Chris Uggen's Blog: what's the matter with the university of kansas? how democrats won the heart of academia

Sunday, August 28, 2005

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?

17 Comments:

At 2:52 PM, Anonymous valerio said...

Chris, that's a great post you have. The issue at stake tells a great deal about the two-dimensional political sphere in the US, at least as it is perceived. But the division between republicans and democrats hides more than it reveals. Political field is much more diverse than it is portrayed from the democrat vs. republican (or liberal vs. conservative) perspective.

Thus, I would like to see a survey with more subtle instruments that would be sensitive to the diversity of political attitudes among faculty. I guess you can have an environmental activist, pro-abortion, pro-war in Iraq (for the sake of democracy, for example), and contra-universal health care professor. And how would you call this person? It seems to me that labeling her or him simply as a liberal or conservative misses the point.

I’m not familiar with the details of the survey, but that's what I managed to gather from the post. A question in the end: can you determine what exactly means for a person to be liberal or cons judging from her or his response on a survey question written something like: "how do you identify yourself in terms of political preferences?"

p.s. i definitely agree with you about "'our' defenses for the disparity to be weak, anti-intellectual, and troubling on their face" as reported in the insidehighered article.

 
At 7:21 PM, Blogger Mischelle said...

I've been hearing about this controvery, sadly from the rantings of Bill O'Reilly. Remember that whole brouhaha about Ward Churchill's comments regarding 9/11? I was wondering, though, whether you've seen any research on the political leanings of students and the impact of that on the classroom?

I've heard that the students of today are rather conservative and some professors and TA's report that students favor harsher punishments and disfavor rehabilitation. It would seem that the dynamics in the classroom would be quite complex and challenging when you've got a left leaning professor and a right leaning student body.

As a side note, I'm doing some research on bias crimes right now and one of our variables is political affiliation. I think we are going to get some pretty interesting data. I'll keep you posted if you like.

 
At 8:55 PM, Blogger christopher uggen said...

Valerio, Your point about our 2D (almost unidimensional) assessment is a good one and I too see tremendous diversity among my colleagues on the issues you mention. Still, how many likely Republican voters do you think were in attendance at the ASA meetings last month? How many Bush supporters could be found among the legions of American sociologists? I thought perhaps this has always been the case, but then I saw the trend data since the '84 Carnegie study. Reagan in '84 seems about as polarizing as Bush II in '04, yet sociologists seem even farther removed from the GOP today. I know that the liberal label means little today and the Democrat label even less, but the complete absence of Republicans doesn't seem altogether healthy for the discipline -- either in terms of legitimacy or in terms of the sharp clash of proofs that produces great ideas. Nevertheless, I don't know whether anyone has conducted a large-scale but more nuanced study of political attitudes and behavior among academics.

Mischelle, Please do keep me posted on your work! The "ideology mismatch" you identify is real, and conservative students are clearly finding their voice today (aided or mobilized, no doubt, by conservative political organizations). In defense of faculty, though, many profs I know are *begging* their conservative students to come forward and share their views or engage in debates. It is difficult when faculty consciously create space for such exchange and only get silence in return -- until the course evaluations slam the prof for her putative liberal bias. My students generally assume I'm a moderate, partly because I wear suits and partly because I occasionally say (shockingly!) nice things about both convicted felons and police officers. As an aside, my son watched Bill O'Reilly this week -- he read Al Franken's book and said he had to figure out what all the fuss was about!

 
At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the "public sociology" movement is probably exacerbating these trends. The main problem is that it clouds the integrity of its own adherents. While Chris and Mrs Janikula were admirably empirical, it's easy to imagine how someone who concieves of himself as primarily a public advocate and only secondarily a scholar would be less open-minded -- you see this problem a lot with anthropologists. A much less severe problem is that, in principle public sociology is a content-less approach to the discipline, but given that Nathan Glazer is never cited as a pioneering public sociologist, in practice it sends a very clear and hostile message to conservative academics that we don't belong in sociology. Finally, it's hard to imagine an initiative better suited for providing ammunition to David Horowitz and his student army -- and seeing their reforms implemented would be a disaster for academia irrespective of politics.

 
At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris,
Excellent and thoughtful post. I am not sure there is discrimination against conservatives in higher ed, but I do think there is a clmate hostile to those who have different opinions than the majority.

My experiences have been that far too many academics conflate their intellectual and emotional positions. If something makes them feel bad, like recommending ending welfare or no gun controls, then it, and the person saying it, must not be smart. (I'm not saying all academics are this way, but we all know at least one, and it only takes one on a hiring, grant, review, or tenuring committee.)

Rather than having to continually face these attitudes, and fearing the negative consequences when applying for grants or going up for tenure, many opt out of a career in higher ed, much as I did.

Labeling such people as "conservatives" is far more a reflection of the mainstream thought in higher ed than the actual poltical orientation of those who chose to question it. And a way to discredit their questions without dealing with them.

 
At 11:05 AM, Anonymous chris said...

