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Monday, October 24, 2005
How the Door Hit the Conservatives (and Libertarians) on the Way Out

Andrew Seal has some great commentary on two posts by Ann Althouse and Bainbridge covering an article by "John Tierney talking about what--or who--keeps conservatives out of academia." That's right. I am an academician hopefully about to comment on a comment concerning comments about a new article article discussing conservatives in academia. This should be right up there with Habermas writing an article in an edited book on a comment by a German theologian on Max Horkheimer. At best, we are going to be thrice observed.

It all started with Ann Althouse's commentary on the New York Times' select article by John Tierney. He posited, as far we can tell, that there are four often stated reasons why conservatives don't get tenure at universities. One, conservatives do not value knowledge for its own sake. Two, conservatives do not care about the social good. Three, conservatives are too greedy to work for professors' wages. Four, conservatives are too dumb to get tenure.

There all ready seems to be a problem in attempting to infer characteristics about an undefined population, named "conservatives" for rhetorical power. Thus, my cheeky title of "how the door hit conservatives on the way out"--in the the vein of all the recent "How X Did Y" or "How X Succeeds and When Y Fails" titles now ubiquitous in bookstores--is amusing precisely because we don't know who the conservatives are, where they are leaving from, and why they are leaving (i.e. whether its voluntary or involuntary).

Althouse, not needing to define or operationalize her concepts, continues: "Tierney rejects all of that, and blames the disparity on 'the structure of academia, where decisions about hiring are made by small independent groups of scholars'," and begins quoting Tierney who wrote:

They're subject to the law of group polarization, derived from studies of juries and other groups.

"If people are engaged in deliberation with like-minded others, they end up more confident, more homogenous and more extreme in their beliefs," said Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "If you have an English or history department that leans left, their interactions will push them further left."

Once liberals dominate a department, they can increase their majority by voting to award tenure to like-minded scholars. As liberals dominate a field, conservatives' work comes to be seen as fringe scholarship.

There seems to be another immediate problem here (besides the small factor of not knowing really who were are talking about). Liberals apparently, a priori, decide that a fellow faculty member's research sucks because of political affiliation? That's a big charge from the conservative wing who could usually be counted on to say that hiring ought to be based on the merits of a candidate and not any particular group characteristic. There seems to be four factors wrong in asserting that conservatives are being discriminated against per se. One, there does not seem to be a large pool of "conservative" applicants who are denied tenure whom can point out discrimination in the hiring process, or that the reasonably informed observer can identify. Systematic discrimination is by definition very observable. Segregation was not a contested claim, it was an easily observable fact of life. We could see actual discrimination there. Two, the argument seems to lack specificity about which universities are discriminating against conservatives. Are we talking about a correlation between faculty denied tenure at Princeton and voting affiliation? This is important to specify because some institutions, like Princeton, traditionally don't grant tenure to that many people, conservative or not. In fact, many of the top political scientists in the field now, somewhere between 20 and 40 percent, were denied tenure at their first university. Three, there is no specification about which fields these decisions are being made in. The honest to goodness truth is that in some academic fields the job market sucks. Four, this doesn't include how cordial and chummy the supposed conservative is with his or her colleagues. Did the person make meager ideological difference an uncomfortable issue with some of the faculty? That seems to be relevant if one is being given a job for life.

Ann contextualizes her own criticism and demonstrates her dearth of knowledge concerning academia when she self-righteously concludes: "That sounds accurate to me. Tierney concludes that the phenomenon ultimately hurts liberals in the political sphere because they can't draw on the ideas of liberals in academia, who have veered too far left to produce ideas that are appealing to American voters." Can I get a show of hands for people who believe that academics outside of policy studies and the social sciences are attempting to "produce ideas that are appealing to American voters"? I'm sure that the history of Kenya, or, of religious practices in an Indonesian village are aimed at the American electorate. Thanks, Ann. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Steven Bainbridge, actually being a law professor, has something intelligent to add. Bainbridge writes:

