Occassional reflections of a moderate (hey at least I think I am)

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Why the "left" dominates the Academy


I really did set out to jot down a few comments about "the academy" and "the left". It got out of hand. Here is the punchline: I think the left dominates the academy because academically successful lefties are (on average) more willing to work for less.

What I think I think about the "Academy" and the "left"

Todd Zywicki at the Volokh Conspiracy http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2005_03_27-2005_04_02.shtml#1112111400 writes about the revelations in a new study confirming that liberals/democrats are disproportionately represented on college faculties. I do not doubt this conclusion one bit. So let's agree that the studies Prof. Zywicki cites (including this one (http://swopec.hhs.se/ratioi/abs/ratioi0053.htm) by Prof. Daniel Klein and colleague Charlotta Stern) accurately describe the way the world is.

I think, however, the more important and interesting questions are "so what" and "why".


There are two main concerns that arise (for me at least) out of the disparate representation of liberals/democrats on campuses. First, faculty may express their biases against students by grading students poorly based on their biases or do a disservice to the students' (and their own) intellectual development because of their biases. While I think that the complaints put forth by David Horowitz and Students for Academic freedom are overblown, I do not deny that these things occur. The piece at the Volkh Conspiracy and a link from there ( http://www.petetheelder.com/archives/2005/03/liberal_scholar.html) actually partially undermine the position of Students for Academic Freedom. Prof. Zywicki comments that

"Perhaps the fact that students are largely unchanged by their university experience is the most damning comment of all about what is going on at universities today."
It strikes me that that is not damning at all when you realize that the "change" he is referring to is a change on the ideological left/right spectrum. It seems to me that the fact that students are not swayed is proof that the leftist professors are not indoctrinating students (at least not successfully). Pete the Elder puts it very well when he says:

"I had some pretty liberal professors as an undergraduate, usually post modernist types, but none of them ever had a problem with me disagreeing with them as long as I did it well and some even seemed to enjoy good disagreements."

Which brings me to another point: just because a professor is a raving loon of a lefty, it does not mean that you are being graded poorly because you disagree with him/her. Case in point, over at the website for Students for Academic Freedom a student complains of biased grading in an English class and says:

"We have exchanged various emails asking her to discontinue discussing politics, and other controvirsial things that have nothing to do with english. but she seems to sneak them in. We are deffinitly at odds, I am actually scared to go to class because she always finds a way to beliddle what i say."

I know that the student could just be being careless on the web (goodness knows there are undoubtedly errors in grammar in this post) but it seems to me certainly plausible that this student is not the best at english composition.

The second concern I have with an imbalance in academia is that I do happen to believe that diversity of intellectual views is necessary for a thriving academy. The lack of diversity can be overcome in part by the conversations that academics have with non-academics. These conversations are perhaps most notable in the field of economics where there are usually substantial conversations going on between academics, economists at think tanks and applied economists. That being said, I do not believe that these opportunities are adequate to facilitate the kind of the intellectual diversity which would optimize the academic experience.

So "Why" do Liberals dominate the Academy?

This question is important because, it seems to me, that if a solution is to be devised to adequately address the situation, we first must understand why the situation exists.

The primary reason put forth as to why the situation exists is a kind of self-selection made more pronounced by the environment. In the study by Prof. Klein referenced above, a David Brooks op ed is quoted in which a conservative Princeton faculty member laments:
"Here's what I'm thinking when an outstanding kid comes in," says George, of Princeton. "If the kid applies to one of the top graduate schools, he's likely to be not admitted. Say he gets past that first screen. He's going to face pressure to conform, or he'll be the victim of discrimination. It's a lot harder to hide then than it was as an undergrad.
"But say he gets through. He's going to run into intense discrimination trying to find a job. But say he lands a tenure-track job. He'll run into even more intense discrimination because the establishment gets more concerned the closer you get to the golden ring. By the time you come up for tenure, you're in your mid-30's with a spouse and a couple of kids. It's the worst time to be uncertain about your career. Can I really
take the responsibility of advising a kid to take these kinds of risks?"

I have no doubt that these considerations come into play but they are certainly difficult to quantify. Worse still, trying to reverse the situation is darn near impossible given that such "discrimination" is usually "not conscious". Even the "Academic Bill of Rights" proposed by Horowitz would do little, if anything, to address the situation because seldom if ever is a college going to come out and say that they will not hire or will not advance an individual because of political beliefs.

In his comments on the subject Prof. Zywicki complains that people nitpick Prof. Klein's study but never address his fundamental conclusions. As I said earlier, I do not doubt Prof. Klein's conclusions at all. If I have a complaint about Prof. Klein is that he (being a professor of Economcs) does not appear to consider that there may be an economic (or at least financial) reason for the situation.

Specifically, my hypothesis is that conservatives (on average) who are academically successful are not as willing as their liberal counterparts to invest six years (give or take) in an education without receiving better compensation for their skills and investment.

I am not saying that conservatives are bad or greedy just that they are more likely to seek more compensation for their skills and investment.

An interesting point raised by Prof. Zywicki in this post (http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2005_02_20-2005_02_26.shtml#1109340158) "is that the faculties are becoming less intellectually diverse over time." That is to say, conservatives tend to be older faculty members. By looking at changes in faculty salary since 1972 ( http://www.aaup.org/surveys/04z/tablea.pdf) and comparing that to changes in per capita personal income (http://www.bea.doc.gov/bea/dn/nipaweb/TableView.asp?SelectedTable=253&FirstYear=2002&LastYear=2004&Freq=Qtr) my conclusion is that per capita personal income has increased at a greater pace than faculty salaries. [I realize that taking numbers from the AAUP may not be the best source and that I might not have chosen the best comparison but hey it is the data I could find.] If my hypothesis is right that conservatives are more likely to make career decisions based on compensation then it does stand to reason that if faculty income growth is less than that of other employment then conservatives will be less likely to become faculty which may partially explain why there are more older conservative faculty members.

It would be interesting to see (if I knew where to find the data) how faculty salaries have changed relative to income of individuals with advanced degrees.

{Disclosure: I am not an academic [they would have to pay me a lot more than they would to put myself through all that work to spend a lot of time dealing with whiny students] but my wife is.}


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