favour. It may be conservatives' greater cognitive predisposition towards certainty which discourages them from four years of personal change and development unless there is a clear goal (business and economics studies, military studies - up the traditional social hierarchy).