A Partial Review of “Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care”

Early next year I am going to attend a symposium on Neil Gross’s book Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care? (2013). So last month I read the book and have been working on my assessment of it. This book tackles the important academic issue of the political makeup of academia within our current political economy since the disproportionate politically progressive nature of academia is well established in previous work. Gross uses data to theorize why academics are so politically progressive and also why the political nature of academia has captured the concern of political conservatives. When I present my talk next year I will address the way he answers both of these research questions. But for this blog I will only concentrate on his explanation of why academia is so politically progressive.
Before I get into the critique of his work I first want to state that I respect Gross’s attention to data as he attempts to answer these questions. I have seen efforts on academic bias that are basically thinly veiled attempts to push for a certain social or political agenda. I never received that impression from Gross’s work. I am going to disagree with him as it concerns his conclusions but I do not want my disagreement to be interpreted as disrespect for his work.
When the issue of the political makeup of academia is discussed, the explanations roughly come down to two major reasons. One is that there is a self-selection mechanism that encourages political progressives to take academic jobs at a higher rate than political conservatives. The other is that political conservatives face discrimination and prejudice hindering their ability to succeed in academia. Gross postulates a variation of self-selection that relies on the notion of the political typing of occupations. He argues that academia has been “politically typed” so that progressives feel more comfortable making a commitment to academic study than conservatives. One way to think about this is to consider how jobs are often sex-typed. The job of elementary school teacher is generally sex-typed for women while the job of fork lift driver is generally sex-typed for men. Men are allowed to teach elementary school and women are allowed to be fort lift drivers but we generally do not expect them to be in such occupations. Likewise, both conservative and progressive students will do well in college. But conservatives who do well are generally expected to go into certain types of occupations such as business or law enforcement. Progressives who do well are generally expected to go into other types of occupations, academia being one of them. According to Gross, these expectations naturally sort out progressive students into academic, scientific careers and sort conservative students into other careers.
An alternative explanation is that political conservatives do not simply choose to avoid academia, they face barriers to entry that dissuade them from entering academia. I do not come into this debate unbiased since I have published on the subject of anti-conservative prejudice in academia. But I do not assert that it is only bias keeping conservatives out of science. I argue that it is both self-selection, and Gross’s version of self-selection is more convincing than other variations of this theory, and barriers of discrimination and bias playing important roles in producing a progressive academic institution.
But to get to my argument we should first look at why Gross argues that discrimination is not a major factor in the political makeup of academia. In his book, Gross reports on his audit study with directors of graduate studies (DGS). He sent out an email from a fictitious graduate student seeking more information about the program. Sometimes the email contained no political information. This was the control group. Sometimes the emails contained information suggesting that the student worked on the presidential campaign of Barak Obama. Sometimes the email contained information suggesting that the student worked on the presidential campaign of John McCain. He found that the differences in how the DGSs reacted to the three types of letters were not significant. With such results of his study he argues that while there may be isolated cases of discrimination or bias that these are not major factors in determining the political makeup in academia.
I respect this study. However, it is only part of what we know about academia bias. Putting this study in the context of the other work on this topic allows us to gain a more holistic picture of this research question. Previous research, such as that in my previous book mentioned above, has confirmed that academics state a relative unwillingness to hire political conservatives. Empirical work (by Rothman and Lichter in 2009) has also documented that social conservatives tend to wind up in positions that are of lower status than is warranted by their professional accomplishments. Gross’s study has to be understood in light of these results.
