Surviving academe’s liberal bias

Article Highlights

  • The liberal bias in academe is pervasive and well documented.

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  • “In my experience, academe is very much a meritocracy despite its liberal bias.” -@AEIecon’s Sita Slavov

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  • If we genuinely believe in free markets, we would do well to pause and ask ourselves why the market fails in higher ed.

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When I was a new assistant professor at a small liberal-arts college, Dinesh D’Souza—a conservative public intellectual—came to the campus to give a talk. While I knew that most other professors on the campus were liberal, I was still shocked by their belligerent questions and barely disguised hostility toward the speaker. After the talk, a student observed that D’Souza was treated in the same way that an evolutionary biologist might be treated at an ultra-conservative, religious college: with enmity, suspicion, and a refusal to engage in reasoned debate.

As a Republican-leaning, market-friendly economist, I began to reflect on how I should react to the liberal bias in my environment. As the years went by, I learned two important lessons. First, you don’t have to hide your views, but you do have to be respectful when you express them. Second, getting worked up about campus politics is a waste of time—it’s a better idea to channel that energy into teaching and research.

The liberal bias in academe is pervasive and well documented. For example, Daniel Klein has shown that Democrats outnumber Republicans by at least seven to one in the social sciences and humanities. Stanley Rothman, Robert S. Lichter, and Neil Nevitte have shown that 72 percent of higher-education faculty identify themselves as liberal. Some liberal academics even admit that they would discriminate against conservatives in hiring and peer review, Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers have found.

My personal experiences are consistent with those findings. I encountered faculty who genuinely appeared to believe that anyone who voted for George W. Bush must be either evil or stupid. At a faculty meeting early in my academic career, my colleagues took a voice vote on a resolution opposing the war in Iraq. In a loud chorus, almost all voted for the resolution. Although I personally had mixed feelings about the war, I did not believe it was appropriate for the faculty to take an official position on it. But it was my first year on the campus, and I was afraid to join only a scattered handful of voices and publicly register my “no.”

Given this state of affairs, conservatives, libertarians, and other ideological misfits may be tempted to dismiss higher education as corrupt and broken. But if we genuinely believe in free markets, we would do well to pause and ask ourselves why the market fails here. The market for higher education is highly competitive. Colleges and universities go to great lengths to recruit talented students and faculty. Federal financial aid effectively functions as a voucher system, of the sort that many conservatives advocate for elementary and secondary education.

The economist and former Harvard president Larry Summers offers one plausible explanation: Conservatives are perfectly happy to work for profit-driven corporations. On the other hand, liberals—who tend to be hostile to the profit motive—are less likely to find such jobs desirable, and therefore gravitate toward academe.

But if that outcome is undesirable, what is the right policy response? Should we prohibit discrimination based on political ideology? Should we force academic departments to meet ideological quotas? Should we require colleges and universities to give equal air time to conservative viewpoints? Such heavy-handed government solutions should be troubling to a true believer in markets (although that certainly should not stop us from trying for institution-level solutions).

So what is a conservative or libertarian in academe supposed to do? Writing in “Scaling the Ivory Tower,” a very useful guide for academics published by the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies, Michael Munger observes that while bias certainly exists, the actual discrimination that results is much less severe than conservatives and libertarians imagine.

Typically, Munger says, “when I ask for evidence of the supposed bias [in publishing articles], the biasee has not one instance of rejection. He didn’t write any papers because he had convinced himself that bias would prevent publication anyway.” Munger argues that while one does not need to hide one’s views, most faculty do not want a colleague “who is always angry, or is constantly defensive.” I suspect that many successful conservatives and libertarians in academe have adopted Munger’s attitude.

I can personally attest that, despite the liberal bias, I was happy in academe. Another Republican-leaning faculty colleague liked to point out that a conservative student was likely to get a better education than a liberal one. Having one’s worldview challenged—rather than affirmed—strengthens one’s ability to think clearly and critically.

Similarly, conservative faculty members learn to be polite and rigorous in defending their perspectives. And while the loudest voices on the campus tend to be the most extreme and intolerant, there are also many liberal faculty members who respect other viewpoints.

So here’s my advice to conservatives and libertarians in academe. Don’t think of yourself as a victim, and don’t use ideological bias as an excuse to stop trying. In my experience, academe is very much a meritocracy despite its liberal bias. It’s OK to express your views, but be nice about it. Some liberals on campus—like the hostile crowd at the D’Souza talk I attended—may choose to abandon civility. You will drive them crazy if you don’t.

Sita Slavov is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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