The Pitt of Academic Bias · 11 January 2006

By Art Eckstein--FrontPageMag.com--01/12/06

During 2005, a bitter debate occurred in the scholarly journal The Forum: A Journal of Applied Researches in Contemporary Politics over whether conservatives are discriminated against in terms of hiring and promotion in academia. The debate, part of a series in The Forum entitled "Culture War in America: Myth or Reality?" occurred between two teams of professional social scientists. First, a study purporting to show statistical evidence consistent with political discrimination against conservatives was offered by Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte; a critique of this study was then offered in a subsequent issue of The Forum by University of Pittsburgh professors Barry Ames, David Barker, Chris Bonneau and Christopher Carman; this was followed, in that same issue of The Forum, by a response from the first group of scholars.

The second team offered a different interpretation of the statistical evidence presented by the first group, and denied that conservatives are politically discriminated against in academia. Yet in the process of making their denials, the second team revealed stunning sentiments about conservatives which in themselves offered the best proof yet for how conservatives may be being discriminated against in hiring and promotion in academia. This series of articles, which are all available online, thus becomes more than an obscure debate between social scientists, and takes on significant cultural importance.[1]

It should be stressed that the two teams were made up of academics from first-rate universities: on the first team, Rothman is a professor emeritus of sociology at Smith College, Nevitte is at the University of Toronto, and Lichter is now retired from George Mason University. The second team consisted entirely of members of the Department of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh; its leader, Barry Ames, is in fact Chair of that Department.

The Rothman-Lichter-Nevitte article was based on a statistical study of professorial political opinions from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning, done in 1984, now combined with a large-scale statistical study (more than 1,600 respondents) of professorial political opinions done in 1999. Rothman-Lichter-Nevitte made three claims. The first claim was that, based on affiliation with either the Democratic or Republican Party and other indices, liberals and leftists outnumber conservatives and rightists on American university campuses by a very wide margin: overall, the 1999 study found that 72 percent of professors are "left/liberal," while only 15 percent of professors are "right/conservative," a difference of about 5-1. This difference is especially noticeable in the social sciences and the humanities, where conservatives are outnumbered by anywhere from 8-1 to an amazing 30-1 (sociology, anthropology). The second Rothman-Lichter-Nevitte claim was that the higher one goes towards the elite schools within the hierarchy of American universities, the fewer conservatives there are; at elite research and teaching institutions (Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Stanford, Columbia, Princeton, Williams, Swarthmore) conservatives are few indeed. Conservatives, where they are to be found at all, are mostly to be found at lesser schools. And this is so even if their publication records are excellent. The third claim made by Rothman-Lichter-Nevitte is that historically, this shift has occurred over the last 15 years. In the 1984 Carnegie study, liberals outnumbered conservatives on university faculties by only 39 percent-to-34 percent. As Rothman-Lichter-Nevitte conclude: "over the course of 15 years, self-described liberals grew from a slight plurality to a 5-1 majority on college faculties." This has created a very sharp gap between the political sentiments of university faculty and the sentiments of the general American population, where only 18 percent view themselves as liberals, 37 percent view themselves as conservatives, and 55 percent view themselves as moderates.[2]

Rothman-Lichter-Nevitte did not allege a vast conspiracy against conservatives throughout academia: merely that overall, and even with scholarly achievement controlled as a factor in successful or mediocre career-paths, "liberals have a statistically greater chance of reaching the top tiers of the profession." They asserted that, over time, "this could easily occur on the basis of a widely distributed pattern of occasional instances, without there being either a conscious intention to discriminate or a strong pattern in the hires or promotions of any individual department. [3] Nevertheless, the implication was that, overall, conservatives who feel discriminated against in hiring and promotion are on good ground, that there has been a pronounced shift to the left in academia over the past 15 years so that the political sentiments of faculty are sharply at variance with the general American population, and that this variance increases the higher one goes among American institutions of higher education.

