conservatives in the academy: it’s not discrimination, it’s selection – for 103rd time

Many conservative critics of the academy believe that liberals dominate because of anti-conservative discrimination. While there are likely some cases of that, the evidence was always weak for discrimination as a general explanation. For example, liberals dominate in fields that are not political, like math. In technical fields, people are recruited from all over the world. I’d be surprised if the engineering professor knew the politics of the new guy from Kazakhstan, unless he made a big deal out of it.

My view, as I’ve stated before on this blog, is simply that there’s a massive self-selection process at work. Being conservative is probably correlated with certain attitudes toward work, such a desire for high compensation, that are hard to satisfy in the academy. There are also field specific self-selection effects. Sociology for example, studies all kinds of deviant behavior and the faculty tend to skew liberal, not the sort of thing that attracts conservatives.

It turns out that Neil Gross, Jeremy Freese and Ethan Fosse have a series of papers testing the self-selection hypothesis.  And surprise, the evidence points toward self-selection. A working paper called “POLITICAL LIBERALISM AND GRADUATE SCHOOL ATTENDANCE: A LONGITUDINAL ANALYSIS” reports the following:

This paper analyzes longitudinal data to evaluate three claims that are key
to a recently developed theory of professorial politics. The theory explains the liberalism of the American professoriate as a function of reputation-based self-selection: because academia has a reputation for liberalism, liberals are more likely to pursue graduate degrees and academic careers. We examine whether in fact young Americans who identify as liberal are more likely to enroll in graduate programs with the intention of completing a doctorate; the proposition that such a tendency cannot be explained away by variables unrelated to occupational reputation; and the claim, also made by the theory,
that exposure to many years of higher education is not a major cause of the liberalism of graduate students. We find support for all three claims, with ambiguity only on the question of whether the greater propensity of those on the left to attend graduate school results from personality differences.

This squares with my experience teaching sociology undergraduates. I often reach out to high achieving undergraduates to sign up for the sociology major or senior level courses, regardless of what I think their political attitudes may be. Among students who have exhibited conservative opinions, getting them into upper level sociology is like pulling teeth. Many have already made a choice to major in other topics.

For conservative critics of the academy, I have a simple message based on my reading of this research paper and others. Yes, being on the opposite side of things can be tough, but the evidence shows that conservatives, on the average, aren’t even trying to make careers in the academy. So if you really want the academy to take your ideas seriously, invest the effort at making a difference. My sense is that there’s a large opportunity that’s been passed on.

Written by fabiorojas

July 1, 2011 at 12:43 am

25 Responses

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  1. I know people who think that Academia is “liberal” as well, and I usually answer by pointing to the Ivy Leagues: they usually have both prominent liberals, conservatives, radical leftists, libertarians, etc.



    July 1, 2011 at 1:48 am

  2. If we assume (as seems plausible) that reputation based self-selection explains most of the ideological composition of academic sociology, this seems to be a pretty good argument against ASA public statements on issues that are only tenuously connected to the discipline’s interests.



    July 1, 2011 at 2:25 am

  3. Maybe for conservatives, their mindset suits more to the business world that makes big money, so their opportunity costs of staying in the academia is high. Or they may go to economics or natural sciences instead. Of course, they can also be scared away by the liberal framing of many social sciences and humanities disciplines.

    And it is funny that while conservatives do not think discrimination is so serious in the areas that liberals think it is serious, the positions switch in this case.



    July 1, 2011 at 3:12 am

  4. “And it is funny that while conservatives do not think discrimination is so serious in the areas that liberals think it is serious, the positions switch in this case.”

    right. i’m a conservative, and i agree it’s self-selection. this means that liberals naturally love citing my blog, while conservatives assume i’m a liberal. i think self-selection can explain a lot of the lack of diversity liberals complain about too. on this, other conservatives naturally agree. wuteva.


