Blogs > Cliopatria > The "Public Good" Explanation

Nov 19, 2004 6:59 pm

The "Public Good" Explanation

Yesterday’s New York Timesprofiled the latest two studies of the top-heavy ideological imbalance within the academy. A national survey by Professor Daniel Klein (economics, Santa Clara) of more than 1,000 academics shows that Democratic professors outnumber Republicans by at least seven to one in the humanities and social sciences—a doubling of the gap from three decades ago—with the disparity among more recent hires even larger. Additionally, a profile of the voter registration of all faculty from Cal-Berkeley and Stanford showed that Democrats outnumbered Republicans 9-to-1. Among assistant and associate professors, the gap was a stunning 183 to 6, meaning that 96.8% of recent hires at the two schools who have declared a party registration are registered Democrats.*

This disparity has three possible explanations:

• Departments are ideologically screening new faculty.

• Departments are framing new lines in such a way to make it far less likely that the hire will be conservative.

• The disparity is irrelevant, unavoidable, or a coincidence.

The first possibility—that departments are engaging in overt ideological screening in hiring new faculty—seems to me the least likely explanation. This is an issue I try to follow closely, and am aware of only two specific publicized cases, and one broader field case, though I would be happy to hear of more from any Cliopatria readers.

The first: at Smith College, Economics professor James Miller was denied tenure after some members of his department admitted finding his articles in the National Review “disturbing.” (The denial was later overturned and the college’s grievance committee conceded that Miller’s academic freedom had been violated.)

The second: at Brooklyn College, President C.M. Kimmich named a women’s studies professor to the History personnel committee even after learning that she had quizzed a job applicant about the inappropriateness of his having published articles for a conservative, Christian webzine and had strenuously opposed an honorary degree for Eugene Genovese on the grounds of Genovese’s allegedly “conservative” beliefs.

More generally, the field of “global studies” allows colleges to screen applicants ideologically by asking whether they would agree with a field whose “scholarship” consists of papers making such assertions as the need for “regime change” in the United States and the need for “militant action” to restore open admission to CUNY’s senior colleges.

Such open bias, however, is rare. The changing nature of history departments, about which I’ve written previously, is a far more likely explanation of the figures in the Klein study. Certain fields in History (and in other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences) tend to be dominated by figures on one side of the ideological spectrum (African-American, labor, cultural, and gender history on one side; military and business history on the other). That a department like Michigan’s decides to frame job descriptions in such a way to hire its ninth, tenth, or eleventh specialist in race in America even while it has no professors who specialize in diplomatic or military history makes the 96.8% from California’s elite schools easier to understand.

This ideological imbalance also has a reinforcing effect in searches. Martin Trow, an emeritus professor of public policy at Berkeley, notes in the Times article that the predominant “view comes to be seen not as a political preference but what decent, intelligent human beings believe. Debate is stifled, and conservatives either go in the closet or get to be seen as slightly kooky. So if a committee is trying to decide between three well-qualified candidates, it may exclude the conservative because he seems like someone who has poor judgment.” As reporter John Tierney perceptively observes in the article, the structure of academia “allows hiring decisions and research agendas to be determined by small, independent groups of scholars. These fiefs, the critics say, suffer from a problem described in The Federalist Papers: an autonomous ‘small republic’ is prone to be dominated by a cohesive faction that uses majority voting to ‘outnumber and oppress the rest,’ in Madison's words.”

The third explanation for the Klein study (and other such surveys) is that the disparity is irrelevant, unavoidable, or a coincidence. Party registration is a crude mechanism for detecting academic bias: there is no reason why a registered Democrat should teach most courses any differently from a registered Republican. Yet one would think that responsible administrators would be concerned enough about the overwhelmingly one-sided figures cited in the Klein study—96.8% of new hires belonging to one political party—that, at the very least, they would inquire as to whether such numbers suggested that merit was not always the predominant concern in hiring decisions.

