TCS Daily

Network Effects: Liberals and Conservatives in the Academy

By Stephen Bainbridge - December 8, 2004 12:00 AM

Every once in a while even the mainstream media wakes up enough to notice the remarkable dearth of conservatives and libertarians in US universities and colleges. Of course, this isn't exactly a man bites dog story. As George Will recently put it:

"The great secret is out: liberals dominate campuses. Coming soon: 'Moon Implicated in Tides, Studies Find.'"

Even so, the disparity is sufficiently striking to be worthy of periodic commentary.

"Evidence of the atypical uniformity of American universities grows by the week. The Centre for Responsive Politics notes that this year two universities -- the University of California and Harvard -- occupied first and second place in the list of donations to the Kerry campaign by employee groups, ahead of Time Warner, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft et al. Employees at both universities gave 19 times as much to John Kerry as to George Bush. Meanwhile, a new national survey of more than 1,000 academics by Daniel Klein, of Santa Clara University, shows that Democrats outnumber Republicans by at least seven to one in the humanities and social sciences. And things are likely to get less balanced, because younger professors are more liberal. For instance, at Berkeley and Stanford, where Democrats overall outnumber Republicans by a mere nine to one, the ratio rises above 30 to one among assistant and associate professors." (The Economist)

Contrary to the claims of some defenders of the status quo, moreover, these disparities clearly have a deleterious effect on the learning environment. A survey of students at 50 top U.S. universities and colleges conducted this fall by the Center for Survey Research & Analysis at the University of Connecticut found considerable evidence that politics pervaded the classroom:

"For instance, nearly half said that their professors 'frequently comment on politics in class even though it has nothing to do with the course' or use the classroom to present their personal political views. In answers to other questions, the majority acknowledged that liberal views predominate. Most troubling, however, were the responses to the survey item 'On my campus, there are courses in which students feel they have to agree with the professor's political or social views in order to get a good grade' -- 29% agreed." (Opinion Journal)

As George Will scathingly put it: "American campuses ... cultivate diversity -- in race, skin color, ethnicity, sexual preference. In everything but thought."

As an academic teaching in a university law school, I observe the same pattern of left-liberal dominance. Indeed, Cardozo law school professor Marci Hamilton, reports that:

"Every academic field has its orthodoxies, and the legal field is no different. But in the law schools, orthodoxy is drawn according to political lines. Liberal is correct, conservative is suspect.

"During the mid-1990's, ... Professor James Lindgren of Northwestern University Law School conducted a survey of law professors, and concluded that of the faculties of the top 100 law schools, 80% of law professors were Democrats (or leaned left) and only 13% were Republicans (or leaned right). There is no reason to believe these numbers have changed."

What explains the significant disparity in political views in the academy? Many liberals advance some version of the "conservatives are stupid" argument, only occasionally dressed up in less pejorative forms. For example, here is Duke Philosophy Department chair Robert Brandon's take on the question:

"If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill's analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too."

In fact, however, data from the widely used General Social Survey (GSS) consistently show that Republicans are better educated than Democrats (on average, they have more than half a year more education and hold a higher final degree). In addition, Republicans score better than Democrats on two tests included in the GSS.

Another explanation one sometimes sees is that liberals are better people than conservatives. As George Will observed:

"George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at Berkeley, denies that academic institutions are biased against conservatives. The disparity in hiring, he explains, occurs because conservatives are not as interested as liberals in academic careers. Why does he think liberals are like that? 'Unlike conservatives, they believe in working for the public good and social justice.' That clears that up."

What about all those conservatives who have taken low paying jobs at think tanks like Cato, Heritage, or AEI? Or the public interest lawyers working at low paying jobs at places like the Pacific Legal Foundation? My firm belief is that those institutions provide a pool of individuals who would be perfectly happy to settle into the academy, if they had a fair shot at finding an academic job.

It is the question of a "fair shot" that is the real problem. Actual bias is a problem, but probably isn't as much a one as conservatives outside the academy would like to believe. As Volokh Conspiracy blogger Juan Non-Volokh observed: "My experience in the academy ... confirms [that most] of the hostility faced by conservatives (and libertarians) is not explicit, and often not conscious or deliberate." Mine too, although there have been a fair number of questionable moments.

The real culprit is the law school hiring process. Each fall the Association of American Law Schools collects resumes from prospective law teaching candidates, which are then transmitted to the appointments committee of each law school. The members of that committee then face the unenviable task of winnowing down well over a 1000 applications to a list of 25 or so candidates with whom the committee will meet at the so-called "meat market" convention. After which, the committee must further winnow those 25 or so down to a smaller number, 3-5, who are invited out to the law school for on campus interviews.

As a result, the hiring process is almost entirely negative. You spend the vast majority of your time winnowing the application pile -- i.e., finding reasons not to hire someone. If you have on-site interviews of 0.3% of the applicant pool, any opposition by any committee member is enough to exclude someone. At the early stages of the process, they barely need to posit a reason.

In my experience, it thus is a lot harder to get somebody hired than it is to block them from being hired. The process isn't as explicit as the blackballing scene in Animal House, but the law school hiring process is just as weighted against hiring. (And I mean hiring anybody, regardless of political affiliation.) Any opposition (for whatever reason) therefore is usually enough, absent a very strongly committed pro-hiring faction.

In most cases, a candidate's best chance of surviving the winnowing process is for someone on the committee to become the candidate's champion. The champion will pull the candidate's resume out of the slush pile and make sure it gets flagged for close review. Because most law schools lack a critical mass of libertarian and conservative faculty members, however, there is nobody predisposed to pulling conservative candidates' AALS forms out of the slush pile (and a fair number of folks inclined, whether consciously or subconsciously, to bury them). Applicants with conservative lines on their resume -- an Olin fellowship, Federalist Society membership, or, heaven help you, a Scalia clerkship -- thus tend to be passed over no matter how sterling the rest of their credentials may be.

In contrast, the latest left-leaning prodigy from Harvard or Yale has a mentor at one of those schools who makes calls to his/her buddies and ideological soulmates at other law schools. The recipients of those calls then flag the prodigy's file, giving them a critical leg-up in the process. Law school hiring tends to be driven by the self-perpetuating network of left-leaning senior faculty.

It may not be deliberate bias, but there still is a disparate impact.

What is to be done? Proponents of diversity, as measured by race, gender, sexual orientation, or what have you, long complained about the "old boys network" that dominated law school hiring. (Oddly enough, as the proponents of such diversity have achieved their own critical mass on most law school campuses, one tends to hear this complaint less often. Indeed, from what I see and hear, there seems to be something a "new boys and girls network" at work.) It's time for us conservatives and libertarians to take up that complaint. We shouldn't ask for affirmative action in favor of our fellow travelers, but we should insist that the pool of candidates not be artificially constricted by either the old or the new networks.


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