Is the Glut of Liberals In Academia Benign?

Academe is Overrun by Liberals. So What?” UCLA historian Russell Jacoby both declares and asks in a long Chronicle of Higher Education essay. Although published on April 1, it is presumably not an April Fool’s joke.

For a number or reasons — not all of which coexist easily —Jacoby dismisses out of hand the notion that there is any cause to be alarmed, or even concerned, about any “underrepresentation” of conservatives in academia.

His reasons:

1)They are really not so underrepresented. Why, he asks, is the concern always limited to humanities and social sciences? “Why not the medical sciences? Earth Sciences? Aerospace engineering? After all, those fields … possess the clout, money, and prestige.” The reason, he says, “is obvious: Liberals do not outnumber conservatives” in many fields that cover “a lot of turf — indeed, most of the university.”

2) Nothing new here. Jacoby is particularly critical of the social psychologists associated with the Heterodox Academy and their concern with the increasing political imbalance of college faculties. “That social psychologists tend to be liberal cannot be surprising,” he points out. “Virtually all the founders or key figures of American social psychology — Carl Murchison, Gordon Allport, Kurt Lewin — belonged on the left.” Also not surprising is that Jacoby did not attempt to make that argument for history or economics or political science or even sociology (see Emile Durkheim).

3) There are so few conservatives because so many are so dumb. “[T]hat there are many serious and responsible conservative thinkers cannot be doubted,” Jacoby begrudgingly acknowledges, but it also cannot be doubted that he doesn’t think there are very many of them. He equates conservative with Republican and then argues that any analysis of the paucity of conservatives in academia “cannot be taken seriously” if it “ignores” the fact that the “party of Dwight D. Eisenhower … became the party of Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and Marco Rubio, all of whom denounce higher education, science, and the Department of Education.” Since “an anti-science, anti-evolution, and anti-climate-change ethos increasingly characterizes the Republican Party,” he is not surprised that so few of its members find their way into the humanities and social sciences. One gets the idea that Jacoby believes the only “serious and responsible” conservative is a former Republican.

4) No evidence that “left-wing unanimity distorts research and teaching.” Those who lament the underrepresentation of conservatives assume that “a balance of conservative and liberal professors would lead to better teaching and research, Jacoby writes. Conversely, having fewer conservatives on campus damages the educational enterprise. But is there evidence for that belief? Virtually none.” Implicit in this mistaken lament, he notes, “is that Democrats and Republicans teach or do research differently. A course on Chaucer or Rome taught by a Democrat supposedly diverges from that taught by a Republican.”

Related: Social Psychology—a Field with only 8 Conservatives

Russell Jacoby, meet Bloomberg News columnist Megan McArdle, also writing on April 1:

The politicization of the humanities was well under way when I was an English major in the early 1990s, and my education suffered as a result. This wasn’t because I was so oppressed as a conservative, but because in roughly half my classes, there was no easier route to an A than to argue that some long-dead author was a sexist pig, racist cretin or homophobic jerk. Being, like so many college students, not overly fond of unnecessary labor, I’m afraid I all too frequently slithered along the easy path to the 4.0.

Jacoby is a cultural historian, and thus it is odd he ignores the anti-conservative hostility that is pervasive in academic culture and dominant in many precincts of it. Intellectual diversity on campus is hindered not just by the paucity of conservative professors but also, perhaps especially, by the way conservative arguments are often treated, when they are treated at all.

In their recent book, Passing On The Right: Conservative Professors In The Progressive University Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn Sr. describe chilling examples of outright bias. A sociologist, in one example, wrote an article “with findings that affirmed a progressive critique of an important American institution” that was widely admired and featured in Contexts, an American Sociological Association Journal that attempts to disseminate important research to a wider audience. The author subsequently discovered a coding error that changed his results, but he could not get the corrected article published anywhere.

In a similar vein, in Mismatch Richard Sander describes (pp. 77-83) several episodes of prominent law professors and journals refusing to correct clearly demonstrated errors that undermined their conclusions. In one of them, he noted, the “results were stunning … a powerful, independent confirmation that law school mismatch was dramatically hurting minority law students.” If the authors, widely “respected empiricists,” had “fully and fairly reported their [corrected] results,” Sander concludes in both sorrow and anger, “the entire course of debate on law school affirmative action might have been quite different.”

Related: Affirmative Action for Conservative Faculty?

Jacoby does not discuss the bias and discrimination against conservatives and politically incorrect arguments that might have some bearing on the nature and quality of intellectual diversity in the academy, although he does mention Passing On The Right, a book that is filled with examples of it. Readers of Minding The Campus will know (from my review of it) that I am not a big fan of that book, but Jacoby’s brief reference misrepresents its argument.

Jacoby’s polemic is devoted primarily to rejecting affirmative action for conservatives, but the argument he attacks is largely a straw man. Thus he quotes Shields and Dunn stating that “The Bakke rationale obliges its defenders to support affirmative action for conservatives.” On their next page, however, they state explicitly that “To be clear, we are not advocating for or against affirmative action for conservatives.” And in case that was not clear enough, in a March 18 Op-Ed summarizing their book in Jacoby’s hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, Shields and Dunn stated unequivocally that “We don’t endorse preferences in graduate admissions and hiring.”

Jacoby’s confusion, if that’s what it is, flows from the fact that he assumes that anyone who believes that a paucity of conservatives on campus is a problem must favor a solution of not only affirmative action but preferential treatment leading to proportional representation. Referring to studies by the “Heterodoxians and their sympathizers” showing “political lopsidedness on American college faculties,” Jacoby writes, “The assumption of all these studies is that political variations require correctives. But why should political proportions be constant across society?”

Of course, neither the “Hetereodoxians” nor any of their sympathizers of whom I am aware demand proportional hiring of conservatives. Nearly all of them would be more than satisfied if the “diversity” and “inclusion” that is so incessantly preached in academia were actually practiced more consistently — if, that is, “inclusion” were extended far enough to include conservatives and conservative ideas.

Jacoby’s fundamental fallacy is that he denies the existence of the disease — the disturbingly small number of conservatives in many areas, with the resulting injury to intellectual diversity — because he opposes the cure that he mistakenly imputes to those who wish to treat it.

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