what's the matter with the university of kansas? how democrats won the heart of academia
Several surveys and critiques of left-wing overrepresentation in higher education are generating discussion. I can quibble with the sampling and methodology (or, I suppose, the biases of the researchers), but I wouldn't seriously question the population estimates and trend data on "percent Democrat" or "percent liberal." I know that this isn't a front-burner issue for most social scientists, but I think the results resonate strongly with the public, making it easier to dismiss our work as intrinsically biased. It also makes me wonder whether public and professional sociology are necessarily liberal or radical endeavors. As a middle-class White guy, I know that my career has benefited from having people like me in power. Have I also been privileged by my political leanings? Some data:
Point Estimates: Klein and Stern report results of a 2003 survey that asked faculty "To which political party have the candidates you've voted for in the past ten years mostly belonged?"
The results show that the faculty is heavily skewed towards voting Democratic. The most lopsided fields surveyed are Anthropology with a D to R ratio of 30.2 to 1, and Sociology with 28.0 to 1. The least lopsided is Economics with 3.0 to 1. After Economics, the least lopsided is Political Science with 6.7 to 1. The average of the six ratios by field is about 15 to 1.
Trend: A 2005 study by Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte reports "a sharp shift to the left" since a 1984 Carnegie study that asked similarly-worded questions:
In 1984, only 39% of faculty members identified themselves as liberal, including only 6% that would describe themselves as "left," compared to 34% who identify themselves as conservative, including 4% who see themselves as "strong conservatives." The 1999 study found 72% of faculty to the left of center, including 18% who were strongly left (choosing "one" or "two" on the 10 point scale from "very left" to "very right"). Only 15% described themselves as right of center, including only 3% who were strongly right. It appears that, over the course of 15 years, self-described liberals grew from a slight plurality to a 5 to 1 majority on college faculties.
So, unless the studies are more seriously flawed than I think, there are a lot more liberals than conservatives in higher education and the proportions are becoming more skewed over time. True? Liberal representation, of course, doesn't mean liberal bias. I have not carefully reviewed the research on this issue, but frankly I find some of "our" defenses for the disparity to be weak, anti-intellectual, and troubling on their face. They offer arguments based on supply-side economics (that conservatives really don't want to work in academia), innate differences (that conservatives are naturally less intelligent or more dogmatic than liberals), or absolute truth (that free inquiry demands a left-leaning approach), then dismiss any remaining concerns with a wave of the hand and a hearty "Don't worry about it!" Even if we really believed these arguments (and their applicability to this and only this disparity), how much of that 28:1 ratio among sociology faculty would they explain in combination? Isn't it possible that at least some portion of the residual variance is due to discrimination?
I hate to lapse into a "some of my best friends are conservative" argument, but that's where I'm headed. I know plenty of moderate Republicans and (small-l) libertarians with the aptitude and inclination to conduct good social science (yes, I realize that the qualifiers are patronizing and probably annoying to non-moderate Republicans and large-L libertarians, but this whole post is probably patronizing and annoying to everyone else). I once wrote a paper with a brilliant undergrad named Jennifer Janikula (formerly Jennifer Halko) who had headed the local College Republicans and interned for a Republican senator. Jennifer was skeptical of Bill Clinton's argument that volunteer experience might make people more law-abiding. When our analysis failed to refute Clinton's view, she had no problem writing up the results in an unbiased manner and publishing them in Social Forces. Had they come out differently, I think I would have been equally unbiased, though I likely would have harrumphed a bit in the conclusion about the data or design being insufficient to provide a definitive critical test.
As the last comments reveal, I still cling to ideals of value neutrality and an objective social science. In my view, hints of bias threaten the legitimacy of our claim on societal resources -- I'm a public employee, after all, and the citizenry at large still pays a good portion of my salary. When I look at the numbers, however, I'd have to conclude that my "safe-left" politics (neither too hot, nor too cold and within spitting distance of most of my colleagues) have probably helped my career, just as my race, middle-class background and gender have opened doors along the way. Of course, like anyone else, I'd like people who share my own values and worldview to remain in power in academia, but there's probably room at the table for a few more conservatives. Or is there really no problem if most 20-person sociology departments voted 20 for Kerry/Nader and 0 for Bush in communities split 50:50? I'm starting to worry in a "What's the Matter with Kansas" way about sociologists losing the hearts and minds of America. Aside from real or perceived biases in instruction, would sociological knowledge flourish or founder if sociology faculty looked a little more like the rest of the citizenry on this dimension?