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Political Disparities in the Academy: It’s More than Self-Selection
This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, “Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog.” Narration begins at 1:40.
American university professors are overwhelmingly politically liberal. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by Mitchell Langbert’s (2018) recent study of faculty political party preferences at elite liberal arts colleges. In short, Langbert found that Republicans are virtually absent in many academic disciplines and are entirely absent in some universities. The dearth of non-liberal faculty is particularly acute in the humanities and the social sciences, where disciplines such as sociology and anthropology enjoy liberal-to-conservative ratios of 40-100:1.
Conservatives, it seems, are either no longer attracted to academic careers, as many liberals argue, or they are deterred from entering and discriminated against if found out, as many conservatives argue. But who’s right, and are these explanations sufficient?
The Limits of Self-Selection
Let’s consider two of the dominant explanations for these disparities. The first is referred to as the self-selection hypothesis. Self-selection is the process whereby individuals with similar characteristics, personality traits, behavioral orientations, and viewpoints choose to associate with similar others. We see self-selection in many realms of life and research does suggest that liberals are more likely to attend graduate school overall, and to select specific disciplines (Gross & Fosse 2012; Woessner & Kelly-Woessner 2009).
By contrast, such large disparities can also be produced by discrimination or by a hostile work environment. The discrimination hypothesis posits that liberal faculty are more likely to engage in a broad range of behaviors that isolate and alienate conservative students and faculty, on one hand, or that unfairly restrict the ability of conservatives to be hired or promoted on the other. To date, studies have documented a willingness of some liberal faculty to discriminate against non-leftist faculty in hiring, promotion, publication, and in the receipt of grants (Inbar & Lammers 2012). Moreover, conservative faculty report hiding their political orientation out of fear of reprisal (Shields & Dunn 2016).
That said, it is the self-selection argument that is most often invoked by scholars to explain these disparities, so it is the self-selection argument that we need to focus on. Consider, for example, how statistically improbable it is for a large academic discipline to recruit, train, credential, hire, tenure, and promote only individuals from the left side of the political spectrum. For disciplines to reach liberal to conservative ratios of 40-100:1, and to maintain these disparities for decades, is astonishing.
Statistical probabilities aside, self-selection involves more than choice. Take selection into criminal gangs (I’m a criminologist, after all): Some individuals are attracted to the criminal lifestyle—a lifestyle they see as consistent with their attitudes and behaviors and where they can find identity, rewards, and reputation. In short, their choice to belong to a gang is informed by the attractors embedded in the lifestyle. One of the key attractors to joining a criminal gang are relationships with others already in the gang. In this sense, self-selection reflects a response to attractors, enticements, and incentives that are typically embedded in relationships with similar others. Once individuals elect to join an organization, they often alter their behaviors, attitudes, and values to better align with the ethos of the group. When individuals join gangs, their criminal behavior often increases in frequency and seriousness as they compete to demonstrate loyalty and symmetry with the gang.
It’s worth noting, too, that selection is a two-way street. Criminal gangs evaluate potential members for fit, and conduct initiations to test that fit. Organizations and academic disciplines do the same. Far from being the product of autonomous choices made by rational actors, as it is often presented by various scholars, self-selection is a multifaceted and dynamic process involving choices by individuals and a group and a mutually-perceived alignment of attitudes and beliefs. Hence it is likely erroneous to frame self-selection and discrimination as competing hypotheses – these processes can easily complement one-another in practice.
My coauthors, Ryan T. Motz and Timothy S. Nixon, and I sought a deeper understanding of these dynamics. Fortunately, we located a survey of faculty conducted by Henry A. Turner and Charles B. Spalding, who from 1959 to 1964 collected information from a large sample of scholars across multiple disciplines – which provided new insights into how fields may have become so ideologically sorted.
Disciplinary Incentives and Faculty Political Conversion
Turner & Spaulding asked faculty about the political party they belonged to, and more importantly for our purposes, when they first joined that party and when, if ever, they changed their affiliation. These questions were key to our analyses as they allowed us to examine not only the prevalence of political membership but also the timing of any changes that occurred. Consistent with prior research, we expected political party affiliation to be stable over time and to see some degree of correspondence between party membership and selection into specific disciplines.