    Razib Khan

    July 1, 2011 at 5:25 am

  5. Do the same conservative critics of the academy worry about the lack of liberals in business? Do they suggest that business firms are hostile environments for people who believe in multiculturalism, social programs, or progressive taxation? That business managers brainwash their employees into agreeing with them and mouthing the politically-correct business line?

    Self-selection is obviously central. But that does not mean that nothing happens after that. Environments that are dominated by a particular point of view will tend to become more so. You can still call it [note: I said “call it”]] discrimination if people stay out of a field because they think they’d be uncomfortable in it.

    Somehow this made me think of Tina’s softball league post:



    July 1, 2011 at 5:33 am

  6. […] “This squares with my experience teaching sociology undergraduates. I often reach out to high … […]


  7. The professors who gave me the A grades leading to my summa cum laude baccalaureate would not write letters of recommendation for me for graduate school. I needed three letters. I asked six professors. As I had already enrolled in a graduate class, I remained at Eastern Michigan University for my master’s. My professors could not fault my work – obviously, they praised it – but they did not want me among them as a peer.

    The definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” are broad. I did not support the war in Iraq; and neither did I deny a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy; nor was I unopen to my LGBT colleagues. I only insisted that there is a difference between right and wrong that is independent of social norms, and that you can know that difference. In other words, I adhered to the “project” of the Enlightenment. Finally, in a senior seminar paper, I cited Ayn Rand six times … and still got an A for the paper and the class.

    Are grades meaningful? Do professors read papers? Is university education relevant to itself?

    My work is open for pubic review on my blogs and website. I often apply for openings posted at So far, no takers…


    Michael E. Marotta

    July 1, 2011 at 8:11 am

  8. I’m not sure I’d chalk it all up to self-selection. If I’m reading this right, all it’s saying is that more liberal students are more likely to work their way up academia. If academia is set up in a way that makes it more enjoyable, or at least more tolerable, for liberals than for conservatives, the same pattern would be seen. Maybe liberalism in an academic setting is conducive to higher social capital? Maybe people don’t like being an ideological minority? Maybe some liberals on campus go out of their way to make life harder for conservatives? This is hardly conclusive.

    Would be interesting to see statistics on highest planned degree for entering college freshmen and compare those by political ideology with statistics for graduating seniors.


    il duce del disco

    July 1, 2011 at 10:02 am

  9. And when papers will argue that women’s fate on the labor market and minorities’ in education, are the results of self-selection, not dscrimination, will we just say “ok, then no harm done, next subject”?



    July 1, 2011 at 11:48 am

  10. Conservatives look at the academic landscape and see a sea of liberal “faces.” Seeing this, and given the difficulty these days of getting tenure, is it any wonder that conservatives choose not to enter into an already chancy career track with the disadvantage of having a minority viewpoint? The majority of professors and administrators may be fair and open-minded people, but it sometimes takes only a single individual with a partisan bias (acknowledged or unacknowledged) to sink a candidate for tenure.

    I fear some people may feel the impulse to dismiss conservative complaints about the close-mindedness of academia based on studies like these. On the contrary, these studies should be a call-to-arms to ensure that academic departments of all stripes are truly welcoming places for all viewpoints. The alternative is cocooning, which will inevitably rot the academy from within.



    July 1, 2011 at 11:53 am

  11. Ditto Razib, self-selection is generally the simpler answer. I know Dan Klein has disputed this by arguing that among those who get phds, conservatives are more likely to leave academia, but that sounds like it could also be self-selection.

    olderwoman, I suppose that personal opinions about social issues are less relevant in business than academia. I work for a software firm, and I think most of my co-workers don’t know what my views on any issues of the day are. Jonathan Haidt has a longer argument about why it’s harmful for a particular political viewpoint to dominate an academic field. Conservative dominance of the military would be disturbing if we thought there was threat of a military coup or something.