In my experience, it thus is a lot harder to get somebody hired than it is to block them from being hired. The process isn't as explicit as the blackballing scene in Animal House, but the law school hiring process is just as weighted against hiring. (And I mean hiring anybody, regardless of political affiliation.) Any opposition (for whatever reason) therefore is usually enough, absent a very strongly committed pro-hiring faction. In most cases, a candidate's best chance of surviving the winnowing process is for someone on the committee to become the candidate's champion. The champion will pull the candidate's resume out of the slush pile and make sure it gets flagged for close review. Because most law schools lack a critical mass of libertarian and conservative faculty members, however, there is nobody predisposed to pulling conservative candidates' AALS forms out of the slush pile (and a fair number of folks inclined, whether consciously or subconsciously, to bury them) Applicants with conservative lines on their resume -- an Olin fellowship, Federalist Society membership, or, heaven help you, a Scalia clerkship -- thus tend to be passed over no matter how sterling the rest of their credentials may be. In contrast, the latest left-leaning prodigy from Harvard or Yale has a mentor at one of those schools who makes calls to his/her buddies and ideological soulmates at other law schools. The recipients of those calls then flag the prodigy's file, giving them a critical leg-up in the process. Law school hiring tends to be driven by the self-perpetuating network of left-leaning senior faculty.

Bainbridge offers a new hypothesis: libertarians and conservatives often lack the faculty sponsors necessary to secure highly competitive job slots. The fact that academia is a professional association, whose tenured members get to determine the rules and practices of the trade and its reproduction, limits the number of jobs available, Bainbridge argues, and thus has the effect of accidentally discriminating against libertarians and conservatives. Bainbridge's distinction are certainly much better than Althouse's by creating a slightly less concrete mechanism, the machine, rather than the liberal [who for Ann is waiting to ding every conservative.] Bainbridge's issue is that his argument doesn't sufficiently distinguish between conservatives, libertarians, and "liberal" rejected faculty given the small number of persons actually hired. The lack of a direct casual mechanism to select conservatives and libertarians as such means that our only response is "tough" or "deal." Don't let the door hit you on your way out either; trust me its nothing personal.

Andrew Seal gets past all the question-begging and goes directly to the heart of the matter: "But the question they all skip around is, why were the liberals there in the first place? Why is academia a magnet for liberals? They may be entrenched now, but it's not like the university just now took a turn to the left. Well, if you're Steven Levitt (the freakonomist), the place you look is to incentives. Holding all things equal, what incentives do liberals have for adopting the academic life?" His observation that liberals didn't just start to dominate the university is apt; in fact, we have historical evidence that conservatives may have dominated the university at the turn of the 19th/20th century. It would be interesting to note what changed.

Well, why do people choose a career? Andrew continues, I'm going to be reductive and say it's for one of three reasons--to gratify a passion for one's work, to achieve renown/influence or to make money.

Now, just hang on a second, this isn't going where you're thinking. I don't think (not making) money is the principal factor in turning liberals to academia and conservatives away. And, like passion for one's work, it is not limited to liberals. What I do think is a factor--the factor--is influence.

There are two ways of influencing--direct and indirect. (I suppose this is akin to hard and soft power, but for the sake of a future post that relates to this, I will use direct and indirect influence.) You can try to directly influence the circumstances, or you can attempt to influence the flow of ideas that will bring about the circumstances. I think that it is accurate to say that conservatives have historically favored direct influence and liberals have favored indirect influence. That's not a value judgment, it is supposed to be descriptive.

Seal then goes on to distinguish between the fact that, for him, conservatives target conditions (direct influence) and liberals offer ideas that shape conditions (indirect influence). That seems to me to be too clever by half for a reason why we find more "liberals" than "conservatives" in academia.

The idea that no one wants to discuss is: why is it an issue about the ideological preferences of a faculty member or a faculty body? Moreover, how do we go about measuring any given person's preference?

One answer is that the scholarship suffers from too much ideological agreement. We know that's not true. The preponderance of "liberal" academics at an institution seem irrelevant because the academic peer-reviewed journals largely shape the profession of academia. (Law reviews, I believe, are the exception for they are not peer reviewed.) The editors who run the journals are distinct from the faculty who grant tenure in the sense that they don't perfectly overlap. Not every tenured faculty member will head a journal. Moreover, most journals have anonymous readers for articles who aren't selected for their partisanship but for their methodological diversity.

Another answer concerns the brainwashing of the students. No person who has been to college or university recently will tell that they and their peers were blank slates waiting for liberal professors to remake. We need a more complex account than that. Oftentimes students take classes with their own agendas in mind to challenge professors or to mock them. Students argue about their politics, the professor's politics, and the class readings outside the classroom. Critical thinking is not partisan-bound. Students, Republican and Democrat alike, have benefited from taking classes and from talking to one another. In fact, four years of college seems to produce more political apathy and dissatisfaction than anything else.

In short, the debate over professors political affiliations as either a proxy for hiring diversity or regarding concerns over brainwashing undergrads is a load of crap is ever heard of one. The debate is not only pointless, but it's obnoxious too.