At a recent social psychology conference, UVA Professor John Haidt made a familiar point about ideological diversity by asking conservatives and moderates in attendance to raise their hand. This exercise touches on an interesting, perennial question: why are so there so few conservatives in the academy?
Among “movement conservatives,” it is practically an article of faith that liberal bias discourages right-leaning students from pursuing careers in academia, particularly careers in the social sciences and humanities. But is this just right-wing paranoia, or worse, a politically-convenient way for conservatives to diminish the standing of potential ideological foes?
A working paper by sociologists Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse suggests that the widespread liberalism is largely the result of self-selection. The authors identify several characteristics that predispose one towards liberalism and find that they are disproportionately present amongst academics. Specifically, when compared with other Americans, professors:
- tend to have higher income and education levels
- are less likely to be theologically-conservative Protestants
- are more likely to be Jewish or non-religious
- are more tolerant of controversial ideas
- have a greater disparity between their income and educational levels
Gross and Fosse argue that the ubiquity of these liberal-friendly characteristics in the professorate has gradually resulted in academia being “typed” as a liberal profession, in much the same way nursing has been typed a “feminine” profession. They cite research by Amy Binder and others showing that conservative students (of all ability levels) are less likely to feel ideological kinship with their professors and thus are less likely to aspire to join academia.
To me, their argument sounds reasonable: if a top student thinks the private sector promotes innovation and raises living standards, he's probably more likely to accept its generally more lucrative and flexible offerings than one who frowns upon “big business." This probably holds true for undergrads and grad students alike. And the private sector isn't the only other option for cerebral conservatives.
For secular folks, the academe is one of relatively few fields where an individual can devote his or her professional energies to contemplating and propagating his or her conception of the “Truth.” Religious conservatives can also consider the clergy (there are roughly 500,000 members of the Protestant clergy in the US and about 25,000 philosophy professors, per the AP and the BLS, respectively) or any number of faith-based organizations. Conservative think tanks probably took an ideological bite out of academia early on, but by now I suspect their impact is canceled out by left-leaning think tanks. The Defense sector probably absorbs more conservative thinkers in the aggregate.
These factors seem to go a long way towards explaining the relative rarity of conservative academics, but political bias still plays a role in some cases. In some disciplines, influence will be harder to come by for those who don't take certain political views for granted. Likewise, at some institutions, conservatism is stigmatized and so challenging sensitive liberal shibboleths might open you up for professional or even personal criticism (I have Pat Moynihan in mind on this issue).
Of course, it's also worth remembering that "liberal" and "conservative" can be unstable terms in academia. Greg Mankiw, Andrew Bacevich, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Francis Fukuyama could all be called conservatives and yet could all have different views on any given issue. Foreign policy and economic conservatives probably meet the least resistance in most disciplines. Likewise, the term liberal is similarly pretty expansive; it's just as likely to be used for a free trade-backing Clinton fan as it is for an avowed Marxist. Given their backgrounds, I'd wager most academics who identify as liberal in the US aren't that in favor of challenging the status quo.
Some of this was adopted from a previously deleted blog post.