Beyond having published in this area I have another advantage to understanding Gross’s study. I have the position of graduate advisor at my own school and so I understand this position he is studying. It is one of the places in academia where there are powerful institutional interests that work against personal and social prejudices. It is in the interest of DGSs to maximize the number of students applying to a given program. So we are more likely to overlook potential political, religious and social incompatibilities with incoming candidates than other academics. But it is important to remember that there are several steps in the process of becoming an established professor. One must obtain an undergraduate degree, contact graduate programs, be accepted into a graduate program, complete the requirements of the doctorate, find an academic job, obtain tenure and then finally obtain full professorship. Gross’s work may have caught academics at the stage of making contact with graduate programs where there are institutional pressures for acceptance. Thus while his work informs us on the issue of potential discrimination, it clearly is not the last word on this subject.
Furthermore, I admit that I often skim emails from prospective students. It is in my interest to persuade them to apply for the program and so I look at information that will help me to construct a response to meet that interest. So I wonder how much I would pay attention to the political activities of the emailing student. I also wonder if I would have even noticed such an activity. Audit studies can be useful by supplying subtle cues respondents may react to, but there is the danger of the cues being too subtle to activate the potential prejudice of the respondent. I am not certain that this is the case with this particular study, but my experience as a graduate advisor suggests that this may be a problem.
A final issue should be brought up concerning Gross’s study. Although he does not state so in the book, in his paper with this research he comments that he chose to use John McCain as the representative of conservatives instead of Sarah Palin because he wanted the email to be believable. That very statement is an indication of a larger atmosphere of discrimination. If supporting Palin potentially disqualifies a graduate student from a program then political discrimination is at play. McCain has a reputation, whether deserved or not, as a rebel or maverick to his own Republican party. While most academics clearly are not supportive of Republicans, a Republican who often goes against the policies of that party, as McCain is willing to do, is likely to be more acceptable than other Republicans such as Sarah Palin or George Bush. (Some may say that the mere act of supporting Palin indicates that a student is not ready for graduate school. I find such an attitude highly prejudicial and tapping into a stereotype that conservatives are dumb. It is a stereotype that has flourished in a media that emphasis that Palin is dumb instead of the Democrat Hank Johnson). The audit study would still have the weaknesses I outlined above if a more conservative Republican was used instead of McCain, but it would have been a stronger finding if DGSs showed little or no prejudice even when a candidate worked for a Palin election team.
At best Gross’s study indicates that at a key point of the process – when the prospective student contacts a graduate program – it is fairly likely that politically conservative student will not run into a great deal of discrimination. However, discrimination is more likely at other points of the process. As I have argued elsewhere academic bias is not equally likely to show up at every stage of the process or for every type of conservative. Research suggests that social and religious conservatism is more likely to be stigmatized than economic or foreign policy conservatism. Thus the weakness of choosing McCain, who is not known for social conservatism, instead of Palin or Bush adds more questions about the accuracy of Gross’s conclusions.
All of this is not to say that discrimination is the only factor in the political makeup of academia. My argument is that it is an important factor. Is discrimination more important than self-selection in determining this political makeup? To date we have not come up with the proper methodological techniques that adequately compare these two potential effects. My inclination is that instead of arguing whether discrimination matters, that we should concede that it matters and focus on whether discrimination matters more or less than self-selection. Hopefully future research will explore such a question.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    It’s complicated. If I were to reduce down why academia is essentially Liberal it comes down to the relationship one has with tradition. Conservatives embrace western tradition and Liberals at a minimum are suspicious of it but the most passionate are hostile to it. Since roughly the 1960s tradition (because of racism, feminism, captialism, and religion) has come under attack. Those that see tradition as containing the seeds of common day problems tend to divide over to Liberals. Those that see tradition as the necessary link to our past will come down on the side of Conservatism. Liberal Arts studies seem to value the undermining of tradition as a mark of intellectualism.

