book spotlight: why are professors liberal and why do conservatives care?


Neil Gross cements his position as the leading sociologist of American intellectuals with his new book Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care?*  This book collects into one text a series of arguments about the American professoriate that Gross and his collaborators have presented in a series of articles. Essentially, Gross argues that American academia, on the average, is liberal because of self-selection on the part of conservatives. The specific issue is that academia, for a number of historically specific reasons, has acquired an aura of extreme liberalism. Thus, conservative students say “Why bother? Academia is for liberals. What’s the point?”

What is impressive about Gross and his confederates is that they test all kinds of alternative hypotheses. For example, one might think that academic skills explain conservatives lower enrollments in PhD programs. But it doesn’t. Differences in values don’t explain much either. In other words, Gross et al systematically test all kinds of hypotheses and show that they are simply not true or that they only explain a small proportion of the differences between conservatives and others.

Eventually, using historical evidence and interview data, Gross makes a good case for self-selection. Sociology is a good example. In principle, there’s lots of places for non-liberal sociologists. For example, one could work on non-ideological aspects of sociology, like research methods. Or, as many conservatives have done, they could work in areas of interest like family sociology, where in some cases (like studies of negative divorce effects on kids), they could work on topics that are consistent with their ideology. But if you sit down and ask a typical conservative undergrad why they didn’t take many soc courses, they’ll tell you an image of evil ultra-liberals who are bent on political correctness.

Now, where I would criticize this book is the study of conservatives. For example, Gross argues that there isn’t much evidence of bias against conservatives. He uses the example of a study he conducted with Jeremy Fresse and Ethan Fosse where they contacted graduate directors with email from fake students. Some emails mentioned working for a GOP candidate, some a Democrat, and other none at all. Gross et al find no differences in how graduate directors responded.

First, there’s the issue, which Gross acknowledges, that graduate directors probably write a lot of boiler plate emails. But there’s a deeper criticism – why didn’t Gross interview people at risk for discrimination from liberal colleagues? For example, why not interview liberal (Keynesian) and conservative economists (monetarists or Austrians)? Or, why not interview Rawlsian philosophers (liberals) and compare their careers with Nozickians (libertarians) or Burkeans (conservatives)? Or, even better, why not collect materials from people who submitted books or articles on conservative topics but were rejected?

I think that Gross is right – anti-conservative bias is not nearly as bad as people think, if it exists at all – but the treatment of conservatives is not nearly as nuanced as the treatment of liberals. This probably speaks to the development of the project, which started with analyzing massive data (like the GSS) that trues to tease out conservative/liberal differences. Developing a theory or map of conservative intellectuals probably came late in the game.

Regardless, this book is massive progress on a central issue in the study of American intellectuals and the academy. This will be required reading for anyone interested in this topic.

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* And I’m not saying that because he said nice things about me in the book. But he did. Oh yeah, and I’m not just saying it because he edited another cool  forthcoming book about academia with a chapter by moi. But he did. Ok, maybe he buttered up a little. But just a little!

Written by fabiorojas

June 25, 2013 at 12:07 am

5 Responses

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  1. Did he examine any of the evidence from psychology, or did he just look at sociology? They have been a few studied on political discrimination in the academy by psychologists, and liberals don’t come out looking particularly good. They’re discussed here, and you’ll have to scroll down to the middle of the page to find most of them

    For instance:

    “1. In 1985, Stephen Ceci, Douglas Peters, and Jonathan Plotkin submitted research proposals to over 150 Internal Review Boards, all of which were identical except for one difference. The stated research goal was either to demonstrate that, in employment situations, “reverse discrimination” or “discrimination” was a major problem. Reverse discrimination proposals were approved less frequently than the discrimination proposals. Moreover, “political implications” were given as “reasons” to reject the “reverse discrimination is a problem” proposal about twice as often as they were given for rejecting the “discrimination” proposal.”

    And then recently there was this paper, based on survey data:


  2. Reblogged this on An Anthropologist on the Spectrum and commented:
    For reference.


    HK Thomas

    June 27, 2013 at 10:05 am

  3. Can we consider the possibility that a commitment to a scientific orientation / rigor of thought erodes support for conservative principles on a logical level? If the basis of political conservatism is an appeal to authority, whatever that conservatism is? This is consistent with both the self-selection and developmental hypotheses. Not sure what a falsifying observation would be.



    June 30, 2013 at 3:04 am

  4. “Can we consider the possibility that a commitment to a scientific orientation / rigor of thought erodes support for conservative principles on a logical level?”


    Political conservatism is not based in authority appeal, on any dimension, of which there are myriad, other than a subset brand of international interventionism and rank militarism. And anyway the absolute minority of academic conservatives think big military states are a yay-hooray good idea.

    Regarding fiscal conservatism, which even most left-center dems subscribe to in some measure, believing that the expansion of government by an order of magnitude between the beginning of and middle of the 20th century, for instance, was a bad idea, has absolutely nothing to do with authoritarian ideals. In fact the opposite.

    You’d do well to read some academic conservatives before claiming that they just run around making appeals to authority without any evidence. Then you’d have some evidence for your claim that conservatives don’t argue with evidence. A falsifying argument for your implicit argument that liberals argue with evidence and conservatives don’t, would be your post itself.


    Graham Peterson

    June 30, 2013 at 6:38 pm

  5. […] the discussion of academia’s liberalism, we should also consider the public’s mistrust of science, especially the conservative and […]


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