    July 1, 2011 at 2:15 pm

  12. Rol: Software firms are typically empirically dominated by political liberals, although they may not talk about it at work. Creative/technical fields have different political profiles from financial & industrial sectors. Fact is that there are many business environments that are empirically conservative and that have a conservative ethos that is extremely uncomfortable for people who don’t fit it.

    Intellectual openness is an academic value, so there is always some merit in attacks on taken-for-granted assumptions. But there are also always boundaries on the limits of this. Biologists do not make intellectual space for creationists. This is not because they are politically conservative but because creationism is pseudo-scientific bunk. A student whose religious beliefs support creationism is going to feel uncomfortable in such a classroom, but there is nothing to be done about that if biology is going to remain a science, and political movements to open biology to more religious conservatives who believe creationism is not going to help the growth of science.

    The situation in social science is obviously less clear cut than in biology. But I’m afraid that my opinion is that a willingness to look at the data about society and see what it is says is, as a rule, empirically more common among liberals than conservatives in the general population. For example, the data on racial discrimination in hiring or housing markets from audit studies and controlled experiments is really quite overwhelming, and the history of what happened in the US in the 19th Century is really quite clear-cut (slavery, warfare against native people, etc.) but a conservative White student will still complain that a lecture emphasizing this factual information is one-sided. Which is not (see my previous comment) to deny the sociological processes that tend to reinforce dominant opinions within groups.



    July 1, 2011 at 2:48 pm

  13. oops sorry my mistake, not Rol but teageegeepea should have been the software point.



    July 1, 2011 at 2:49 pm

  14. OW,
    your point on the extremely strong evidence for persistent (but subtle insofar as it is structural and/or subconscious) racial discrimination is a very good point and it’s a great example of a valid finding that could lead to ideological sorting of people who are uncomfortable with it. however i think it’s a bit too glib to assume that because reality aligns with liberal beliefs on this issue that liberals necessarily have a better grasp of social reality on everything.
    i’ll go further an state affirmatively that just as conservative beliefs about post-racialism conflict with good social science, there are other issues where liberal beliefs conflict with good social science. my favorite example of this is the 30 year gap between the Moynihan report and McLanahan and Sandefur. i’m convinced that if sociology had a different set of ideological priors it wouldn’t have taken nearly so long to develop a consensus that illegitimacy creates problems for children and that these effects are only in part reducible to stigma and/or income effects.



    July 1, 2011 at 4:43 pm

  15. Gabriel: not disagreeing about the dangers of assumptions that are not questioned.

    Here’s another way of making what I think is the central point. There are common sociological processes that do limit the range of thinkable options in any group. This is just as true of natural science as any other field, and there are lots of examples in the history of science of what later prove to be errors surviving for a long time because of scientists’ resistance to off-beat ideas. The one I’m thinking of is how the movement of the continents was considered to be bunk until the plate tectonics revolution. So, yes, of course, there are lots of examples of limits on inquiry that have arisen in sociology through a variety of processes, some of them political, some apolitical. No disputes about that. I also don’t dispute what happened in sociology about race & single parenting, although I also don’t agree with the conservative trope that has been constructed about the character of the initial criticisms, nor with with social policies that have been constructed in the wake of the pro-marriage research. Saying that the problem with Black families was “matriarchy” was nothing more than victim-blaming then as well as now. And saying that children are better off with two parents does not mean that depriving unmarried parents with social provision or incarcerating fathers for failing to pay child support is going to improve child well-being.

    The dispute is about the lack of symmetry in the conversation and the context within which it occurs. How often do you hear these days about the need to challenge the conservative mantras in business or economics? And especially the need for these fields to be more open to people from the political left? How open is economics to any criticism of markets or interventions in social programs based on market ideas? There has been a systematic effort in this country to move the range of intellectual discourse solidly to the right and a systematic effort to de-legitimate left-leaning academics. Attacks on the “liberal bias” of the academy have to be understood in that context. Trying to discuss a political phenomenon without a political analysis just obscures what is going on.