  • AHH

    I haven’t read the book, but (as a not-quite-academic in the sciences) I can think of two other important self-selection processes:
    1) Academics, more than the general population, tend to be people who see multiple sides to issues, are comfortable with ambiguity, who don’t take things just on authority, and who see shades of gray rather than just black and white. While these traits are not totally absent from political conservatives, I’d say they are less common, maybe especially in these days of Fox News.
    2) This overlaps with Gross’ “typing” mechanism. If a young person grows up in an environment that demonizes those awful liberal professors, why would that person want to grow up and join the enemy? This is especially true with regard to conservative Christians, where unfortunately many churches treat science and scientists (especially biology, geology, and increasingly climate science) as threats to the faith.

    I think this operates differently in different fields of academia. It is probably most serious (and potential discrimination most a factor) where the academic study is heavily intertwined with political and social attitudes, like political science and history and sociology and literature and ethnic studies. On the other hand, one finds plenty of conservatives on business faculties. Science and engineering faculties are an interesting case — from my perspective conservatives used to be pretty well represented in those fields (especially engineering), but that is becoming less the case as silly denial of science (especially evolution and climate science) has recently become a bigger aspect of political conservatism.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Great points, especially #1.

    • georgeyancey

      Some self selection defiantly does occur. But so does screening out of those who do not have the right political and/or religious beliefs. That is my main point. We have both qualitative and quantitative evidence of prejudice academics have against religious and political conservatives. I simply do not see Gross’s study disproving that prejudice due to the reasons given above. I do disagree with the premise that progressives are more open to seeing different sides of issues than conservatives. You are free to blast Fox News and I am not an apologist for them. But MSNBC is less willing to have conservatives on the air than Fox is to have progressives on the air. Sharpton and O’Donnell do not seem more open to different viewpoints than Hannity and O’Reilly. I use this as antidotal evidence but I am coming out with a book later this year that documents in a more quantitative manner the fallacy of theories such as right-wing authoritarianism which contends that intolerance is basically merely a characteristics of political and religious conservatives.

      • AHH

        I don’t watch Fox News or MSNBC, so can’t speak to that aspect. I would mention that giving the other “side” airtime is not the same as appreciating shades of gray. But I was in part thinking about my experience in the church as a moderate Evangelical — which is that simplistic black/white thinking, not just theologically but politically, is more prevalent among conservative Evangelicals (though certainly not totally absent from others).

        I wish you would paint with a less broad brush about “academics”. I think it is quite likely that some anti-conservative bias exists in the humanities and social sciences. But (contra the slimy propaganda film Expelled) it is very rare in science and engineering faculties. And I bet also in business faculties. Different areas of academia have very different sociopolitical cultures. I think your critique would be more effective if you focused on those parts where the problem really lies.

        • georgeyancey

          I tend to speak more about science than about general academia. In science I speak of the research which shows the anti-conservative bias. It is less in the natural sciences than the social sciences but it still exists. You are correct that it is not prevalent in the business disciplines but those are not sciences in a technical sense. I would agree with you that when we talk of moderates (of which I am one) I do think we talk about people who can see different viewpoints. But at either extremes of our political spectrum I tend to see those who struggle with such openness.

          • AHH

            I’d be interested to see evidence of such bias in the natural sciences, especially in faculty hiring and retention which is relevant to the book. In my experience, schools want faculty who will publish good research and, above all, bring in grant money. If the person brings in money, they can believe whatever they want (with a few limits; overt racism or sexism would be a problem).

            I can think of a few things that might be in mind:
            1) Twisted propaganda anecdotes as in Expelled. I assume/hope we can dismiss those.
            2) Similarly to be dismissed would be people who are rejected because they reject mainstream science. It is as appropriate for a biology department to reject an evolution denier as it would be for a geography department to reject a flat-earther or a med school to reject someone who thinks smoking is good for you.

            3) The rare cases where real prejudice, usually religious rather than political, comes into play. I can only think of one case recently which was a hire for a senior position at I believe Kentucky. Some people do have a chip on their shoulder against Christianity and occasionally it affects things even in science faculties.
            4) For other levels like grad school admission, it would not surprise me for some bias to creep in. A professor evaluating an applicant who graduated from Liberty U versus one from a state school might lean toward the one from the place where denial of established science is not a foundational principle. Political conservatism could play here also; one might assume (not without reason) that an applicant who had worked for Sarah Palin might be more likely to be in denial of important science like evolution or climate change.

