The Diversity Professors Dismiss

In a column this Sunday, Nicholas Kristof chastises his fellow liberals for caring about every form of diversity except viewpoint diversity in colleges and universities. The idea for the column came to him after he posted on Facebook this piece, which laments the scarcity of conservatives in academia and proposes that colleges and universities do something about it. Here are some of the responses Kristof received:

“Why stop there? How about we make faculties more diverse by hiring idiots?”

That is, Kristof’s commenters looked at the disparity between liberals and conservatives in academia and concluded that this disparity must be due to the intellectual and moral defects of conservatives. And it’s not just Kristof’s Facebook followers. Neil Gross, author of Why Professors are Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care tells us that professors interviewed by him and his colleagues, when asked why liberals so outnumber their conservative colleagues, most often answered either that conservatives are more closed-minded than liberals or that conservatives are more interested in making money than liberals.

One line of response is to suggest that there are plenty of conservatives in academia, or at least more than one might imagine. The Higher Education Research Institute Faculty Survey allows professors to identify only as far-left, liberal, middle of the road, conservative, or far-right. When you use this measure, according to the 2013-14 survey, just 12.8 percent of faculty identify themselves as conservative. At four year non-sectarian private colleges like mine, that number is 8.4 percent, compared to 15.6 percent on the far left. But what if, as Gross and his colleagues did, you break out the categories differently so that professors have more options? When you allow professors to choose “slightly liberal” and “slightly conservative,” some break away from the middle. If you add up the professors who identify as slightly conservative, conservative, or very conservative, you arrive at, in Gross’s sample, about 20 percent.

But that’s special pleading. For one thing, even that way of counting gets us a 3-to-1 disparity. The extremely liberal, liberal, and slightly liberal constitute just over 62 percent of the sample (and the extremely liberal outnumber the merely conservative). For another, the disparities in question are much greater in the humanities and social sciences, where diversity of political viewpoint might be expected to matter more than in, say, engineering, where one finds more conservatives. The 2006 Politics of the American Professoriate Survey found that just 4.9 percent of social scientists consider themselves conservatives.

A second line of response is to deny that it matters that there is a vast disparity between liberals and conservatives on our college campuses. Yet a number of prominent social scientists, who have launched what they call the Heterodox Academy, are now making the argument — which seems commonsensical enough — that in fields like sociology or social psychology, in which political disputes sometimes hang on the results of studies, politics-driven orthodoxies can develop, making it less likely that some important research will be done, and also making it less likely that dubious results will be questioned. They do not argue that social scientists deliberately fudge their results. Rather they argue that social scientists are human beings who are subject to biases and consequently do their best work when they are made to answer to people who do not share their biases.

Those who are now condemning Kristof for writing about the ideological imbalances on campus, when public campuses, at least, find themselves in various ways under duress, ought to consider the possibility that this imbalance, along with the smugness that tends to accompany it, is part of the reason universities find themselves under attack today.