    So, back to the original post. Theoretically, strong evidence of self-selection does not eliminate political disputes about whether environment X is or is not “hostile” to certain kinds of people, it just provides one clear mechanism for how the sorting happens.



    July 1, 2011 at 5:32 pm

  16. OW,
    i think we’re pretty much on the same page.
    in particular, i am extremely bothered when conservative critiques of academia veer into anti-intellectualism or some kind of “fairness doctrine” position that transparently stupid ideas like creationism deserve equal time. when i encounter this directly, i’m not shy about criticizing it. this is an issue where i think everybody gets it wrong in different ways and so i end up arguing no matter with whom i’m discussing it.
    on the subject of ideological homogeneity in other fields, you do occasionally hear laments, from both left and right, that the military’s officer corps has become ideologically/politically homogenous. (probably as homogenous as academia overall but not as much as a few particular disciplines). the criticism i’m most familiar with is the afterword to Tom Ricks’ Making the Corps but my understanding is that he got a lot of this from Huntington’s Soldier and the State (which I’m afraid I have not read).



    July 1, 2011 at 5:55 pm

  17. olderwoman, most academic economists identify as liberals. And the “market failure” literature was/is created by economists. The field of economics only looks right-wing relative to its peers among the social sciences and humanities.
    You’ll see psychology high up on that list (with Haidt’s sub-field of social psychology not shown, but reportedly more homogenous). Economics is near the bottom but still mostly liberal. I would say the across fields, what correlates with less liberalism (or greater balance, we can’t distinguish without any right-leaning disciplines) is potential to be applied renumeratively outside academia. This is for faculty, students might differ.


    Wonks Anonymous

    July 1, 2011 at 8:56 pm

  18. Like I said, opinions are less relevant in software. I’d say when I worked in the suburbs it was more conservative and in the city more liberal, but I didn’t get most folk’s political views.



    July 2, 2011 at 2:08 am

  19. Academic economics is more diverse than sociology, which drives down its mean on the liberalism scale. For every Paul Krugman there’s a Eugene Fama, for every Brad deLong there’s a Greg Mankiw, for every Keynes there’s a Hayek, etc. Or, at the aggregate level, for every Berkeley there’s a Chicago, which is not exactly known as a bastion of liberalism (even if Papa Milt did advocate policies that today’s GOP labels socialist).

    I think it would be healthy for sociology if it were a bit less one-sided. Or, better still, not overtly “sided” at all.



    July 2, 2011 at 3:39 am

  20. “Being conservative is probably correlated with certain attitudes toward work, such a desire for high compensation, that are hard to satisfy in the academy. There are also field specific self-selection effects. Sociology for example, studies all kinds of deviant behavior and the faculty tend to skew liberal, not the sort of thing that attracts conservatives.”

    Let me try out this form of logical argument:

    Being [ a woman] is probably correlated with certain attitudes toward work, such a desire for [interpersonal interactions], that are hard to satisfy in the [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math,]

    That argument sure didn’t work for Larry Summers.

    Being [black] is probably correlated with [IQ below the white and Asian means], that [makes it difficult for blacks as a group to compete on a level field in the academy.]

    You’ve couched your argument in probabilities and I’ve done the same. Certainly there are women who excel at the subject matter of the STEM disciplines and who find their work very satisfying. Certainly there are black academics with high IQs who have no trouble producing solid and/or inspired work. Certainly there are conservatives who are not motivated by a desire for high compensation.