            It also probably depends on the field. I am in chemical engineering/physics, where the vast majority don’t care any more about whether someone is a Christian, or is politically conservative, than they care about what kind of car I drive. But in fields whose practitioners are demonized by many conservative Christians and many political conservatives (like evolutionary biology or climate science), there are stronger negative feelings toward those groups and I would expect more instances of bias.

          • georgeyancey

            I know that it is less than in the social sciences and you are correct that religious bias is more powerful than political bias. That actually surprised me. If you are interested in reading about it then check out “Compromising Scholarship”. It will give you a scope of the relative distance between the prejudice in the hard sciences and in the social sciences.

          • AHH

            I would suggest that you be careful when writing about these things to distinguish between social sciences (where I’d believe it is a significant problem) and natural sciences (more minor). Not only is that more accurate, but such rhetoric about “science” (where most readers would think of physical sciences) tends to bolster the anti-science influences that are damaging the witness of Evangelical Christians to the scientifically literate.

            While this is anecdotal, I have felt less hostility being a Christian in the scientific world than I have being a scientist in the Evangelical world. And that experience is common for Christians in the natural sciences — which I think makes us wary of people in the church pointing accusing fingers at “science” when we perceive the church as a bigger source of problems in this area.

          • georgeyancey

            I agree that it is less of a problem in the natural sciences but it is a problem nonetheless. My assertion is not based on anecdotal accounts but my systematic research. I do think that Christians are sometimes unnecessarily wary of scientists. But on the other hand, that does not eliminate the reality that prejudice against Christians by some scientists is a reality as well.

          • AHH

            We’re probably mostly in agreement here in the end.

            I just worry that if you write without sufficient nuance about these distinctions, you will inadvertently provide ammo for those culture warriors (the Discovery Institute comes to mind) who drive unnecessary wedges between (natural) science and Christianity to the detriment of both.

          • georgeyancey

            I do get the sense that we agree more than disagree. I would like to see the barriers between the average Christian and scientists come down.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “That very statement is an indication of a larger atmosphere of
    discrimination. If supporting Palin potentially disqualifies a graduate
    student from a program then political discrimination is at play.”

    Sorry, that’s complete BS. Palin has shown, time and time again, to spout off falsehoods and bombastic rhetoric designed to to appeal to emotions and not logic. People love to bring up the Hank Johnson analogy, but Johnson is a random congressional representative who is completely unknown outside his district. The GOP has far more House reps spouting ridiculous things (Paul Broun, Bachmann) but Palin was the VICE PRESIDENTIAL candidate in a major political race, and was touted as a “leader” of the conservative movement, selling millions of books and getting her quotes published by all major media outlets. So yes, I would expect any grad student touting the merits of Palin, be they a conservative or liberal academic environment, to hold serious reservations about the intellectual rigour of that student.

    You also bring up social conservatism. It doesn’t help that so many of the claims of social conservatism end up falling on their face when held up to scholarly scrutiny and peer review. Stating that “the Bible says its so” doesn’t work in a secular academic environment . . .to whine that it is thus “discriminatory” to social conservatives, ugh give me a break. It also doesn’t help that conservative culture, particularly post-Obama, has flat-out embraced consistent conspiracy theories. Global warming? Hoax by the tree-huggers (who are somehow going to make millions off of wind farms). Obama’s healthcare advisory board? Death panel out to kill your granny. Obama sends out a message to school children about the importance of staying in school? It’s Obama’s pulling a Joseph Stalin out to brainwash your children into communism. It’s frikkin’ ridiculous.

    • georgeyancey

      You miss the main point. There are plenty of dumb progressive politicians. But they do not get the airplay that dumb conservative politicians get. If you want a more equal comparison then just think about how often Congresswomen Bachman gets blasted for a dumb statement. But I do not think that she has ever said anything as stupid as Guam tipping over. As far as conservatives not wanting to use science I suggest reading the book “Science Left Out” where the author documents issues where liberals tend to ignore science like GMOs or fracking. I tend to support the idea of ethnocentrism where both liberals and conservatives value or ignore science in ways to make their political ideas look the best. Finally as far as stupid claims if I have to hear one more progressive talk about the Christian right seeking to set up a theocracy I may just throw up. That is as stupid as the notion that Obama is going to brainwash our kids.

