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the mystery of conservative free academia solved: it’s self selection

Fabio

There’s a Chronicle of Higher Ed article on researchers who are  figuring out why there are so few conservatives in academia. According to Matthew Woessner and April Kelley-Woessner, who teach at Penn State, the issue is simply self selection. Analyzing survey data from college students (public data and their own research), they’ve found that conservative students are less likely to do the things that help you get into grad school (like actively seeking out professors outside of class) and they have a stronger preference for starting a family early. They also found that conservative students are less likely to be interested in the sorts of topics that lead to the PhD degree.

The nice aspect of this research program is that Woessner/Kelley-Woessner tested competing hypotheses, like conservatives get lower grades. The interesting finding is that political moderates get the worst grades. My guess is that people with lower cognitive skills probably can’t clearly distinguish between competing political theories and resort to the middle position. The researchers also test multiple specifications (e.g., self reported ideology vs. policy positions), so the finding appear robust.

The big policy implication is that Horowitz style crusades to forcibly diversify academia are bound to fail. There may be an occasional bit of discrimination against a few conservative academics, but the basic point is that conservatives just don’t want to live the academic life style. Horowitz is throwing a party for people who aren’t showing up!

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Written by fabiorojas

February 21, 2008 at 5:55 am

23 Responses

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  1. fabio,

    i agree that W+KW have shown self-selection is very important but it’s a bit far to say that it is /simply/ self-selection. the kind of 20:1 disparities you see in research 1 humanities and social science departments are much bigger than the disparities they identify.
    however it may be that the propensities they identify form the kernel of a cumulative advantage mechanism where those conservatives who do seek out professors, prefer prestige to money, intend to defer fertility, and otherwise fit an academic personality type estimate that they would be lonely in academia and opt-out.

    gabrielrossman

    February 21, 2008 at 12:22 pm

  2. Gabriel: If I were to decompose the “no conservative” effect, I’d probably guess that it’s 80% self selection, 15% selection of unmarketable academic topics by conservative students, and 5% discrimination.

    My guess is based on the observation that conservatives I know don’t really seem to tolerate the life of the typical academic. Even those in ideology free fields, like math, seem to prefer working in government or industry rather than academia. I also see very, very applications for soc grad school from self identified conservatives.

    Also, those conservatives I know in the social sciences and humanities (except economics) seem allergic to the topics that might gain them a fair amount career traction. For example, I’ve observed a lot of conservatives in the humanities who love Shakespeare, but that field is so overcrowded, so it’s hard to be winner. Few go into, say gender studies, where there might be more to say.

    My third comment is that while yes, I know sociologists are fairly liberal, I have witnessed almost no outright discrimination against conservatives. Of the dozens of job candidates I’ve seen at IU and elsewhere, I can think only of one case where a person’s political orientation was even raised as a topic. I’ve also worked on two journals (and refereed a fair # of papers) and I can’t remember any cases where ideology was raised, though I know it has happened to someone I know. Furthermore, though I know students complain about liberal instructors, I haven’t met people who have actually been able to show me a string of low grades from their instructors. And the W+WK research shows that conservatives actually do pretty well in school.

    Perhaps the biggest evidence for self selection is that conservatives do well in academia when they really, really care about the topic and are willing to deal with the academic mainstream. The two examples I can think of are economics and law, which have large conservative contingents. Uphill battle? Certainly, but they’ve been successful and in some of the most prominent places.

    fabiorojas

    February 21, 2008 at 2:53 pm

  3. fabio,

    i think your 80/15/5 estimates are in the right ballpark as proximate causes but are worth unpacking to ultimate causes.

    the point of my first comment was that i think it’s mostly self-selection but there could be a lot of motives behind self-selection. while much of it is probably the personality type issues that W+KW identify, some of the balance is probably a self-fulfilling prophecy that “there are no conservatives in soc/anthro/english-lit.”

    as for the 15% you attribute to subfield selection, you of all people should know that fashions about subfields are not exogenous but in part determined by ideological motives. (this is not to disparage the intellectual quality of the work in left-friendly subfields but only to note that the original creation of lines dedicated to their inquiry was as much political as scholarly). were there a comparably successful politically motivated movement to create lines in right-friendly fields like military history you could imagine the subfield thing shaking out differently.

