Why So Few Conservative And Libertarian Professors?

Two researchers offer a new twist on an old question—why do college professors overwhelmingly lean to the left? Bias against conservatives is not the main reason, nor are the allegedly higher IQs of liberals, say Neil Gross of the University of British Columbia and Ethan Fosse of Harvard. Instead they suggest a theory of “path dependence” –few conservatives are attracted to work in scholarly fields dominated by the left, just as few males want to be nurses in a traditionally female field. People tend to giggle when a man wants to become a nurse, they say, and conservatives tend to feel similar embarrassment in entering leftist academe.
This giggle theory underrates what leftist domination does to faculties. In the recent book The Politically Correct University: Problems, Scope and Reforms, Charlotta Stern and I discuss groupthink mechanisms. The majoritarian procedure of each department means that once a majority leans left, the department will tend toward leftist uniformity. The pyramidal structure of each discipline means that publication, awards, grants, recommendations will follow the pyramid’s apex, and if the apex goes left it tends to sweep leftists/neuters into job posts throughout the pyramid.
If leftists have a lock on many fields, it means that non-left applicants will tend to be screened out. Awareness of that feeds back to the non-left student’s thoughts about the future. Self-selection is a function of the screening.

We found that Republican-voting members of the scholarly associations were significantly more likely to have landed outside of academia. For example, in Anthropology/Sociology, 43% of the Republican scholars were working outside academia, compared with only 24% of Democrat scholars. In History, it was 47% versus 27%. In all six disciplines overall, it was 41% versus 25.
The individuals we are talking about here are members of the American Anthropological Association, the American Historical Association, and so on. Most had PhDs. So we find that Republican-voting members of such associations are consistently more likely to be working outside of academia – in government, private sector, independent research, or other. Do we think these people don’t care for research and learning, that they just don’t want the income, security, prestige, and student attention that professor status affords? Then why are they members of such associations?
Somehow the smoking-gun evidence of our study has been consistently overlooked by scholars like Gross and Fosse, the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education. We must remember that the professionalization and entrenchment of the academic disciplines, and vast expansion of the public university systems, are all part of the modern social-democratic age. The past 120 years are one era. In the history of the social sciences and humanities – economics included – the professionalizers generally had ideological sensibilities strongly progressive/social-democratic.
Besides, the analogy to male nurses doesn’t ring true for the non-left professor -classical liberal, libertarian, or conservative, not moderate or uncommitted. I’ve never dreaded telling an acquaintance I’m a professor. I don’t fret that he would assume I like FDR or The West Wing or single-payer healthcare. Why should I care if he did? Would a woman dread reactions to the revelation that she is an elite chess or poker player—both games dominated by men? More likely such a woman would feel special pride in having cracked a male field. Many non-left professors may feel that way. Also, the non-left professor surely has the comfort of blaming leftist bias for his not being more eminent.
Role models and mentors for non-left professors do matter a lot. But that’s different from the giggle theory.
For role models, a student can admire a Milton Friedman or Richard Epstein. It isn’t hard for one to find images of the non-left professor. One communes with Milton Friedman by reading his books and watching the many videos of him available on Youtube.com. But not taking classes with a non-left professor will certainly dampen the non-left student’s academic aspirations and prospects.
The great classical liberals Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek said that, by and large, beyond our local setting we lack the knowledge to make our benevolence effective. Smith and Hayek helped to formulate and establish a web of verities, by-and-large truths, intended to establish a presumption of liberty, a presumption that we don’t know enough to intervene beneficially. This classical liberal philosophy, rooted in humility, is out of sync with a “progressive research program,” that currently dominates the academy. Groupthink and philosophy combine to keep the non-left away.


  • Daniel B. Klein

    Daniel Klein is professor of economics at George Mason University, editor of Econ Journal Watch, and author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation.

3 thoughts on “Why So Few Conservative And Libertarian Professors?

  1. Dr. Klein’s work repeatedly conflates policy positions with political ideology. For example, in other pieces he has used professor’s skepticism of the Iraq War to demonstrate a leftist bias in academia. There are certainly good “libertarian” and conservative reasons to be against he Iraq War, and possibly some center-left/Progressive reasons to be for it.
    Academic research should be judged for its content and not the political orientation of the author. With a few exceptions (such as “The Austrian Review of Economics” or “Class and Capital”) the content of most journals, even in the social sciences, is largely apolitical and quite frankly mundane.
    In another article Klein laments the lack of “classical liberalism” in sociology and then explains that he didn’t bother to look for “classically liberal” sociology.

  2. I am not sure the groupthink mechanism does not explain the tendency of professors to be liberal. While it might look like a plausible explanation for the humanities disciplines, it does not explain the same tendency observed in hard sciences.
    I only have anecdotal evidence from own experience in academia, but it seems to me that faculty members in, say, physics departments reliably lean to the left. Yet the political leanings of a faculty candidate have no bearing on his or her chances of being hired because they are orthogonal to his or her work and party politics is the last subject to come up in interviews. Groupthink may exist in physics but it has nothing to do with politics.

  3. Why is any statistical variance in anything from hiring rates to acceptance rates to incarceration rates “proof” positive of bigotry, but when applied to the Liberal bastion of academia, statistics become just “your private axe to grind?”
    This is willful blindness and it is the ugliest type of deformity, because it goes to the very heart of both their mission and fiduciary duty to their students.
    I recall in Law School a professor teaching “critical legal studies” and when I pointed out that these methods are simply rhetorical tricks that can “deconstruct” any position at will, he simple smiled, turned away and changed the subject. I was literally sickened by this new insight into his character. He was a propagandist rather than a professor and I suspect he knew it. I know I did.

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