      • Noah Smith

        But surely the problem with the likes of Michele Bachman is the sheer frequency of dumb statements. I do agree with you regarding science: lots of liberals go in for “alternative medicine”, anti-vaccination, anti-GMO, spirtuality, etc, etc

      • Andrew Dowling

        The false equivalency and strawmen won’t work here. Being anti GMO (which isn’t an issue beyond a vocal fringe) or even anti fracking (a more complex issue which I don’t see how the greater calls for transparency could be discounted) is not near being orthodoxy for liberals or progressives like the myriad of issues that define 21st century American conservatism (denying climate change, for example, and which party’s base has major candidates who deny evolution?). You don’t see this Stalinist obession with ideological purity the GOP base demands (you compromised on legislation . . .RINO!) with the Democrats, which is one reason the Democrats couldn’t even do much when they had all 3 branches of government beyond a few watered down bills that resembled the Republican platform in decades past. (and I’m someone who seriously wished we had a responsible, smart conservative party b/c the Demorcrats do some stupid things and need a check, but the current alternative ain’t it)

        Noah: Anti-vaccination? That was also another crazy Bachman quote . . . it’s also mostly conservatives obsessed with the conspiracy theories around the HPV vaccines. Sure, the left has a small conspiracy wing of its own but it PALES to its brethren on the other side. Just look at conservative talk radio . .Limbaugh, Beck. Look at all of those RW best sellers all with versions of the same title . . . “Betrayed! How Obama’s Selling Out the American Dream and How You Can Save Your Children from the Godlessness of Liberalism” blahblahblah. It’s a frikkin’ joke. Where are the liberal equivalents? John Stewart’s joke books about politics? Don’t give out the throw away line “both sides have crazy” , , ,sorry, one side has mainstreamed it and the other hasn’t.

        • Noah Smith

          Woah calm down I agree. Liberals do mostly adhere to scientific orthodoxy but, speaking as a European, the issues I’ve identified are I think more widespread then you let on. But to say that isn’t to make false equivalency (which is a real problem in American discourse). I just don’t buy the argument that conservatives are naturally anti-science and liberals are all science and reason. People in general have a hard time accepting scientific narratives (and before you explode again I don’t mean narrative as in its fiction).

          • Andrew Dowling

            Sorry my post was mainly in response to George.

        • georgeyancey

          I find it interesting that you make a quantitative statement about the relative amount of crazies on each political side and defend your assertion with qualitative statements. I contend that you do because there is a common stereotype among progressives that conservatives are stupid but such a stereotype is not a prevalent against progressives. I fail to see the anti-global warming as more than a side issue among Republicans that is no more important than the pro-environmental faction among Democrats. But that would be must my opinion. If you have social scientific work that supports you point with survey or at least interview data then you at least have some data to back your assertions. But as they stands they are your opinions about what “false equivalency” is and it is not very convincing to people who are not already progressive and are not subject to confirmation bias. I admit that I do not have quantitative data on which political side is more likely to disregard scientific findings but both of them do and that fact alone eliminates the simplistic argument of “conservatives do it but liberal don’t”.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Well yes, I won’t have a study to back up my claim that the House of Reps has more extreme GOP reps than extreme Dem reps, but given the task of actually going through all 435 and listing their respective quotes/statements, proposed legislation, votes etc. I would be SUPREMELY confident you find more in the party of Bachmann, Barton, West, and Scalise.
            Fail to see anti-global warming as more than a side issue? You’ll find a number of Democrats who pursue non-environmentally friendly policy. Name me any Republican elected in the past 4 years who has affirmed the science behind climate change . . .it’s akin to a ‘creedal confession’ . .anyone not following orthodoxy is a traitor and deemed ‘RINO.’
            Another point: the widespread denial of polling during the last presidential election. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. A VERY LARGE, probably a majority, of conservatives truly believed Romney had it in the bag and that the widely respected, historically most accurate polls all had “bias.” It was very similar to the climate change denial . . just cover your eyes and invent your own reality. The shock and awe when Obama’s victory followed what the polling trajectory stated it would be was scary to watch.

