Thursday, November 30, 2006

Ideological Disparities: Just a Smidgen Overwhelming

John Zipp and Rudy Fenwick take issue with the claim that liberals dominate academia. Dan Klein and Charlotta Stern reply.

My own take is that liberals obviously dominate the academy, but I’m not convinced the effects are really all that bad, and I think most proposed solutions (such as creating affirmative action for conservatives, or creating an “Academic Bill of Rights” that could allow students to file suit against professors for not offering enough dissenting viewpoints) would be a cure far worse than the disease. I think studies like Klein and Stern's are desirable simply because they create awareness of the phenomenon, which is probably more useful than any more concrete policy.

Nevertheless, I’m amazed at the willingness of the left-wing defenders of ideological disparities to offer arguments they would find utterly unpersuasive if offered in defense of sexual or racial disparities.

Take Zipp and Fenwick’s rebuttal to Klein and Stern’s study. K & S calculated a Democrat-to-Republican-voter ratio of over 7-to-1. In response, Z & F find a liberal-to-conservative ratio of at least 2.3-to-1. In their reply, K & S give a variety of reasons to think it’s better to focus on actual voting behavior (including the fact that liberal professors may think they’re “moderate” by comparison with their far-left colleagues). But set those reasons aside and suppose 2.3-to-1 is the correct ratio. Is this really a defense, given that liberals and conservatives are about equally represented in the population at large? If women constituted only 30% of college students, I don’t think leftists would be nearly so sanguine about it. A 2.3-to-1 ratio is nothing to sneeze at. (And 2.3-to-1 is just one end of their range. It could be as high as 2.6-to-1.)

Z & F also defend the status quo by noting that in some fields, conservatives actually outnumber liberals. Which fields? Business, computer science, engineering, physical education, and tech/vocational education – all areas in which political opinions are notably unlikely to be aired. The highest conservative-to-liberal ratio in any of these areas is 1.9-to-1 (in tech/vocational). Of course, the very fact that these fields have more conservatives than liberals means that the other departments – those in which political opinions are likely to be aired – must have even more lopsided ratios than 2.3-to-1. And in fact that’s the case: the liberal-to-conservative ratio is 3.8-to-1 in the social sciences, 6.1-to-1 in the humanities, 3.24-to-1 in the communications, 3.18-to-1 in education, and 6-to-1 in psychology. Notably, K & S’s original 7-to-1 conclusion was based specifically on social sciences and humanities faculty, so the results here are unsurprising. Z & F want us to conclude that the over-representation of conservatives in a few areas makes up for the (much greater) over-representation of liberals in most others.

Again, I doubt this kind of rebuttal would sit well with liberals if it were made with respect to gender or race. If someone defended the under-representation of blacks in academic disciplines by pointing out their over-representation in athletics and music, they would be laughed out of the room. When women are underrepresented in disciplines like math, sciences, and engineering, liberals generally regard it as a problem that requires fixing.

The defenders of liberal dominance in the academy will also, on occasion, appeal to the market test: liberals have just performed better and been rewarded with more academic positions. I’ve responded to this claim before (with a related post here), noting, among other things, that non-profit academic institutions face rather weak market incentives. But set that objection aside. What’s astonishing is that the same people are inclined to reject the market test in other areas, notably in the context of women and minorities’ representation in university student bodies and faculty.

To reiterate, I’m not advocating doing anything policy-wise to get more conservatives in university faculties. But I have to marvel at the similarity between the arguments left-wingers accept in their own arguments and those they reject in others'.


Anonymous said...

I think we've all seen examples of the stereotyped naive college student who takes their professor's far-left rantings as God's own truth. In general, I don't see this as much of a problem because such teachings generally fail spectacularly when they meet the real world, and any that don't probably are worth keeping. Very few 40-year-olds still believe what their liberal college professors told them about communism back in the 80s.

My bigger concern is that such professors can, and often do, dwell on dogma to the exclusion of the proper subject of their class. As such, the students simply do not get their money's worth. The market reaction is along the lines of "Don't like it? Well, find another school." Ideally, such professors would soon find themselves out of jobs. But, barring the most extreme examples (Ward Churchill comes to mind), this never happens.

I wonder where we would be if the generations of students stuck in such classes had actually learned something useful during that time.

Vera Bass said...

Why would anyone "...mistakenly equate party identification with political ideology"? :)

I'm told that exit polls for media in the US have shown an overwhelming majority voted Democrat, and am wondering if any of the data on academics has included exit polls.

My personal opinion is that the further removed from one's immediate reality and work the source of one's paycheck is, the more likely one is to espouse leftist views. Not an optimistic belief, unfortunately, for someone who believes, as I do, in very small government.


Gil said...

First of all, I think Glen is exactly right about the apparent leftist hypocrisy.

But, anecdotally, I can say that the libertarian tendencies that I had when I entered college were only strengthened when they were challenged and dismissed by leftist professors. The controversy made me consider the arguments seriously and come to my own conclusions. So, I'm not too worried about the cultural effect that leftist professors have (unless I'm very unusual in this respect).

The main problem that I see with this is the impact on non-leftist professors who will either face fewer opportunities for rewarding work, or they'll be forced to conceal their true philosophy until they get tenure (which is getting harder to do, with the google-trail many of us leave on the internet).