Not so at Berkeley, where Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau dismissed the Klein survey as irrelevant: “The essence of a great university is developing and sharing new knowledge as well as questioning old dogma. We do this in an environment which prizes academic freedom and freedom of expression. These principles are respected by all of our faculty at U.C. Berkeley, no matter what their personal politics are."

Attempts to explain away the figures, meanwhile, only undermined the case. For instance, Cal professor George P. Lakoff told Tierney that liberals choose academic fields that fit their world views:"Unlike conservatives, they believe in working for the public good and social justice, as well as knowledge and art for their own sake, which are what the humanities and social sciences are about."

Let’s imagine some permutations of that statement."Unlike men, women believe in working for the public good and social justice, as well as knowledge and art for their own sake, which are what the humanities and social sciences are about." Or, “Unlike Jews, Italians believe in working for the public good and social justice, as well as knowledge and art for their own sake, which are what the humanities and social sciences are about." Such insulting generalizations would be dismissed as—most charitably—intellectually sloppy and—most accurately—rationalizations for behavior that can’t stand the light of public scrutiny.

Indeed, the public defenses of the status quo—such as Lakoff’s remark, or Duke philosophy chairman Robert Brandon’s dismissal of a similar ideological imbalance among Duke’s faculty (“If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire”)—most clearly suggest that the problem of ideological bias in the personnel process is a real one, and is unlikely to improve any time soon.

*--corrected from original post, which didn't make the point about those who didn't declare party registrations.

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Derek Charles Catsam - 11/25/2004

Academics being Democrats is not that interesting no mater how mjuch we cover this terrain. Prove to me that there is systematic bias in the classroom. Prove to me that these surveys, polls and the like involve all schools -- including overtly Christian conservatve ones (hint -- they do not). Prove to me that the quality of scholarship is shoddy as a consequence (yes, Richard and Clayton, we all know about Bellisiles -- but I am talking to those who are not generalizing among all of us. In other words, I am not talking about idiotic generalizations.) In other words, I hate to engage in the crazy talk, but show me how the majority of students are hurt by the (presupposition) that most academics bring their politics into the classroom. Or, to lower the bar, prove to me that most academics bring their politics into the classroom. We get it -- Brooklyn College sucks. But most of us who are liberals are getting a bit tired of this whole trope. One can be both liberal and fair. Until someone proves that most of us are not, this becomes very much ho-hum.
And so, Ho-hum.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 11/22/2004

Dr. Johnson's solution for this particular problem is comforting to someone (like me) who is worried about David Horowitz plans for state legislatures to meddle in faculty appointments. In fact, I would gladly see this issue be pursued along methodological grounds. You can make a pretty good case that there needs to be more historians of military, political, and economic institutions. The thing, is, even if administrators began to actively attempt to shape departmental hiring by requiring new lines to be filled by people who take more traditional approaches, the number of conservatives in academia might increase little or not at all. So you've conceeded the ability of departments to determine where their strengths should lie, and the outcry about disrimination against conservatives would continue unabated. In short, perhaps this is worth doing for intellectual and methodological reasons, but it is unlikely to "solve" the current problem.

Richard Henry Morgan - 11/20/2004

A junior college instructor of 20 years, Davis Marsh, was suspended for four days for showing Fahrenheit 9/11 in his english composition class in the run-up to the election. He's now screaming denia of academic freedom. I think the administration would have a better case if they had restricted their objections to using class time in composition class to watch a film, rather than an objection to partisan material before an election. In fact, the former stands as evidence for the partisan intent of the latter, which the administration hasn't pointed out. Any observations?