When the Rothman-Lichter-Nevitte article first appeared, it received wide coverage, both in the popular press and in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is the bible of university administrators. One response from academia was to accept the findings as true but to offer various explanations for what had occurred. These explanations were often, to say the least, provocative. At SUNY-Albany, Ron McClamrock, a tenured professor of Philosophy, argued, "Lefties are overrepresented in academia because on average, we're just f-ing smarter." At Duke, where the humanities departments contain 142 registered Democrats to 8 Republicans, the response of Robert Brandon, the Chair of the Department of Philosophy, was similar; he reasoned, "If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire." At UCLA, John McCumber, yet another tenured philosopher (an expert on Hegel and Heidigger), argued that the statistical disparity was to be explained not by political discrimination at all, but because "a successful career in academia, after all, requires willingness to be critical of yourself and to learn from experience," qualities he did not believe conservatives, and especially registered Republicans, possessed.[4]

Professor McCumber's comment is especially striking for two reasons. First, it is self-contradictory, since on the one hand McCumber denies the existence of discrimination, and on the other hand he provides a stark example of it, since he makes a statement about conservatives and Republicans that is prima facie so profoundly prejudiced. If one simply substitutes, say, "African-Americans," or "women," for "Republicans" in McCumber's statement (which I now urge the reader to do), the problem will immediately become obvious, and if McCumber had indeed made such public statements about African-Americans or women, he would be in very deep trouble at UCLA. But second-given McCumber's attitude towards conservatives and registered Republicans, I ask the reader to contemplate what a hiring interview would be like with Professor McCumber if you were openly conservative and a registered Republican. K. C. Johnson has called statements such as McCumber's "proving the critics' case for them."[5]

The other approach of academia, however, has been to deny the validity or significance of the Rothman-Lichter-Nevitte statistics. Indeed, there is one obvious problem with those statistics. The 1984 Carnegie study used a three-point spectrum to classify faculty: liberal, moderate, conservative. In that study, already 39 percent of respondents classified themselves as "liberal," but since Rothman-Licther-Nevitte used a five-point political spectrum, it is possible that many of those who classified themselves as "moderates" in the 1984 Carnegie study (25 percent in total) were actually "liberal moderates" who have now been numbered among the "liberal/left" in the five-point 1999 study. This means that the shift to the left over the past 15 years may not have been as sharp as Rothman et. al. propose. It also suggests that this shift to the left was already happening earlier. (Presumably the sharp decline in the "conservative" ranks among faculty since 1984-down from 37 percent of faculty to 15 percent in 1999--is to be explained mostly as the result of retirements, rather than political conversion; but if so, this would also suggest that the new hires replacing the retirees did not often turn out to be "conservatives.")

The leaders in denying the significance of the Rothman, et. al. statistics has been the group from the University of Pittsburgh. They raise questions about the statistical validity of comparing the 1984 and 1999 studies, and about the empirical validity of the 1999 study (which, though the largest on record, covered only a very tiny percentage of all faculty in American higher education). They also deny that personal politics can be a factor in the hiring of faculty because politics are rarely directly discussed in job interviews.[6] That latter point may often be literally true, but there is reason to doubt that this is the whole story. For as Mark Bauerlein has pointed out in a groundbreaking article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, it is equally the case that there has emerged a "faculty culture" of assumed liberalism, especially in the humanities and social sciences, which plays a subtle but crucial role in the hiring process.[7] But not content with criticizing the methodology of the Rothman team, and making an assertion about the role of politics in hiring about which one can entertain doubts, the Ames team then goes on to offer their own competing explanation of the Rothman et al. statistics. And it is here that they get themselves into deep trouble. In fact, exactly like Professor McCumber at UCLA, they appear to demonstrate, by their own words, that the critics have an important point.

The Ames team article is explicit about their alternative explanation for the dearth of conservatives on American university campuses: it is that the under-representation of conservatives at American institutions of higher education nationwide, and especially at high-quality instittions, is because conservatives simply don't want to teach at high-quality places: "We offer self-selection as the likely culprit."[8]

The Ames team is hardly alone in offering this sort of explanation-though, as we will see, they take it to new heights. The "self-selection hypothesis" usually takes the form of the speculation that conservatives are under-represented in American institutions of higher education because conservative undergraduates prefer after graduation to enter the far more lucrative world of American business than to engage in the long, laborious and difficult course of study leading to a Ph.D. and hence to a possible position in academia. This theory is not only widespread among faculty; it also implies, or in some cases even openly asserts, that most conservatives are at heart philistines, individuals only interested in piling up money, as opposed to those who love the spiritual life and the search for truth.[9] But two points may be made in reply to this theory purporting to explain the current dearth of conservatives in academia-a theory, one may note, that explains their absence on grounds of their own character failings.

