The Politically Correct University and How to Fix It

With various co-authors, University of British Columbia Sociologist Neil Gross has made a cottage industry of downplaying charges that academia is politically correct. Seemingly, the left’s domination of social science and humanities departments is of no more concern than the fact, cited by Thomas Sowell, that in the 1990s, Cambodians ran 90 percent of California’s donut shops.
Gross’s studies appeal because they serve the psychological needs of professors. It is comforting to think that we smart folks just happen to surround ourselves with people who think just like we do. Gross assures us that there is nothing unseemly here. Collegiate single-mindedness is of course totally different from the groupthink that characterized the George W. Bush White House, to take a not quite random example.
In fairness, Gross and his colleagues have made some sound points over the years. For example, most academics do not think of themselves as political extremists but as centrists. Of course this is no surprise. People compare themselves to their peers, so liberal professors are indeed in the center or even the right compared to their colleagues on the far left. Some surveys indicate that a quarter of sociologists are self-proclaimed Marxists, meaning that there are quite literally more socialists in Harvard faculty lounges than in the Kremlin. It is not difficult to seem moderate or even conservative in such company.
Gross and others are correct to say that not all of the pronounced leftist tilt in the academy reflects discrimination. As Matthew Woessner and April Kelly Woessner point out in a chapter in my co-edited The Politically Correct University, conservatives value family life more than liberals; thus academically talented liberals are more willing to delay childbearing for the decade it takes to earn a doctorate, and more apt to leave their families and hometowns to attend PhD programs thousands of miles distant. Liberals may talk more about relationships, but conservatives seem less willing to jettison them for academic self-expression.
Yet to say that not all of the conservative under-representation reflects discrimination is very different from saying that none of it does. The Woessners also find that conservative undergraduates receive less mentoring from faculty. This too may explain why fewer conservatives apply to PhD programs, even though conservative and liberal undergraduates have identical GPAs. Similarly, a recent and much hyped Gross co-authored paper argues that conservatives eschew academic careers because of “typing,” the stereotype that professors are liberal. As Steve Balch points out, much of this reasoning is circular. How exactly is the stereotype that professors are supposed to be liberal any different from stereotypes that women are not supposed to study science or that African Americans are not supposed to be chief executives? Wouldn’t we find it offensive if a CEO explained an all white management team by saying that “African Americans don’t type themselves as executives?”
Academia is a merit system based on publication, but one that works better for some than others. In The Politically Correct University Stan Rothman and Bob Lichter present evidence that professors holding socially conservative views must publish more to get the same jobs, with ideology having about one-third of the statistical power of one’s publication record. Among professors who have published a book, 73% of Democrats but only 56% of Republicans hold high prestige academic posts. Both statistics and “lived experience” suggest that I am not the only conservative or libertarian professor denied a job or two. And it is no surprise that as the academic job market grew tight in the 1970s, ever more discriminating faculties became more ideologically homogeneous, hiring clones rather than peers.

Academia’s ideological homogeneity harms education by limiting the views students are exposed to. Yet the most serious impacts of the PC university are on knowledge generation and problem solving. Examples abound. Sociology and criminal justice professors have steadfastly avoided studying New York City’s success in fighting crime, much less encouraging other cities to adopt like reforms. By the 1970s the mass public had realized that AFDC was not working; yet some academics even now liken welfare reform to the Holocaust. Ed. schools have refused to study and replicate successful urban schools like the KIPP academies, instead advocating ever more for programs which fail to educate disadvantaged children, but fit PC theories. Many comparative government specialists find it impossible to admit that Marxist regimes murdered more than 80 million people, while market based reforms took Asia from starvation to prosperity. (Why don’t universities host speakers who suffered under communism, just as we quite properly fete civil rights veterans?) In short, the ivory tower’s ideological fetishes have real world costs.
So what is to be done?
My friend Steve Balch wants university alumni to push for the establishment of centers studying free institutions and free markets, as already operate at Duke, Brown, Princeton, Villanova, and elsewhere. I fear that these will become academic ghettoes. While a marginalized conservative presence on campus is better than none at all, perhaps we can do better still.
Those of us who want to reform universities need to recognize that most liberal professors are basically decent people who want to be seen as doing the right thing; hence their attraction to studies letting them off the hook. They are more Clinton than Stalin, and that offers an opening. As the radical Saul Alinsky wrote, the powerless can discomfort the powerful by pointing out when the high and mighty fall short of their professed ideals.
This suggests any number of questions that we should ask liberal professors. If academics really believe in freedom of speech, why will they never host an anti-affirmative action or pro-war speaker? If universities are open-minded, why do they never sponsor debates? If universities believe in public service, then why do they bar military recruiters? If Middle Eastern studies departments really believe in women’s rights, why do they praise Hamas and boycott Israel? Why is it greedy for businesspeople to want higher profits, but idealistic for university professors to want higher salaries? If “social justice” theorists like Jonathan Kozol are really in it for the children, why don’t they donate their $20,000 speaking fees to scholarships? What exactly is a non-researcher like William Ayers doing on the governing board of the American Educational Research Association? If diversity makes for better decision-making, when will an Ivy League sociology or political science department hire, much less tenure an open Republican? To take an ongoing U.S. Supreme Court case, if gay and lesbian students have a right of free association (as I believe they do), should not those with orthodox religious views have that same right?
I could go on, but you get the picture.
In short, conservative academics can have years of fun pointing out university hypocrisy. And the funny thing is that when we do that without name calling, a surprising number of our liberal colleagues will listen. My own career has been fostered by academic advisers who, though they never vote the way I do, nonetheless thought that mine was a voice that should be heard. They were liberal in the best sense of the word.
In other words, if we are empirical in our arguments and creative in our staging, we can win. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, there is much that is wrong with academia, but it can be fixed by the much that is right with academia.
Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. With Richard E. Redding and Frederick M. Hess, he co-edited The Politically Correct University (AEI, 2009).

Robert Maranto

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the University of Arkansas, and with others has edited or written 15 books including The Politically Correct University. He edits the Journal of School Choice and served on his local school board from 2015-20. These opinions are his alone.

4 thoughts on “The Politically Correct University and How to Fix It

  1. “The left” dominates all of academia not just the social sciences and humanities. Even in the “natural” sciences there is nary a neoliberal or social conservative.
    The critiques of academia as bastion of leftists tend to rely on oversimplified binary categories of political orientation when politics is actually quite complex and messy.
    In other words, critics see that 87% of faculty in XYZ discipline support (or don’t support) Policy Q and assume that this is indicate of ideological homogeneity on a very fundamental level. This methodology is very dubious and the fault lies with the ontology of the investigator in assuming that there are only two possible political ideologies a person can hold. Because of this binary ontology critics assume that specific positions on specific policies are indicative of one or the other ideological orientation. In statistical terms, they are using a binary outcome variable when a continuous variable would be far more appropriate.
    This leads to strange conclusions in which basic researchers who politically support public funding of science are equated with radical Marxists. Ultimately, the employment of binary logic leads to faulty conclusions.

  2. It is also very possible that ‘conservative’ teachers are more inclined to produce material that loses its critical focus in favor of specific ideological ends. Many conservatives out there beat their chests for what they believe–many ‘Leftist’ professors I find, are beating themselves up.

  3. I think you meant the powerless should “discomfit” the powerful, not “discomfort” them, whatever that means.

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