Ralph E. Luker - 11/20/2004

EXCUSE ME! (Sorry, caps are rude.) I am a Republican, Chris. I am not "a self interested asshole baseball player who care[s] little about others" and "fit[s] the Republican profile." The "profile" is a big part of the problem. You might want to read what Steve Horwitz over at Liberty & Power has said about this. A libertarian is not necessarily a hard hearted, self-pre-occupied tool of the capitalist conspiracy simply because he doubts the wisdom of larger and larger state solutions to social problems.
The Republican/Democrat counting is obviously an effort to get around the subjectivity argument you are making -- an effort to get some tangible data, rather than impressionistic claims.
Of course, if one is a part of the problem, as you seem to be declaring yourself, efforts at identifying it will be resisted.

chris l pettit - 11/20/2004

Anyone have any sort of figures on percentages of people who register in one party and vote in another? For instance, I am registered Republican...I did it when I was still a self interested asshole baseball player who cared little about others...I fit the Repub profile. Now that Democrats have stooped to the same level and I am sickened by both parties, I still have not changed my registration status. That means that were I to be hired by a US university, such as when i was considering a position at UNLV, I would have been rated a Republican when I most surely am not.

I guess the question is how reliable these statistics really are? It seems to be awfully subjective and misleading to me...

Second point...who decides who is "conservative" and who is "liberal"...they are ideological classifications. Different things to different people. I guess I am just reading this and seeing yet another fruitless attempt to make something out of nothing and manipulate data to serve ones own purposes.


Ralph E. Luker - 11/20/2004

I think we're talking about two different things here. There may be no self-conscious policy of discrimination, but if the result of hiring decisions year-in and year-out results in a 41 person history department like that at Duke, where there were 36 Democrats and 5 resident aliens, one could conclude that something skewed the result. We've already accepted result-based judgments about equity on racial matters. Why not say, as KC and I would, this suggests that there's a problem of some sort that needs addressing. I agree that party affiliation is a fairly poor measure of ideology in the United States, but some of the data presented are fairly dramatic.

Jonathan Rees - 11/19/2004

So the faculty have to match the political affiliation of the graduate student pool or it's discrimination? Aren't there are other factors that might lead to the same result? Are you expecting departments to include the phrase "Conservatives are encouraged to apply" in their job ads?

I wish more academic liberals were more open-minded, but this whole issue strikes me as an attempt to browbeat the academic establishment rather than a serious attempt to develop solutions that respect the rights of liberals and conservatives alike.


Brian Ulrich - 11/19/2004

But how does the hiring committee know, unless they ask overt questions? This seems the hidden flaw in overt discrimination theories. If I didn't have a blog, I don't see how anyone would know my political beliefs. I don't know those of most people I've been in classes with.

Robert KC Johnson - 11/19/2004

I disagree--institutions like Cal or Stanford have considerable control over the ideological makeup of the applicant pool for their positions. The extreme would be advertising positions in "global studies" (which neither of these places do), an approach automatically excludes all conservatives. But, as we all are aware, job descriptions are frequently tweaked to make it more likely that women, minorities, or adherents of particular theoretical points of view are more likely to apply and get the job.

I haven't seen any studies of political affiliations of grad students, but I'd wager the breakdown of Dems/Repubs isn't 97/3. That's certainly not the breakdown, for instance, with public school teachers, which seem to run around 2-to-1 or 2.5-to-1 Dem/Repub. It would be highly surprising to see a 50-50 breakdown in the professoriate, but it wouldn't be unexpected to see a breakdown comparable to that of people who choose any type of education as a career. As problemmatic, if Stanford and Cal are hiring new faculty at a 97/3 Dem/Repub ratio, these faculty will be the ones admitting new grad students and then training them over the next generation, meaning that this ideological imbalance seems likely to continue.

Richard Henry Morgan - 11/19/2004

No, that is too gracious. You stand nibbled by a trifling duck.

Richard Henry Morgan - 11/19/2004

I'm not going by the study, just by the reporting in the Times. And that reporting, it seems to me, supports a still weaker conclusion: that among new hires at Berkeley and Stanford who were registered as Democrats or Republicans, 96.8% were Democrats. Unless I'm reading it wrong (and heaven knows, THAT has never happened before), the Times reporting is silent on the question of registration under different party names. Still a tiny quibble, which I suspect might alter your statistics and conclusions only in the slightest, if at all.