    on a side note, while i don’t want to get into details as it is not my story to tell, a friend of mine with a publication record well above the norm for his/her department was just denied tenure because his/her colleagues were uncomfortable with the conservative implications of the research. nonetheless i agree with you that such proximate cases of discrimination are probably a secondary or tertiary explanation for the ideological character of social science academia.

    anyway, the bottom-line is that while W+KW’s research does imply that any attempt to achieve complete ideological parity is doomed to failure, it is plausible to imagine a successful ameliorative policy regime that would change the current 20:1 ratio found in PhD-granting sociology, anthropology, and modern lit departments to the type of 3:1 ratios we saw in these fields a few generations ago. that being said i am strongly opposed to anything resembling the academic bill of rights, both in principle because i think asking politicians to pick intellectual winners opens pandora’s box and in specific because i can see some of the daemons in that box (intelligent design, supply-side in an already low-tax regime, etc.).

    gabrielrossman

    February 21, 2008 at 4:38 pm

  4. Your points are well taken, but let me get back to the whole subfield selection issue. Yes, I agree subfields are often politically motivated, but in many cases there’s at least some attempt at being original, which is the coin of the realm in academia. For Black Studies, the case I know the best, at least there was a plausible argument that merely discussing certain topics was fairly new and original, even though the field came from a social movement.

    For a lot of conservatives, they seem to want to go into areas without even an attempt at being original. Do we really need an umpteenth defense of the canon? Or yet another presidential biography? Or another explanation of why modern art sucks? It makes for great undergraduate teaching, but not so much for great research.

    PS. I do realize that there are real and quite serious examples of discrimination and I agree that political intervention is a way bad to deal with it.

    Fabio Rojas

    February 21, 2008 at 6:17 pm

  5. The interesting finding is that political moderates get the worst grades. My guess is that people with lower cognitive skills probably can’t clearly distinguish between competing political theories and resort to the middle position.

    Mine is that having something — almost anything — to say goes a LONG way as an undergraduate.

    crimsonglow

    February 21, 2008 at 6:31 pm

  6. fabio,

    i agree completely that a big part of the explanation for the rise of subfields is structural in that to the extent that political conservatives are lower-case “c” conservatives this contradicts academia’s demand for novelty. this certainly appears to be the explanation for the 1980s rise of “theory” in the MLA.
    i think there occasionally are some true innovations in “conservative” subfields (for instance, John Keegan’s 1976 book /The Face of Battle/ reinvented military history by synthesizing it with social history, a style which has been popularized by Stephen Ambrose), but in general you’re right that even if we assume that Plato and Shakespeare are objectively extremely important, it gets a bit tedious to reaffirm it for the millionth time.

    gabrielrossman

    February 21, 2008 at 6:36 pm

  7. I would imagine a similar self-selection model would hold for women in (non social-) scientific research. But the question remains, why would anyone do the things necessary to get into grad school if you see that you will face a lonely uphill battle your whole career? I can’t imagine the hopeless feeling of trying to publish a right leaning paper in a humanities or social science journal. Excluding economics of course.

    matt

    February 21, 2008 at 11:05 pm

  8. Larry Summers’ opinion on liberal academia is about a quarter of a page down here:

    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/10/08/politics

    matt

    February 21, 2008 at 11:17 pm

  9. “Self selection” does not solve the mystery. It simply begs the question back a step (this topic came up before, and this was my awkward attempt at a guess). The only way to think that a self selection mechanism solves anything is to think that the preferences that are producing the selection are exogenous and idiosyncratic (so within the constraints of certain empirically dubious brands of economic theory self selection may solve some mysteries). But surely none of you truly believes that a preference for and an interest in studying difficult topics in an academic manner is an individual idiosyncrasy, disconnected from both social origins and social context.

    So I’m with matt on this one: the question becomes: why are some people interested in the topics that lead to a PhD degree? Why are some people more willing to sacrifice family formation (and wages!) to study those topics? Why are they more motivated to seek out their Professors? etc., etc., etc. I’m sure a more Mannheimian consideration of what we call conservatism and liberalism as ideological syndromes might produce more illuminating answers, but I wouldn’t go about thinking that this particular mystery is solved.

    Gabriel, by a few generations ago you mean the good old days before 1968?