            Again, one side has made it mainstream and the other hasn’t. If you can’t see that the conservative media “bubble” has readily embraced conspiracy theories and fear mongering (“Agenda 21″ anyone?), especially amplified during the Obama presidency, then I can’t really help you. National Journal is the only mainstream conservative publication that hasn’t totally been inundated with far right base-talking points but their articles have reflected it more and more.

            Many Republicans realize this very problem and recognize in the long term it’s going to have serious political repercussions (beyond what’s already happened; only gerrymandering and D population concentration in urban areas has kept the House safe for Republicans currently).

          • georgeyancey

            More qualitative examples and not very convincing. I have not even heard of addenda 21 and that is your example of a well known conspiracy theory of Republicans. I have no reason to believe that your beliefs come from your political confirmation bias rather than an honest assessment of fooling thinking on the right and the left. And it seems to me that if there are more conspiracy theories among Republicans that it may be a factor of who is president. Remember all the “truther” nonsense. You seem to be working awfully hard to make the argument that lack of critical thinking is basically a conservative trait. It is those kinds of stereotypes that lead to the bias scientists have against conservatives which I documented in my work. So ironically you seem to be making my basic point for me.

          • Noah Smith

            Its a bit of a leap to go from identifying an internet poster with a bias against conservatives to the whole of the scientific community. But from this side of the Atlantic the crazies does seem to emanating from the conservative side.

          • georgeyancey

            Actually I am not basing it on the internet poster but on the study I have done. He is merely an example of the trend. My study was a quantitative analysis which is more than just anecdotal evidence of a single blogger. Beyond my study there is other research confirming this bias. As for as crazies we got them on both sides of the isle here. But the stereotype of conservatives as stupid tends to make the stupid things conservatives do more newsworthy. I honestly do not know which side is more “crazy” since there is not a reliable quantitative study on that issue.

          • Noah Smith

            I agree that there’s a lot of stereotyping going on with conservatives but I’m still not convinced of “the other side does it too” argument. Seems as if the crazy is more rewarded on the conservative side. But didn’t the progressives go crazy in the ’70s and ’80s? Seems quite reasonable to me to suppose that both the left and the right seesaw between relevance and irrelevance. Also, just for argument sake, what’s so bad with academia having a liberal bias? It doesn’t appear to stop American higher education from being the best in the world…

          • georgeyancey

            What is bad is that ideally science should be an open search for truth. I do not think that people should not be barred from engaging in that search because they have the wrong political ideas. Doing that limits the possibility of finding scientific truth. Take the issue of fracking. We are finally dragging out of scientist the fact that fracking does not seem to badly damage our environment. Why has it been so hard to get this information. In part because that fact when against the liberal orthodoxy that nongreen technology is bad. This time we were able to get at the reality despite the liberal bias. In other situations, such as anything to do with homosexuality, the liberal bias is so strong that I do not believe any of the science that comes from those issues. So it is not because I am a political conservative that I find this distasteful because I am not a political conservative. it is because I want to get science as close as we can to an open search for the truth that the liberal bias bothers me. And to answer your first question we do have our liberal crazies as well. They do not get the press that conservative crazies get because of the stereotypes we have for conservatives. I could give you stories about them but then I would be guilty of using the same type of qualitative evidence for a quantitative question that I have just criticized.

          • Noah Smith

            Science doesn’t bar anybody from searching. With regards to fracking, its a new technology and so its unsurprising that scientists may be cautious. (Though you can bet that scientists employed by the fracking companies are more gung-ho). Like I said, nobody fully accepts scientific explanations and that includes you and me.

          • Noah Smith

            A reminder about my question regarding American higher education being the best in the world? (You can add science to that as well)

          • georgeyancey

            Science does not bar people but scientists can and do make it harder for conservatives.


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