Jonathan Rees - 11/19/2004

The argument is that they are self-selecting for entering the career path at the beginning, not the end. Of course, Berkeley and Stanford grant PhDs, but they have little control over the political make up of the entire pool of qualified applicants for their own positions. Besides, many departments have rules about hiring their own graduates.


Robert KC Johnson - 11/19/2004

Lakoff's quote, however, is explaining why he theorizes that conservatives aren't interested in academic careers. Claiming that academics are interested in the public good and social justice (a big claim in and of itself, based on my experience) and then asserting that liberals are interested in these issues while conservatives aren't is making a lot of assumptions. To play devil's advocate, why couldn't a pro-life position be considered supportive of public good and social justice? I doubt very much, however, that this is what Lakoff has in mind when he uses these phrases.

As to the sample, from what the Times story states, there are two studies, one that focuses on all departments, one that focuses on humanities and social sciences. The figures seem to be pretty similar in both. Both involve the question of undergraduate curriculum, which is my concern. Possible ideological bias in think-tanks (of which I know a little) or business school faculties (of which I know nothing) is a quite different question.

As to the self-selecting point, who are we kidding here? The 96.8% figure comes from Cal and Stanford, two of the most prestigious universities in the country, located in a highly desirable area in which to live. They have a 19-to-1 edge in party registration because conservatives chose not to apply for jobs at these places?

As to what could and should be done, the burden must fall on administrators, who need to ensure that departments frame lines in such a way that accurately reflects the curricular and intellectual diversity of the field in question--rather than making hires #9, 10, and 11 in race in America while the department has no one who covers any aspect of US foreign policy, for example. It could be that, after carefully examining requests for new lines coming from the various departments, an administrator would conclude that curricular or intellectual motives, rather than a desire to bring aboard similarly-inclined figures, guide a department's request and then filling of a new line. Given the chancellor's response to the survey, I don't exactly have confidence that Berkeley administrators are asking such questions.

Robert KC Johnson - 11/19/2004

Right--good point--I should have said 96.8% of those whose registration could be determined--have corrected it in the post.

Richard Henry Morgan - 11/19/2004

I wouldn't count the Hoover as part of academia, since they don't grant degrees -- they are a think tank. Among the fellows are Chubb, Moe, Douglass North, Michael Spence, Abe Sofaer, William Perry, Alex Inkeles, Sidney Drell, Timothy Garton Ash.

Manan Ahmed - 11/19/2004

I stand corrected.

Julie A Hofmann - 11/19/2004

I think Sharon's right about the possibility of self-selection. I know that there are a few jobs in field this year that, rare as TT positions are, I could not apply for. I would not be conservative enough in lifestyle or political views -- more importantly, I would not be able to skew my teaching to support the idea that some religious denominations are more right than others.

I also wonder how much of this is really worth anything. There are lots of fields where contemporary politics just don't really enter the conversation. Many of us may have lifestyles and political beliefs that seem to be at odds. I know more than a few historians who are politically on the left and will always vote democrat who are also devout Christians (or devoutly secular non-believers, for that matter) and are very conservative in terms of social mores. How all of this translates into the classroom really depends on the person at the lectern. While I agree that a dominant political ideology on a particular campus might encourage more faculty to use their positions as pulpits, I'm not sure the study's methodology is solid enough to draw any conclusions one way or another.

Jonathan Rees - 11/19/2004


I'm not sure where to start with this one.

Let's take care of Lakoff first. Despite terrible choice of language, what he's arguing is that the applicant pool is self-selective. The NYT makes this clear with the intro to his quotation: "One theory for the scarcity of Republican professors is that conservatives are simply not interested in academic careers." You have a right to be offended by Lakoff's generaization, but it still doesn't counter his basic point.

The second thing I can't help wondering is whether the study has a problem. Did Klein count the Hoover Institution? This is, of course, a think tank that sits on the Stanford campus. It includes in its mission statement the following: "Ours is a system where the federal government should undertake no governmental, social or economic action, except where local government or the people cannot take it for themselves." Aren't they part of academia?

