Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Novelty and the Liberal Academia

Much hay has been made over the purported liberal slant of academia. A study by GMU Professor Robert Lichtler concludes that:
By their own description, 72 percent of those teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15 percent are conservative, says the study being published this week. The imbalance is almost as striking in partisan terms, with 50 percent of the faculty members surveyed identifying themselves as Democrats and 11 percent as Republicans.

The disparity is even more pronounced at the most elite schools, where, according to the study, 87 percent of faculty are liberal and 13 percent are conservative.
The researchers say that liberals, men and non-regular churchgoers are more likely to be teaching at top schools, while conservatives, women and more religious faculty are more likely to be relegated to lower-tier colleges and universities.

Top-tier schools, roughly a third of the total, are defined as highly ranked liberal arts colleges and research universities that grant PhDs.

The most liberal faculties are those devoted to the humanities (81 percent) and social sciences (75 percent), according to the study. But liberals outnumbered conservatives even among engineering faculty (51 percent to 19 percent) and business faculty (49 percent to 39 percent).

The most left-leaning departments are English literature, philosophy, political science and religious studies, where at least 80 percent of the faculty say they are liberal and no more than 5 percent call themselves conservative, the study says.

The Volokh Conspiracy has done a lot of thinking on this topic, most recently here and earlier here, which prompted my own musings as well. Kevin Drum, by contrast, mocks conservative commentators for whom the absence of women in academia is a clear indicator of inherent difference, while screaming the exact opposite when it comes to their own underrepresentation in the nation's universities.

In my first foray into this loaded topic, I agreed that the statistics showed a pretty clear liberal skew, but argued that more information was needed in order to determine whether there was bias at work, or whether there was, to some degree, self-selection. I claimed that, all else being equal, it made more sense to ascribe underrepresentation amongst a racial or gender group to bias than it did for a political group, since the latter has far more "essential" characteristics to it that might lead it away from academia than the former, whose "essential characteristics" are often merely stereotypes or products of past discrimination and lack of opportunity. I then said that in order to prove discrimination against conservative persons, we'd have to find "significant numbers of Republicans who wish to enter Academia but either a) face institutional obstacles to doing so (such as biased administrators) or b) feel academia is a "hostile environment" to persons with their views." In my opinion, the jury is still out on both of those questions.

However, there is another factor that may act as a barrier to conservatives in academia: innovation and novelty. The basic philosophy behind conservatism is preservation of the past. Generally, their policy preferences involve either preserving the status quo, or reverting society to the near (or not so near) past. Either way, the point is, their advocacy has already happened. And having already happened, it has almost definitely already been analyzed, explained, and justified, at least to some degree. Liberals, by contrast, tend to look toward change. They want to see a shift in the status quo, the creation of something new. And in looking for the new, liberals are more likely to be, well, novel. This is not to say that conservatives have no ground for original argumentation. They can still make responses and refutations to proposed liberal changes, or advocate new procedures or warrants for old claims. However, this is far narrower footing than what is available to the left. For example, a talented conservative professor might write a law review article demolishing Catherine MacKinnon's theories on sex discrimination and anti-subordination theory. That's all well and good, except that as Eugene Volokh notes in his book Academic Legal Writing, an article framed as a response to another piece generally limits ones audience to those who have read the original, a far smaller pool than those who might be interested in the topic as a whole.

This also helps explain why conservative professors, when they get a job at all, are stacked at the bottom of the professorial totem-pole. Novel arguments with broad appeal get published in more popular journals, get more attention, and look better on resumes. Liberals have more opportunities to do this than conservatives, because they are more likely to be writing on topics which have undergone less prior explication and analysis. Sure, occasionally you get a wunderkind like Richard Posner who says something truly revolutionary in support of conservative principles, but such persons are few and far between. Universities know this, and thus, consciously or not, will proceed with caution when evaluating even talented conservative scholars. Meanwhile, with liberals, there is always the chance that your university will be the one boasting the founder of the Critical Post-Colonialist Womyn and Hermeneutics Movement, or whatever, giving your school much attention and a reputation as "path-breaking" or "cutting edge." Say what you will about its merits, but the CPCWH movement certainly sounds more distinctive and will probably get more notice than the fifty-second defense of and expansion the theories of Sir Edmund Burke--no matter how excellent (or even unique) the work might be.

In some respects, one might claim that this focus by universities (unique scholarship as opposed to solid argumentation) is a bias in of itself. Certainly the critical theorist in me would challenge whether or not that particular pattern of hierarchy is natural or inevitable, or reflects the cultural and institutional biases of prevailingly liberal colleges, who wish to preserve their liberal status quo by creating standards which reify their dominance (I shouldn't mock post-modernists like I did above, indeed, if there was a CPCWH movement, I'm the type who would eat it all up, most likely). That's a whole other debate by itself, and one that, as of now, I'm not really ready to opine on. However, leaving that aside for now, it seems that the particular focus of colleges on innovation and novelty itself acts as a structural bar to increased conservative participation in the academia, wholly independent of the particular biases of its current practitioners.

UPDATE: Welcome Volokh-ers!. Hope you enjoyed the post, and check out my latest one on the subject here (reflecting on the post that brought you here).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The basic philosophy behind conservatism is preservation of the past.

While this may be the literal meaning of conservatism, it is no longer a sufficient definition. Along the same lines, the meaning of liberalism is not the same as it once was. Classical liberals, often called libertarians today and identified as conservatives, are also missing from college faculties. The liberals who now dominate universities are closer to socialists, social democrats, marxists, statists, or collectivists.