is there discrimination against conservative law professors?

We’ve often discussed the ideological profile of the academy on this blog. My own view is that there is massive self-selection. Gross’ book on conservative academics finds systematic evidence that conservative ideology correlates with a stronger preference for highly paid careers. That means that conservative undergraduates, as a group, would be going strongly against their preferences for higher lifetime income by enrolling in graduate programs. The self-selection explanation has one property that other explanations don’t: it can explain why physical science academics might be liberal.

There is other research that makes the case that anti-conservative prejudice it at play. Haidt and his collaborators, for example, surveyed their own field of social psychology to show that many academics admit that would likely be prejudiced against conservative academics. Freese and Fosse conducted an experiment showing that graduate program directors were less likely to respond to students if they included conservative credentials in their emails.

To this literature, there is a new article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy by James Phillips. Roughly speaking, Phillips gathers data on the publication histories of about one thousand law professors. Using voting registration, campaign donations, and other data, the author estimates the political orientation of each professor. The article has a lot of analysis in it, but he is trying to show that conservative professors have similar/better qualifications and publication records than liberals or unknowns. He finds that conservative professors, in many ways, have better qualifications (e.g., has a J.D.), publish more, and are more cited.

For those interested in academic politics, I suggest that they read the whole article. On a first read, at least, it seems thorough. So here are a few responses: (a) legal academia is very, very hierarchical and network driven. One of the results is that conservative legal academics clerk more, but for less prestigious courts. And one of the unwritten rules of the legal academy is that the best jobs go to those who clerk “higher.” That, by itself, could weed out a lot conservative law profs. So there may be plenty of conservatives getting clerking jobs, but if relatively few are in the appeal and Supreme courts, that by itself could wipe out entire generations of conservative law profs, even if hiring committees weren’t prejudiced.

(b) The higher rate of publication and citation could be due to two factors – survivor bias (only the “toughest” conservative profs survive, while lots of average liberal profs get jobs) or conservative profs might publish in different fields. For example, the publication rate and citation patterns in medical sociology is wildly different than in historical sociology. In law, I could imagine liberal profs publishing in less popular areas like Eskimo rights, while conservatives stick to criminal justice or taxation, which is way more popular. I would have to reread to see if this possibility is addressed.

(c) Self-selection can also play a big factor. If law students are similar to the overall population, then there would be a correlation between conservative beliefs and a desire for income. Thus, an average liberal legal academic is more likely to “settle” for lower paying law school jobs. In contrast, average conservative legal academics leave and only the best remain.

A number of outlets have jumped to the conclusion that this paper proved discrimination. It doesn’t. Rather, it thoroughly discredits an important hypothesis – that the low number of conservative profs reflect substandard work. When you read the detail, you see lots of different processes playing out in the data.

So thumbs up, let the debate continue.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 20, 2016 at 12:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. An interesting question is always- if conservatives are motivated by wealth in choosing a career, what are liberals motivated by? “Making the world a better place” is a somewhat unsatisfying answer. “Independence and respect” might be better, but both of those are lacking in most of the academy today. Perhaps high-education liberals tend to be drawn towards careers formed around nexuses of power and prestige, even if they themselves have only a narrow chance of gaining it?



    January 21, 2016 at 12:54 pm

  2. Setting: A conversation among two very successful middle-aged men, one academic and one not, and a young sociologist.

    Successful Academic: Well, I’ve read your work and I see a lot of people have cited it, surely you must be ascendant in your field. I mean, I am a medical researcher, so you are even getting attention outside your field.

    Young sociologist: Actually, not really. In fact, my friends in the same PhD cohort will achieve rank before I do. Around three years before I do, in some cases with about the 3rd of the record.

    Successful Gentlemen looks confused.

    Successful Non-academic: But, if citations, grants, etc. are signs of achievement…and how could they not be, they are objective. I mean you don’t know the people citing your research, or the grant agencies, and, in your case, your mentors don’t study this topic. So, you, literally, did this independent of networks, nepotism, etc. or subjective bias that might “over value” your work.

    Young sociologist: But these aren’t the rules in bullshit land. In bullshit land, citations of my work, NSF grants, etc, are a form of hegemonic masculinity, because in bullshit land, I know a secret cant that speaks only to privileged people. I don’t even know that I am writing this code, but I am. So, basically, I am sending out a magical language that appeals to the forces of hegemonic masculinity, and thus, well it gets confusing from there…but something like we should come up with fantastic things (or bullshit) to discredit the objective indications of achievement to counteract the evil forces.

    Successful Gentlemen laugh, no really, what is the reason.

    Young sociologist looks down in shame.

    Successful Gentlemen: So, do we speak the cant as well.

    Young sociologist: Yes, why do you think we are having this conversation.

    Cue X-Files music. The end.



    February 6, 2016 at 5:20 pm

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