Our findings confirmed our suspicions. About 75% of faculty belonged to the Democratic Party, with Democrat-to-Republican ratios very similar to those reported with more current data. Sociology, for example, had the largest ratio of ~15:1 while the geological sciences demonstrated parity. That said, we were surprised to also find that a significant number of faculty had changed their party affiliation, and we were even more surprised to find out that most changed their affiliation after becoming professors.
Further analyses revealed that most faculty transitioned from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party — but even here, academic context mattered: In fields already dominated by Democrats, faculty were more likely to join the Democratic Party. In fields where Democrats and Republicans were more equally represented, transition from one party to another was lower.
What do these data tell us? Keeping in mind the data are relatively old, they tell us that selection based on political party matters in some fields more than others and that faculty seem to change their political party preference to mirror that of the discipline they work in.
In disciplines dominated by Democrats, such as sociology and law, there may be strong incentives for individual faculty to align themselves with the political preferences of their field. Similar to our example with gang members, where new gang members align their values and behaviors to better conform to the group, the same processes may be at play with faculty.
So, yes, one of the reasons for the dramatic political disparities in the professoriate is because liberals are more likely to enter certain academic fields. However, this conclusion is slightly misleading because it ignores the social dynamics in those fields that incentivize liberals to join them. This is worth considering in more detail because attractors entice certain people, but also repel others. Most people, for example, are appalled by the criminal lifestyle and would never, under normal conditions, choose to belong to a criminal gang. By extension, our findings suggest that certain academic disciplines have created environments where the attractors are so strong, they appeal only to a very small cross-section of the general population while simultaneously repelling a much larger group.
Opening Space for Intellectual Diversity
One question left unaddressed is why some academic fields are dominated by the political left, but others are not. Economics and many of the hard sciences have traditionally enjoyed political disparities around 3:1, with some fields in the hard sciences showing almost parity. These fields have also effectively avoided the hyper-politicization found in the humanities and the social sciences, perhaps by creating and retaining incentives that reward scholarly merit and research objectivity, and by disincentivizing crass partisan politics and political activism. Politicization effectively crowds out these traditional scholarly priorities by altering incentive structures.
What, then, can Heterodox Academy do to better facilitate intellectual diversity and academic tolerance within the academy? The approach of HxA so far has been to recruit scholars already supportive of intellectual diversity, to give them a place where their intellectual similarities have a home. The other approach has been to serve as a hub where reasoned debate about issues of intellectual diversity can occur. Perhaps not surprisingly, HxA takes a scholarly approach to changing hearts and minds. As HxA matures, it may want to extend this strategy to include sponsoring research into the best methods by which intellectual diversity can be extended. It is striking how little data exist and how little empirical work is done on this issue.
Second, HxA could become a stronger voice for intellectual diversity and tolerance by attending national conferences and sponsoring panels across various fields, or by incentivizing others to do so. This “bottom up” approach would likely reach more academics and could foster debate and insight more effectively.
These approaches rest on the typical academic assumption that data, reason, and logic move scholars to change their minds. As our data show, scholars, at least in the past, are responsive to disciplinary incentives. However, given the remarkably high levels of affective political polarization that currently grips parts of the academy, such assumptions may not be valid.
Affective polarization, as scholars call it, is a dressed-up term for political bigotry and even hatred—the emotional valence of which is more than sufficient to offset appeals to data and reason. While seemingly intractable, HxA could take affirmative steps to more directly challenge political bigotry on campuses. Political bigotry within the academy should be made as taboo as bigotry against any other group—especially when bigotry crosses the line into discrimination.
As HxA continues its jaunt towards greater legitimacy within the academy, it will eventually have to confront the incentives that draw such a small proportion of the American population into the academy, convert many others into one political party, and, more importantly, repel legions of others. Higher education relies on social legitimacy, yet data now show that legitimacy is beginning to bend. A growing number of citizens are doubting the value of a college education while many others view universities as a source of social instability. HxA can play an important role in deescalating the tribal impulses of the moral community of the professoriate by using reason and data — but also by carrying a big stick.
Read the full paper:
Wright, John P., Ryan T. Motz & Timothy S. Nixon (2019). “Political disparities in the academy: It’s more than self-selection.” Academic Questions 32(3): 402-11.
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