a. It has always been the case that the world outside the university paid better than faculty positions did, which means that this situation has not at all fundamentally changed recently--whereas the political composition of the faculty has changed. Indeed, up until about 1950 faculty salaries were not only small in relation to the pay available in business but tiny even in absolute terms, barely enough for anyone to live on. And yet in the period from 1875 to 1960 it was not the case that liberals and leftists ever predominated in university faculties. Indeed, as we see in the Carnegie study, even as late as the 1980s liberals and conservatives were about equal in numbers on faculties. But if it has always been the case that business paid far better than academia, whereas the domination of left-leaning faculty on campus is only relatively recent, then it cannot be the case that the reason for this recent development is because business in general pays far better than academia. The fact is that it always did.

b. This point is intensified by the pleasures available in academic life. To be sure, the pay is not nearly as good as what one may receive in the business world--but in current circumstances it certainly is not bad. Median salaries for tenured associate professors are around $70,000 a year across the country; for tenured full professors the median salary is around $100,000 a year, though at the higher-status schools salaries of $150,000 are not uncommon. This is a comfortable living: associate professors fall within the top 25 percent of all American wage-earners, while full professors place in the top 15 percent. And this substantial income is combined with total freedom from bosses, and few formal constraints on one's time. Many faculty teach eight or nine hours a week (three courses a semester), while at major state universities as well as at elite institutions time in the classroom is usually limited to only four or five hours a week (two courses a semester). There may be committee work, too-for one's Department or for the University--but beyond that, one's time is totally one's own. In addition, faculty positions come with a long Christmas vacation (often a full month), and with a very long summer vacation (three months)-time when one does not have to be in a classroom at all. To be sure, most faculty spend their non-class time doing research and writing, and if this work is counted (as it should be), most faculty at major institutions put in far more than a 40-hour work week; few faculty at most institutions are lazy "dead wood" (though, theoretically, there would be nothing to stop it). But of course research and writing is what faculty love to do anyway. In addition, a position as a professor brings with it significant social prestige, as well as the psychological pleasures of lecturing to an audience that is required to listen with respect to what you have to say.

All in all, it is hard to believe that most people, conservative or liberal, would "self-select" themselves out of such an idyllic existence, in return merely for the much higher pay but also the much higher daily pressures, the ever-demanding and intrusive bosses, and much shorter vacations of the business world. I may be biased, speaking as a professor myself, but-really-who wouldn't want to be a professor? It's a great life.

But in invoking, as many other academics have, the principle of "conservative self-selection" out of academic life, the political scientists from the University of Pittsburgh go far beyond what is usually said. When they seek to explain the ever-increasing dearth of conservatives as one proceeds up the ladder of quality in American universities and colleges, their assertions of "self-selection" become truly disturbing.

The Ames team offers two explanations for the increasing absence of conservatives at elite institutions of higher learning. They suggest, first, that conservative academics actually prefer rural and out of the way places--where, for one thing, they find a congenial "ideological climate"--to the vibrant and cosmopolitan life of the major cities where the most prestigious universities are located. This theory is presented with the utmost seriousness, and with not a scintilla of specific evidence to support it. Sure, that's it--conservative academics probably WANT to live in the middle of nowhere with yahoos like themselves. [10]

But even worse is the second fundamental reason adduced by the Ames team for the under-representation of conservatives at elite institutions: "Many conservatives may deliberately choose not to seek employment at top-tier research institutions because they object, on philosophical grounds, to one of the fundamental tenets under-girding such institutions: the scientific method." [11] The authors go on to suggest, about believing Christians specifically, that they "prefer simple problems to complex ones," and that they "dislike thinking." In other words, conservative and Christian academics voluntarily and naturally avoid teaching at top-flight institutions where the dreaded scientific method, and thinking about complex problems, is required. [12] In the same vein, the Ames teams writes a bit later that "the faith-based reasoning of Christian fundamentalism (and by extension most socio-cultural conservatives) is essentially incompatible with the mission of contemporary research universities."[13]