And are they going to hire a New Deal Democrat? I doubt it. Do business schools hire Marxists? It certainly would be fun if they did. It seems to me as if you and Klein are defining your sample so as to get your desired result.

It's the same way that you define anyone from Michigan with the word race in their list of specialties as a "specialist in race in America" and nothing else. I teach a class on slavery as one of ten regular courses. Does that make me a race specialist?

At the risk of appearing to contradict myself, I do agree with the idea that there are more conservatives than liberals in academia [I favor the self-selection explanation], but [and I'm sorry I can't write this without sounding catty, I don't mean to be] what are you suggesting we do about it? Is there a solution besides quotas for conservatives?


Richard Henry Morgan - 11/19/2004

You're right. That must be God punishing me for not pointing out to Manan Ahmed that it is Kemal not Kamal Ataturk -- something almost literally beaten into me during my two childhood years in Bebek, in the shadows of Robert College and Rumeli Hisar.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/19/2004

It's "Wobegon," but otherwise I have no quibble.

Richard Henry Morgan - 11/19/2004

The '96.8%' figure offered assumes that all the new hires were either Democrats or Republicans -- something the NY Times article does not assert.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/19/2004

Mr. B, You might want to register for comment at HNN with a full name. Your current registration violates the principle of being responsible for your comments.
More importantly, some of your questions might well be addressed to some prominent Republican academics, such as the Secretary of State designate or to Libertarian academics, such as those on our sister HNN blog, Liberty & Power. I've never been able to understand the position of my friend, David Beito, over there. He teaches at the University of Alabama, not one of the most generously subsidized state institutions in the country, but I suspect that, if you asked him, he would declare himself all in favor of privatizing the institution.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/19/2004

Manan, In many places, voters are required to declare registration with a party in order to participate in its primary and voter registration records are public records. At least some of these surveys have been done with access to those records.

Manan Ahmed - 11/19/2004

A further, dumb, question: Barring any public statements favoring "regime change" - how the heck do you find out who is a republican or a democrat?

Robert KC Johnson - 11/19/2004

The key question here, it seems to me, is the ratio--the 96.8% figure, which included all departments, not just the humanities and social sciences. If the margin were, say, 2-to-1, then an argument could be made that the disparity is due to liberals finding the academy a more hospitable career choice, although I still would like to see some hard studies on this issue, rather than the tendency to assume on this question. (I assume it to be true as well--but has anyone seen hard studies on this issue?)

The enormous disparity in this case, however, suggests a liberal preference (or a conservative self-screening, which is entirely possible in case of a place like Cal) doesn't suffice as the sole explanation. Or--at the very least--that an administrator might concede this as a potential problem, and then look into it. That's where I find the reaction of people in power at Duke or Cal so disspiriting.

Richard Henry Morgan - 11/19/2004

As the Berkeley Chancellor would have it, every last faculty member of Berkeley is dedicated to academic freedom and freedom of expression, just like every last child at Lake Woebegone is above average -- the main difference being that intelligent people laugh with Garrison Keillor, while they laugh at Birgeneau.

Sharon Howard - 11/19/2004

... And I realise that this is touched on towards the end of your post, but I don't mean it as an 'attempt to explain away' or to suggest that Republicans are stupid. (Is it really so stupid to avoid academia as a career?) But I don't think it would be a generalisation equivalent to the ones you note (women, Jews). People choose to vote Republican; factors that make them likely to do that might equally lead them away from certain types of career. (But apologies for letting my attention wander at the very end of the post - bad girl! - or I'd have made myself clearer to start with...)

Sharon Howard - 11/19/2004

There is a fourth explanation that ought to be discussed if only to be refuted, surely: that there might simply be fewer Republican voters in the academic job market?

Less sweepingly, it doesn't seem entirely implausible that Republicans will be less likely to apply to institutions with a strong liberal/democrat reputation in the first place (and will be even less likely to if they read this survey...). So that might even be a fifth consideration: not simply screening by departments, but self-screening by potential candidates. (Which is still not a good thing.)