    Omar

    February 23, 2008 at 1:10 pm

  10. It seems to me that the kind of stereotyping that thinks conservatives are only interested in Shakespeare explains a lot more about the “20:1″ imbalance than the article in the Chronicle does. I’d like to see a report on tenure decisions in the last 20 years; there might be another kind of “selection” going on here. I bet a few more conservatives than, say, marxists with solid research records have been pushed out for being “too ideological.”

    englishcon

    February 23, 2008 at 3:08 pm

  11. [...] the mystery of conservative free academia solved: it’s self selection [...]

  12. Englishcon wrote: “I bet a few more conservatives than, say, marxists with solid research records have been pushed out for being “too ideological.”

    It’s possible, but I’d like to see some systematic data. My personal observation is that there are very few conservatives who even make it to the tenure point. I have also noticed that conservative graduate students (the few that I’ve seen in English programs) do tend to gravitate to fields where it’s hard to make an impact because these areas are so darn crowded.

    For example, if you look at the Yale english program’s list of recent dissertations, almost all of them are on topics that would be considered “old school”: Rennaisance studies, modernism, etc. So if a conservative insists on avoiding funky topics (like gender studies), then they’re are throwing themselves into a highly saturated market. Even if there were no bias at all, it’s an icnredible hard area to survive in.

    But in the end, I’ll just say: show me legions of qualified conservative english profs who were squished due to ideology, and I’ll show you a sociologist who’ll admit he was wrong. Let’s see the numbers.

    fabiorojas

    February 24, 2008 at 6:46 am

  13. “For a lot of conservatives, they seem to want to go into areas without even an attempt at being original. Do we really need an umpteenth defense of the canon? Or yet another presidential biography? Or another explanation of why modern art sucks? It makes for great undergraduate teaching, but not so much for great research.”

    It’s telling that the assumption here is that conservatives are great for teaching undergrads. The implication is that liberals aren’t. I would agree. Unfortunately, universities aren’t organized to teach undergrads, they’re run for the benefit of the liberal professors. And that’s the basic problem.

    bjk

    February 25, 2008 at 8:39 pm

  14. BJK, there’s a good point to be made, but it’s not that liberals are particularly good or bad at teaching. It’s that the approach to scholarship that many conservatives advocate is actually quite beneficial for undergrad teaching, in my opinion.

    A relentless focus on canonical issues is great given that many undergrad courses are about transmitting core ideas to the next generation of students. I know many conservative academics who’ve done quite well in the liberal arts market because they can show that they’re great classroom teachers, which stems from a rock solid knowledge of canonical texts. Liberal political values, in my experience, seem unrelated to this style of teaching.

    On the other hand, at the research universities, people really don’t care about your knowledge of canon, except if you are in an area where it’s a big deal (political theory, rennaisance studies, etc.). It’s not so much about being liberal, it’s about novelty in research. The jury is still out, in my view, with regard to quality of research output and political orientation. But if a strong desire to cover traditional topics is the hallmark of conservative academics, they may be at a distinct disadvantage.

    fabiorojas

    February 25, 2008 at 8:58 pm

  15. You’re arguing that the emphasis on research is a de facto bias against conservatives. That was my point.

    bjk

    February 25, 2008 at 9:14 pm

  16. To be clear, the emphasis on novel and original research is a bias against conservatives in certain disciplines. That seems to be your point, and I would agree. The pushes the issue back to the choice between novel research and conventional but good-for-the-undergraduates expertise. Can a good argument be made for novelty in English? Philosophy? Art history? Or is that just liberals talking their own book? Maybe the prospect of professors rereading the Republic is perpetuity is depressing. But it’s always new for the undergraduates, and they are the paying customers.

    bjk

    February 25, 2008 at 9:22 pm

  17. BJK: “You’re arguing that the emphasis on research is a de facto bias against conservatives. That was my point.”

    Sorry, I thought you were making subtly different point – that liberals get to define what is new, not that conservatives are inherently anti-new.

    BJK: “The pushes the issue back to the choice between novel research and conventional but good-for-the-undergraduates expertise. Can a good argument be made for novelty in English? Philosophy? Art history? Or is that just liberals talking their own book? Maybe the prospect of professors rereading the Republic is perpetuity is depressing. But it’s always new for the undergraduates, and they are the paying customers.”