Anonymous I: I have higher aspirations and envision a "bigger tent" for public sociology, but your point is well taken. I too thought about Horowitz and his followers as I read the survey results. I think we need a better response to their complaints, and we ignore them at our peril.

Anonymous II: I didn't think about the conflation of intellectual and emotional positions, but you make a great point. I'm often dismayed when "our" rebuttal is based on "where someone is (perceived to be) coming from" rather than the truth of their position.

 
At 12:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Chris,

It appears the "critiques of left-wing overrepresentation" are now being aimed at the quotes on Starbucks coffee cups, as well. Here's a link to the article:

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2002455480_starbucks29m.html

Thought you might find it an interesting.

 
At 1:19 PM, Anonymous chris said...

Yikes! I guess it is all about cultivating a vibe to which one's customers can relate. Maybe Starbucks' customers would like Armistead Maupin on the grandes and Phyllis Schlafly on the ventes, or perhaps they could offer a choice between a "blue" decaf latte and a "red" decaf latte. :)

 
At 1:54 AM, Anonymous sarah said...

Ok, this goes back to the discussion re: "conservative" students in a "liberal" prof's classroom. As a student who identifies herself as a freestyle evangelical (gasp!), I guess I can speak to this issue somewhat. My thoughts are three-fold: 1) I have yet to meet a prof/instructor who "begs" for alternative-conservative views to be expressed. I'd dearly love to! 2) no matter how you slice it, it's really frickin' hard to express a minority point of view in a (perceived or real) majority environment, and 3) the issues are so complex, I'm not sure that the typical classroom environment is suited to the task or "peeling back the layers of the onion." I'm not saying it's impossible, but I think it would take a particularly keen sense of intentionality and sensitivity on the part of the prof/instructor.

 
At 7:28 AM, Anonymous chris said...

Right. I guess it takes both initial commitment to a diversity of viewpoints (which is relatively easy) and the much tougher task of day-to-day follow-through. In some courses that I teach, such as the sociology of deviance, for example, one really needs to deal with the political and moral issues surrounding the big social science questions (e.g., what is sexual deviance?).

 
At 8:26 AM, Anonymous sarah said...

Yup. As a beginner looking at this stuff that point has really jumped out at me. Thinking about "treatment" programs for young offenders, it seems to me that what we're really asking these kids to become are moral human beings - particularly ones who adhere to white, middle class, Judeo-Christian constructs of morality. I know this isn't a particularly original thought, but as a newbie to the field, I find it rather captivating.

 
At 10:26 AM, Blogger christopher uggen said...

Hmmm. I think you're right to a point, Sarah. Al Cohen specified the "middle class measuring rod" nicely in 1955 and to some degree it still governs our programs. At the same time, a lot of treatment professionals are secular humanists who openly reject the "white, middle class, Judeo-Christian" constructs or present a dizzying array of alternative constructs. Restorative justice and, to a lesser extent, cognitive behavioral therapy are "pro-social" but not necessarily spiritual or religious. When I asked a kid at Red Wing what he had learned from months of treatment, he replied simply "Do right." That's a message that can come from a liberal or a conservative treatment...

 
At 4:10 PM, Anonymous Ann said...

The fact that certain systems of behavior have been endorsed by religions doesn't necessarily make them religious. Religion is (in part) an organized way of thinking about our role in society and the universe, so it's not surprising to think that "successful" religions might be based on good underlying systems.

I have a finance/economics background and taught in Asia for several years. My conclusion on "white, middle-class, Judeo-Christian" values relative to much of what I saw in Asia is that, in the US, we have frequently found our way to cooperative equilibria. There are many game theory settings where the best group outcome isn't individually rational. An easy example is littering. It's easier for me to drop my trash, rather than look for a place to dispose of it "properly", so carrying it several blocks isn't an individually rational thing to do. But if everyone litters, it's disgusting and unsanitary.

The cooperative equilibrium is better for everyone, but there's a free rider problem that makes it hard to enforce (if I'm the only one that litters, the streets are still pretty clean but I don't have to do any of the work). Judeo-Christian values have helped us to overcome the free rider problem and are worth studying, whether or not one is religious, because a good system is a good system no matter how it was developed.

And, by the way, I'm a conservative academic. I think that most business schools are relatively balanced politically. I wonder what engineering is like?

 
At 6:26 PM, Anonymous chris said...

Excellent points, Ann. Durkheim had a lot to say on this subject in Elementary Forms, right? In many ways, the "collective effervescence" of religion celebrates the social. I was a little surprised to see some evidence suggesting that professors in the sciences tend to self-identify as liberals too. I'm not sure about engineering, but I'd suspect at least a 2:1 Dem:Rep ratio there as well.

 
At 11:05 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

I'll be out in the woodshed with a six-foot stack of theory texts for a while if anyone's looking for me...

 
At 6:08 AM, Anonymous chris said...

sounds fun. just remember to come back from the woodshed at some point...

 
At 11:32 AM, Blogger James said...

Rather than having to continually face these attitudes, and fearing the negative consequences when applying for grants or viagra for women going up for tenure, many opt out of a career in higher ed, much as I did.

 

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