Commentary Magazine


Conservatives in Academia

John Tierney’s piece about bias in social science, to which I referred last week, has provoked a revival of the debate on the problem of liberal bias in the academy. My colleagues have offered their thoughts on this problem, as has Megan McArdle, which comes down to the argument that liberals are discriminating in a variety of ways — some of them, she implies, pretty blatantly — against conservatives.

But I think McArdle gives short shrift to the problem of the hiring pool. She posits that conservatives self-select out of the pool and/or are pushed out by institutional liberal bias. But the problem of the hiring pool is deeper — so to speak — than that. There are so few conservative professors in large part because there are so few conservative grad students.

Becoming a tenured professor responsible for training grad students is a process, not an event. Students who go to Harvard (and similar institutions) tend to be more liberal than the norm, not because Harvard discriminates politically, but because it’s an institution for an elite who understand how to get their kids into it. Harvard alums, in turn, get into the best grad schools, which also skew liberal for the same reason. Their graduates then have an advantage in the job market, especially at the elite schools, and on the spiral goes.

In short, the entire system, like a series of jumps for spawning salmon, eliminates a larger share of conservatives than it does liberals at every step. (Perhaps this is what McArdle means by her speculation that conservatives have different kinds of social capital.) The end result is the 80/20 disparity, one that, as she observes, is widest at the elite institutions and becoming worse as successive generations are more thoroughly winnowed by the system.

Frankly, I wish the disparity was simply the result of discrimination: exposing the gap might then achieve something. The problem is subtler than that. Let me be clear: I believe that discrimination contributes to the disparity. But explanations that start with bias are suspect: there is no great need to discriminate against conservatives at the hiring stage, because so few make it there in the first place.

The reason there are so few conservative faculty members is that the academy has always employed the elite. The cultural and social elites in this country are now liberal, and have been for more than two generations. The elite understand the academic system better than anyone (often because they were the ones who created its admissions criteria: the number of faculty kids at elite universities is remarkable), so it is not surprising that they are over-represented in it. In other words, if you want more conservatives in academia, you can’t focus on the hiring stage: it’s from little acorns that mighty oaks (or at least tenured nuts) do grow.