Monday, November 29, 2004

Is Academia Liberal? Why?

Juan Cole writes persuasively about the claim that academia is disproportionately liberal. He responds to the latest version of this claim, this time by George Will. Will writes:
Oh, well, if studies say so. The great secret is out: Liberals dominate campuses.
One study of 1,000 professors finds that Democrats outnumber Republicans at least seven to one in the humanities and social sciences.
Another study, of voter registration records, including those of professors in engineering and the hard sciences, found nine Democrats for every Republican at Berkeley and Stanford.
As Cole points out, these studies do not mean much as they have artificially limited their sample space to certain elite universities in "blue" states and to certain fields within them. If one were to calculate the proportion of all post-secondary teachers, including business schools, economics departments, engineering and accounting departments, then the results would be much more balanced. Thus, Cole writes:
There are about 1.1 million post-secondary teachers in the United States. A lot of the ones in the Red States are conservatives, and a lot of the ones in the engineering schools everywhere are. So it simply is not true that "universities" are bastions of the political left.
Furthermore, Cole explains the hiring process at a typical university, demonstrating how any systematic attempt to stack the faculty with less qualified members because of their political stance would be virtually impossible. There are simply too many impediments for such questions of quality to be overlooked. Thus, Cole writes:
There would be no way to stack this process politically. The school executive committee is elected at large from all school departments; ours often has economists or biologists on it. The divisional committee often has political scientists. A substandard historian being hired only because he was a leftist would never get through this gauntlet. Each search committee is ad hoc, staffed according to field, and each differs in composition from the others. All the other committees are constantly rotating personnel, by election. There is no possibility of a centralized cabal that could appoint people of only one political coloration. In fact, David Horowitz wants to find a way to use state legislatures and congress to corrupt this grassroots and professional process by politicizing it and focusing on political outcome rather than academic achievement.
Still, suppose it is true that some departments in some universities tend to be lopsidedly liberal, once we've delimited the category in question to these departments and once we've defined "liberal"--a slippery term, to say the least--as George Will does, namely, the pattern of voting for Democrats. We would then be in a position to ask why this might be so. Cole's answer has to do with self-selectivity, or, as he puts it, with the "push" and "pull" factors.
Some people emigrate because of war or poor economies. Some people are perfectly well off but emigrate for even greater opportunities. The former is a push factor. The latter is a pull factor.
Thus, Cole explains that universities tend to attract and maintain liberal candidates for their positions because the alternatives in the market economy, in conservative (and wealthy) think tanks, or in the officer corps of the military are not available to them for the most part. That is to say, liberal intellectuals with the skills to succeed in corporate business, right-wing non-governmental organizations, or the upper echelons of the military are in effect pushed out of those professions by the prevailing attitude and mores adopted by them. Conversely, conservative intellectuals are pulled by the lucrative offers of those very same institutions. The part about the military seems intuitively correct to me just from impressions one gets, but I did not know how lopsided it really is.
That certain professions at certain points in time, skew politically, is demonstrable. For instance, back in the Eisenhower era, the US officer corps was about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Now, only 10 percent of US officers identify themselves as Democrats (a really worrying development).
I wonder if there ought to be a movement within the military to ensure proper proportions in the officer corps. After all, the blue states do pay more of their salaries than the red states. In any case, Cole explains the political skewing of various professions by way of the logic of self-selectivity.
The most logical explanation for any political bias in some parts of the professoriate in my view is that the sort of persons with the skills to be in a major academic liberal arts department could also be successful in business, lobbying, law, advertising and other well-paying professions. And it is the corporate world and its lobbying appendages that have the marked bias, to the Right. Someone who has academic skills but is a Republican would just have enormous opportunities and could easily become a multi-millionnaire. In contrast, academics on the Left would not be welcome in corporate boardrooms or at a think tank funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, and wouldn't be comfortable in such a position. (All think tanks hire explicitly by ideology, and 17 of the 19 most influential ones in Washington are deliberately staffed by conservatives, but that doesn't bother Will.)
Cole discusses the career of William Bennett in light of this distinction--a conservative with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Texas (and a B.A. from Williams College--ack!)--who quickly rose in the ranks of the Republican party and became quite wealthy through the largesse of its conservative foundations such as Joe Coors' and Richard Mellon Scaife's American Heritage Foundation. Cole concludes by arguing that academia does not marginalize conservative voices so much as it has been marginalized by the conservative power which resides in government, the market economy, and the military. Thus, Cole responds to George Will:
So, Mr. Will, it is the "pull" factor that explains your conundrum. Liberal academics aren't viciously excluding conservative intellectuals who apply to teach hundreds of students a week for $45,000 a year (nowaday's entry-level salary at a good liberal arts college), after they paid $100,000 for a Ph.D. in English literature from a top-rate university and spent 8 or 9 years beyond the BA toiling away as graduate students on tiny stipends. Conservative intellectuals don't have to put up with that kind of thing (that is how they think of the privilege of teaching). They have other opportunities. They can be whales [i.e., big fish in Vegas like William Bennett who can afford to lose $6 million in a single year], and can pontificate on morality to the great unwashed.

As for Will's argument that academia "has marginalized itself, partly by political shrillness and silliness that have something to do with the parochialism produced by what George Orwell called "smelly little orthodoxies." Many campuses are intellectual versions of one-party nations -- except such nations usually have the merit, such as it is, of candor about their ideological monopolies. " -- it is another instance of blaming the victim.

Academia has not marginalized itself. It has been marginalized. Perfectly reasonable beliefs such as that workers should have a right to explore unionizing without fear of being fired have been redefined by Joe Coors and Richard Mellon Scaife as "out of the mainstream." Thinking that it was a bad idea to invade Iraq (as I said repeatedly in 2002 and early in 2003, even as I admitted Saddam's atrocities) was defined as out of the mainstream and unpatriotic. Corporate media bring in a parade of so-called "experts" (often lacking credentials and saying ridiculous things) from "think tanks," in Washington and New York instead of letting academics speak. (There are some exceptions, obviously, but I am talking about over-all numbers). Wouldn't you like to hear about Ayman al-Zawahiri from someone who actually had read him in Arabic? The universities have such experts. The think tanks mostly just have smelly little orthodoxies of the Right.
For the most part, this all sounds about right to me. I would only add that it is at least possible that those who are the most educated, have the soundest judgment, and are least willing to sell out for personal gain--i.e., the "liberal" intelligentsia--might hold their political views for a very simple reason: they are right and George Will (on many issues, at least) is wrong.


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