    My problem with your argument (liberals in the general) is that you’re eager to wield the sword of disparity in (field x) being the result of discrimination but you’re aghast when the identical logical sword is wielded against you. You guys developed this line of argument, you’ve cast innocent people as being discriminators who either explicitly or subconsciously take actions to harm women and minorities when there are STRONGER factors at work which strongly correlate with race and gender which DO have an influence on career paths and now that the tables are turned you’re employing “conservative reasoning” when it suits your interests so as to protect your self-image of being enlightened non-discriminators. Conservatives will discriminate at the drop of a hat and action needs to be taken to stop them from doing so but liberals are all-inclusive and welcome everyone into their circles and would never dream of discriminating against anyone. Therefore when liberals stand accused of being discriminators it’s not really the case, you see, it’s simply a matter of candidate self-selection unlike the reverse case when conservatives stand accused of discrimination and self-selection (and related factors) are taboo to the analysis.

    I don’t find the self-selection thesis shocking at all, in fact, I find it to be the most parsimonious explanation for career disparity across a number of groups, conservatives, women, minorities. I do think though that people should be spoon-fed the bad medicine that they’re shoving down other’s throats as an inducement to refrain from shoving bad medicine onto others.



    July 2, 2011 at 7:01 pm

  21. What do you make of the incidents described here?


    Stuart Buck

    July 3, 2011 at 1:17 am

  22. As a followup, if you read about those stories — where people were pilloried for suggesting that family structure matters or that white flight was occurring or that Catholic schools might be good schools — it seems likely that at least some “self-selection” might be merely a response to the fear of discrimination. Would-be professors aren’t totally oblivious to what sort of reception ideas perceived as “conservative” have often faced, and they might rationally decide that it isn’t worth it even to try (given that chasing a PhD and tenure-track position are risky enough already).


    Stuart Buck

    July 3, 2011 at 6:12 pm

  23. Olderwoman wrote: Rol: Software firms are typically empirically dominated by political liberals, although they may not talk about it at work. Creative/technical fields have different political profiles from financial & industrial sectors. Fact is that there are many business environments that are empirically conservative and that have a conservative ethos that is extremely uncomfortable for people who don’t fit it.

    I would like to see the numbers. The liberal dominance in academics has been measured in valid studies.

    Here in Ann Arbor in the mathematics hallway at Washtenaw Community College, we have this: “The plural of anecdote is not data.” I worked in software for 30 years and I found conservatives and libertarians far more common than left-wingers. At Patriot Sensors where I was documenting a multiprocessor industrial controller, some of the software engineers saw my libertarian bumpersticker and invited me to their offices to listen to Rush Limbaugh at lunch. Ron Paul is famous for his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while at the same time, he is proud to have delivered thousands of babies and is opposed to abortion. One of my favorite Objectivist sites, Rebirth of Reason, is friendly to both warhawks and gays. It is well-known that many conservatives and libertarians are opposed to corporations as being creatures of the state. They point to George Soros as an example of Green political wealth acting against personal freedom. But the plural of yarn-spinning is not chi-square.

    So, I would like to see some empirical evidence that software firms are dominated by political liberals.


    Michael E. Marotta

    July 3, 2011 at 7:29 pm

  24. If self-selection is the mechanism that explains something of an ideological slant in the social sciences–or the academy generally, we need to remember that it’s not a one time decision, but rather, an iterative process.

    Anyone who works in a university setting sees the importance of government funding; My salary comes from the state of California; I can apply for research funding, for the moment, from the National Science Foundation (maybe if NSF had more money, I’d be more successful at doing so…); and my students get grants from both the state and the federal government. I’m unlikely to be as exorcised about government spending (and thus, taxes) as some of my neighbors in Southern California. I’m constantly exposed to the benefits of state funding–or I’m completely compromised by the money from the government.

    I didn’t have to understand this when I thought about college, but over time, it’s hard not to pay attention.

    That’s the government investment part of liberalism. There’s also social liberalism. My guess is that people who work in a university are more exposed to diverse populations than people who work in most other sectors. On a routine basis, I see hard-working and admirable young people from virtually every stigmatized group. It’s hard for me, having this exposure, to justify discrimination.


    David S. Meyer

    July 4, 2011 at 9:33 pm

  25. teppo

    July 26, 2011 at 8:17 pm

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