    That’s exactly why my hypothesis is that conservatives are bit more prominent in liberal arts colleges, despite their perceived liberal tilt. You want a “it’s all canonical” kind of a teacher for intro to literature or greatest hits of western civ. And there is a bit of evidence in favor of this. For example, biblical colleges are highly numerous, they teach classics, and are quite popular. They are also staffed primarily by conservatives. My anecdotal experience is that “it’s all canon” conservatives tend to do ok in the liberal arts market as well.

    I think a great argument can be made for novelty in philosophy or art, but that’s way less important for undergrads, who, in my view, should spend a fair amount of time learning the basics. As long as people evolve in new and interesting ways, there will be new ways to think about the arts and those approaches will be cultivated in the research university. So far, conservative thought has minimized this new stuff, rather than make connections and reinvent itself, which puts it at a competitive disadvantage in a research university environment.

    fabiorojas

    February 25, 2008 at 9:36 pm

  18. You’re right both ways. Liberals get to define what’s new, even within the traditional liberal arts disciplines, which is on top of the anti-conservative bias in favor of the new and research. If you look at classics, the most traditional discipline, the level of specialization and trivialization is hard to believe. What is the marginal value of that specialization and research, versus yet another dissertation on Antigone? Not much, a conservative would say.

    But let’s take your field. As an outsider to sociology, it appears to me that James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray are the two sociologists who’ve had the most impact on public policy over the last thirty years. Would you consider either innovative? Is either doing what you consider to be important research?

    bjk

    February 25, 2008 at 11:15 pm

  19. BJK: “Liberals get to define what’s new, even within the traditional liberal arts disciplines, which is on top of the anti-conservative bias in favor of the new and research.”

    We are in agreement here, but it raises a much bigger question. If liberals define norms within disciplines, then why have some disciplines become more conservative over time? Why, for example, haven’t liberal economists squashed free market economists? Anti-conservative prejudice can’t explain the entire liberal tilt of academia. Conservatives – when they present genuine advances – actually do fairly well.

    BJK: “If you look at classics, the most traditional discipline, the level of specialization and trivialization is hard to believe. What is the marginal value of that specialization and research, versus yet another dissertation on Antigone? Not much, a conservative would say.”

    Classics is interesting. It’s a field that’s almost dead, except at the wealthiest research universities that can afford majors with such tiny enrollments. I would agree that some types of classical research, like archaeology, seem promising because there are genuinely interesting new questions about ancient civilizations. While my guess is that new insights on Antigone are few and far between.

    BJK: “But let’s take your field. As an outsider to sociology, it appears to me that James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray are the two sociologists who’ve had the most impact on public policy over the last thirty years. Would you consider either innovative? Is either doing what you consider to be important research?”

    I think Wilson is considered by most folks to be very important as a scholar and I’d bet his citation counts are quite high. However, his most important contributions are in a field that I don’t know much about (crime) so I can’t comment further. But Murray actually addresses a core sociological concern, inequality. Here’s what I would say about Murray:

    - Is Murray doing important research? I think most people would say yes. Studying the effects of welfare and the IQ-inequality link are pretty important topics by any standard.

    - Is he innovative? I think the answer is no. Let’s take Bell Curve. If you sit down and read it, you realize that he’s done almost no original research himself, although his co-author (Herrnstein) was an eminent, if controversial, psychologist. It’s actually a review of what psychometricians have shown about cognitive ability. His other books are similar – they review academic research in order to make a point about public policy that’s important. Murray is a popularizer of ideas, not an original academic researcher.

    - What do sociologists think? Of course, Murray is often considered evil incarnate by many sociologists, but I find it interesting that sociological research sometimes makes the same points as Murray. For example, one of Murray’s key statements in Bell Curve was the link between IQ and life course outcomes. Yes, some people deny it, but if you look at classic stratification research going back to the 1960s, IQ (or another measure of cognitive ability) is often included as a control variable in achievement studies. Measurements of cognitive ability are to be found in most major sociological surveys, such as the GSS and NELS. Sociologists may hate Murray for his politics, but on basic social science, they are more often in agreement than they like to believe.

