Is This Natural Selection?

At about the same time as the release of MIT’s new study on the status of its women, which I discussed recently here, two more studies appeared on the anemic underrepresentation on higher education faculties of another marginalized group, political conservatives. Both studies, by Neil Gross, Ethan Fosse, and Jeremy Freese, conclude that “self-selection,” not bias, explains the greatly unrepresentative preponderance of liberals in academia: liberals choose to go to graduate school; conservatives don’t.

Since these studies are summarized in both Inside Higher Edand the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, has masterful, not to be missed analyses of these two studies in the Chronicle, hereand here, I will not go into the details. But two points are worth making, especially in relation to the new MIT study on the status of women.

First, it is revealingly noteworthy that most studies, like these, attribute the paucity of conservatives in academia to individual choices (more or less free depending on the study), while studies and reports on the “underrepresentation” of minorities and women tend to denigrate “choice” as an explanation, and often even as a relevant concept by putting the term in quotes. As I pointed out hereand here, in EEOC v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., a massive sex discrimination case, Alice Kessler Harris, a prominent women’s historian who served as an EEOC expert witness, “was so hostile to the idea that the system leaves women any room at all to choose that she insisted on placing the terms ‘choice’ and ‘women’s interests’ in quotes, and even went so far as to deny that women themselves choose their own major subjects in college or that women business owners choose the types of businesses they own.”

There is an odd role reversal here, as Megan McCardle has noted:

Conservatives are usually reluctant to agree that women and minorities are still often victims of structural or personal bias…. Yet when it comes to conservatives in academia, they suddenly sound like sociologists, discussing hostile work environment, the role of affinity networks in excluding out groups, unconscious bias, and the compelling evidence from statistical underrepresentation.

Meanwhile, liberals, who are usually quick to assume that underrepresentation represents some form of discrimination — structural or personal — suddenly become … fierce critics of the notion that numerical representation means anything.  Moreover, they start generating explanations for the disparity that sound suspiciously like some old reactionary explaining that blacks don't really want to go into management because they're much happier without all the responsibility….

What is much more important, however, than this perhaps humorous, perhaps hypocritical inconsistency is the vast difference in the responses to these two forms of diversity-denying underrepresentation.

Regarding the underrepresentation of women in science and minorities everywhere, from the federal government and all the prestigious national associations down to virtually all academic institutions, no stone is left unturned, no committee is left unformed, no office of women/minority/multicultural affairs is left unstaffed, no chief diversity officer is left unappointed, no study or report or commission whose charge is to produce more of the underrepresented group and to improve the status of those already there is left unfunded — no matter what the cause of the  underrepresentation. Women don’t want to go into science? Then we must reform the socialization that produces this “choice” and change the method of teaching math and science in elementary school Not enough blacks or Hispanics? Then we must lower the standards for them (affirmative action), create an elaborate support network to help them once admitted or hired, and we must consciously build, like ramps for the handicapped, a “welcoming” and “inclusive” academic environment by supporting various expressions of their “difference” (race/gender/ethnicity-based organizations, theme courses, dorms, meeting places, social events, etc.).

Where is the comparable concern for, and national effort to correct, the paucity of conservatives in the humanities and social sciences? Even assuming that bias does not explain their absence, you’d think that a national and academic establishment that insists that “diversity” is at the very core of education would regard the monotonous ideological conformity that characterizes American campuses as at least almost as important as attracting more men to nursingor women to agriculture.

But by now most of us —even some rocket scientists and other academics, and a few journalists — know that “diversity” has little to do with a diversity of ideas.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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