Thursday, December 13, 2007

Not Left Out of Academia

This is a good article. The point about liberals and conservatives choosing different life paths strikes me as right on the mark.

By Eric M. Uslaner Wednesday, December 12, 2007

In his article in Outlook, Robert Maranto says he finds it lonely as a conservative in academia. He rightly dismisses any conspiratorial notions of a left-wing cabal that blocks conservatives from the halls of ivy. Instead, he says, the left that dominates university life in America acts less disingenously: It simply reproduces itself by favoring new hires who replicate their own views.

This argument may sound convincing, but it is flawed. And I say this as someone who has long respected Robert Maranto and his work. I was his mentor at the University of Maryland, from which he received his bachelor's degree in government in 1980. We have kept in touch and see each other often. We do not, however, commiserate about how people like us face discrimination in the academic marketplace -- because I am part of the liberal majority he sees as threatening people like himself.

In one crucial way, his argument is beyond reproach: Study after study indicates that most university faculty tilt to the left. But they are liberal Democrats, not Marxist zealots protesting the evils of the capitalist system. Maranto tells a handful of stories about alleged bias in academic hiring, but he provides no systematic evidence that liberal academics either consciously or unconsiously seek to replicate their own ideology in hiring.

A more fruitful way to begin a discussion of bias among academics is to ask why so many academics are liberal in the first place. I have no data about this question. But my own life story, and those of others I know, suggest an alternative explanation: People choose academic careers because they care more about intellectual pursuits than about making lots of money.

I had two opportunities as an undergraduate to select careers that would have been far more lucrative -- a college girlfriend who wanted me to join her father's accounting firm and a guaranteed position in a major law firm if I went to law school. I turned down both -- and lost the girlfriend -- because I wasn't interested in becoming an accountant or a lawyer. I'd be making substantially more money than I do now if I had chosen either route, but I doubt that I'd be very happy.

Still, plenty of people do choose to go to law school and business school, and some of them earn starting salaries approaching what I make after almost 40 years of university teaching. Law school and business school are rigorous, but they demand more rote memorization and less creativity than Ph.D. programs. The payoff for enduring these curricula are large salaries -- while academics "pay a price" for the "luxury" of pursuing research agendas of their choice.
The lure of large salaries is likely to appeal more to conservatives than to liberals. It seems very likely that business school graduates are as conservative as university faculty are liberal. Just as academics tilt to the left, people in the business world tilt to the right. Financial success is more important to young conservatives than to young liberals, so early on, there is a sorting out of career options.

We in the academy don't seek to replicate ourselves. I can't remember any hiring decision my department has ever made where the candidate's ideology was discussed. There are Republicans on our faculty -- when you teach about elections, it is useful (and fun) to have colleagues on the other side of the political fence. Even as I am a liberal Democrat, I wrote the evaluation for promotion for a conservative Republican colleague -- and he, in turn, wrote the tenure evaluation for a then-junior colleague considerably to the left of me. Some of my best and most successful students -- and the ones I have been closest to -- have been Republicans.

On rare occasions, someone will raise the issue of the ideology of a colleague. About a decade or so ago, one colleague on the left raised a question about a tenure candidate's past affiliation with conservative think tanks. The other tenured faculty at the meeting, including several even further to the left, shouted him down. These concerns were irrelevant, they insisted. And they carried the day: The anonymous vote for the candidate was unanimous for tenure and similar issues have never been raised since then.

All that said, I am not arguing that there is no ideological discrimination in academia. The anecdotes in Maranto's article show there is. But Maranto, of all people, should know that anecdotal evidence is hardly conclusive. His own area of expertise -- school choice -- is hotly debated in political science circles. The main advocate for a more market-based solution is a universally respected full professor at Harvard.

We have no evidence that ideological discrimination is common. If Robert Maranto believes it is, there is at least one concrete step he can take to combat it: Encourage his best conservative students to join him in the academy.

The author is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

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