    fabiorojas

    February 26, 2008 at 12:59 am

  20. I’m not the person to ask about econ departments. I’ll just explain where I’m coming from. As somebody interested in Strauss, it’s been clear to me that Strauss is persona non grata in nearly every discipline, and that’s before he became identified with the war. Classics? Strauss is recognized for an original approach to Plato and the classics in general, but classicists ignore him when they’re not stealing his ideas. There are no more than five Straussians in classics. In philosophy, the emphasis on formalization works against Straussian approaches, although some Straussians can sneak into Catholic departments, and one professor recommended I never mention his name if I wanted a job. Even in political science, where Straussians are prominent, they’re isolated in a handful of departments, and good luck getting a job outside those departments. Look at what happened to Thomas Pangle at Yale. So your “conservatives do well when they present new arguments” doesn’t wash. Strauss was marginalized in academia, or rather his students were, precisely because they did represent a different approach.

    bjk

    February 26, 2008 at 2:42 pm

  21. Hi, BJK. It’s interesting you mention Strauss because I got my PhD at Chicago, where I met Straussian grad students, and I agree. He’s not a popular fellow. Before moving on, let me preface my comments by saying that I’m not intimately familiar with Strauss, so I don’t have a well developed idea of the politics of Straussianism.

    First, I’d say that Struassians have been modestly successful, at least when compared to many academic specialties. According to your description, they’ve had some success – they have jobs, which presumably means they’ve published in decent places. And of course, Strauss’ works remain in print and read. Straussianism, if I were to assess it from your description, appears to be a modestly successful academic specialty, akin, perhaps to people other non-canonical figures.

    Second, I didn’t claim there was never *any* bias. I can easily imagine people being allergic to Strauss. My point is that bias isn’t the whole story. How do I know that? Some fields (econ and law) have actually seen growth in areas dominated by conservatives. Why? Conservative cohorts of scholars created serious challenges to the orthodoxy, backed it up with high quality research, and packaged it in ways the mainstream could appreciate.

    In conclusion, if I were a conservative political theorist, my strategy wouldn’t be to bemoan the liberal tilt of my field. That doesn’t get you anywhere. Instead, I’d try to build some sort of larger project that would be pretty darn hard to ignore. For example, I might try offering a “counter canon” of conservative thought, with Burke, Hayek, Oakeshott, Strauss and others. These were all serious thinkers and pulling them together is a way of making the case that (a) conservative political theory is not for lunatics and (b) there’s some serious scholarship to be done. It would be pretty easy to connect these folks to the liberal mainstream. Just my $.02.

    fabiorojas

    February 26, 2008 at 3:38 pm

  22. Fabio — you blame primarily self-selection, which may well be true. But couldn’t self-selection be caused, at least in part, by the very fact that some fields are ideologically imbalanced? Which is the chicken and which the egg?

    Consider: In a review of the Bell Curve (American Journal of Sociology, vol. 101, 1995: pp. 747-53)), Douglas Massey wrote of early cultural research by Moynihan and Oscar Lewis. He then points out: “Both views implied that, under certain circumstances, the behavior of poor people might contribute to the perpetuation of their poverty, and, for this heresy, both men were excoriated by liberals throughout the social science establishment. . . . The calumny heaped on these two distinguished social scientists had a chilling effect on social science over the next two decades.”

    Second item: James S. Coleman, “Response to the Sociology of Education Award,” Academic Questions (Summer 1989): 76-78. Coleman discusses his research showing the superiority of Catholic schools, and had some pointed comments at the rest of the profession:

    “It was not accidental that the first research that dared to claim that private schools, and even (as it turned out, especially) Catholic schools produced higher achievement for strictly comparable students, was done by someone whose reputation was secure. And it is not accidental that these results were followed by similar results from others younger in the field who until then had been inhibited by their own discipline from asking these questions. . . . How can the discipline . . . so structure itself that it does not erect norms against research that challenges the conventional wisdom? Or more pointedly, how can the discipline structure itself so as not to violate academic freedom, as it has done in the past? . . . I accept [this award] in the name of all those researchers whose academic freedom was constricted by the norms of the discipline. Perhaps most of all, I accept it in the name of all those who have braved these norms and have had their reputations warped, twisted, or destroyed by doing so.”

    If Massey and Coleman are accurate, there might not even be any need for overt discrimination against conservatives. Instead, most conservatives might just opt out: “Why should I set myself up for failure by going into such hostile territory?” Thus, even if self-selection is going on, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no problem stemming from an ideological imbalance, does it?

    Stuart Buck

    March 1, 2008 at 5:15 pm

  23. [...] From OrgTheory: “the mystery of conservative free academia solved: it’s self selection“ [...]


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