One must stress that these are not off-hand remarks, like the one from the philosopher John McCumber of UCLA which we noted above. These are statements made in a published article in a serious academic journal, produced by a team of four political scientists at a major state university. It is clearly and unself-consciously meant to provide an explanation which will be found intellectually satisfying by the many academics who read it. As the Rothman-Lichter-Nevitte team have said in response, "There is something disquieting about characterizing fundamentalist Christians (and 'by extension' most socio-cultural conservatives) as unsuited to the life of the mind, unwilling or unable to think scientifically, and who remain in lower quality positions because they're happier among their own kind."[14]

"Disquieting" -yes, and that is putting it mildly. Once again, I ask the reader to substitute "African-Americans," or "women," for "conservatives" and "Christians" in the statements from the Ames team, and see what you come up with.

But there is more. One has to wonder, given such an attitude, and given that a departmental chair such as Barry Ames often has a decisive voice in hiring decisions, what the chances actually are that an open social conservative, let alone a believing Christian, would ever-ever --be hired at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Political Science. After all, the Chairman of that Department has written in a scholarly journal that conservatives do not believe in the scientific method, that Christians have difficulty with complexity, and furthermore, that they "dislike thinking," and that their ability to reason (not just about religion but about anything) is clearly not up to the standards of the University's mission.

And yet the purpose of this article by these four University of Pittsburgh professors is to deny that there is any political or intellectual bias against conservatives or Christians at major research universities such as their own.[15] It seems to me that their own statements shockingly prove the opposite, and that these faculty-members are themselves so deeply biased that they can no longer recognize what bias is. I don't know how many people like this are actually at first-rank universities. But I do think that their article in The Forum has given a magnificent weapon to the critics of the academic status quo.

One last point should be made about the University of Pittsburgh group-this time not about its sentiments but about its composition. Whereas Barry Ames is the Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University, his three co-authors are all assistant professors, i.e., without tenure, in that same department. I do not see how it can ever be appropriate for a Chair to write a politically explosive article such as the one under discussion here with his co-authors being three untenured faculty, who will depend in good part on his judgment of them for their promotion to life-time appointments. It is all the more ironic that the authors of this article assert that one's personal political position is unlikely to have anything to do with professional advancement.[16]

ENDNOTES:

1. Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte (2005) "Politics and Professional

Advancement Among College Faculty," The Forum: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 2.

http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol3/iss1/art:

Barry Ames, David C. Barker, Chris W. Bonneau, and Christopher J. Carman (2005) "Hide

the Republicans, the Christians, and the Women: A Response to 'Politics and Professional

Advancement Among College Faculty'", The Forum: Vol. 3: No. 2, Article 7.

http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol3/iss2/art7

Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte (2005) "Fundamentals and Fundamentalists: A Reply to Ames et al.," The Forum: Vol. 3: No. 2, Article 8. http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol3/iss2/art8

2. Rothman, et. al., "Politics and Professional Advancement," p. 4 in the PDF format.

3. Rothman, et. al., "Fundamentals and Fundamentalists," p. 2 in the PDF format.

4. The quotations above, along with several other ones in a similar vein, are collected with a commentary by Professor K.C. Johnson of Brooklyn College at insidehighered.com/views/2005/08/26/Johnson:

"Proving Their Critics' Case." A most interesting discussion from readers follows Professor Johnson's commentary.

5. Ibid.

6. Ames, et al., "Hide the Republicans," p. 2 in the PDF format.

7. See Mark Bauerlein, "Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual," in The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12, 2004..

8. Ames, et al., "Hide the Republicans," p. 3 in the PDF format.

9. See, for instance, the exchange between Professor Ralph Luker, asserting this "philistine" hypothesis, and the bitter response of Clayton Cramer (and several others), in the K. C. Johnson insidehighereducation.com blog referred to above in note 4.

10. Ames, et al., "Hide the Republicans," p. 3 in the PDF format.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., p. 4 n. 7 in the PDF format.

13. Ibid., p. 4 in the PDF format.

14. Rothman, et al., "Fundamentals and Fundamentalists," p. 9 in the PDF format.

15. See especially Ames, et al., "Hide the Republicans," p. 2 in the PDF format.

16. Ibid