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What Nicholas Kristof gets wrong (and right) about conservatives in academia

Jason Chan/ The Badger Herald

Nicholas Kristof, a liberal columnist with the New York Times, made a pronouncement in early May: Higher education in the United States suffers from an unchecked "liberal privilege."

"It’s easier to find a Marxist in some disciplines than a Republican," Kristof commented on the "endangered species" (Republicans) of academia in his column for the Times.

The piece received widespread consensus, Kristof wrote in his Sunday column, commenting on the feedback: "Almost every liberal agreed I was dead wrong." Nonetheless, Kristof reiterated his claim:

Stereotyping and discrimination are wrong, whether against gays or Muslims, or against conservatives or evangelicals. We shouldn't define one as bigotry and the other as enlightenment.

When a survey finds that more than half of academics in some fields would discriminate against a job seeker who they learned was an evangelical, that feels to me like bigotry.

His original column cited a number of studies and working papers, framing the argument around the hiring discrimination that conservative candidates face when trying to enter the higher education job market:

  • A 2007 working paper found that conservatives, while slightly more common in sciences and economics, only make up roughly 2 percent of English professors – the rest were almost evenly distributed between Democrats and independents.
  • A survey of political and religious bias in American universities and colleges in 2011 found Republicans, and more so religious academics, faced vast disadvantages in academia, finding that nearly a third of academics would be less likely to hire someone if they knew he or she was conservative.
  • In the psychology field, a 2012 peer-reviewed study found that not only do just 6 percent of academics identify as conservatives, but one in three surveyed social and personality psychologists also said they would openly discriminate against their conservative colleagues in a hiring process.

It's a "blind spot" for liberals, Kristof said, arguing for a "frank discussion on campuses about ideological diversity."

If you ask Colby College sociology professor Neil Gross, who co-authored the 2007 working paper Kristof cites and has since published "Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?" it's more complicated than hiring discrimination. I spoke with Gross about the implications of seeking political diversity on college campuses after Kristof published his first column on the subject. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Tara Golshan: Nicholas Kristof wrote about the lack of conservatives in higher education, attributing it mostly to hiring discrimination. What did you make of it? Is this a fair characterization?

Neil Gross: Let me say that I think this issue deserves careful attention, and I appreciate that this piece highlighted a book by Jon Shields and his co-author, which is a serious social scientific study. As a column that drew attention to this kind of work, in that respect I appreciated it. As for the broader claims for the need to attend to discrimination against conservatives, I was less moved.

TG: Less moved. How so?

NG: One of the implications of the piece is that there is hostility toward political and conservative academes and that is the primary factor as to why there are so few of them, especially in the social sciences and humanities. That is a question that there is really vigorous debate [on].

In fact, Shields and his co-author Joshua Dunn make the point really clearly: While bias plays some role in the process, a larger reason why there aren't so many conservatives in higher education has to do with self-selection, which is to say that one generally doesn't find an equal number of PhD candidates applying in the academic job market.

In almost every field it is a massively one-sided graduate pool. And again, in the social sciences this is more dramatic. So when hiring managers are making decisions, they are typically looking at a pool that is unbalanced in political terms.

It is possible that bias will play some role in the process of making hiring decisions — that can't tell the whole story. If the goal is to increase political diversity in higher education, it seems the way to get there is to encourage more conservatives to go into higher education, which was in part Kristof's whole goal, to encourage that kind of diversification. I think he missed an opportunity to highlight that.

TG: Whenever we talk about unbalanced applicant pools, there is a larger context and history. If it's self-selecting, why? Why are the applicant pools so unbalanced from the get-go?

NG: This is nothing new. The political left has been overrepresented in academia for decades. There is really good research on this dating back to the 1960s, if not before, and research shows that even in the 1960s liberals were dramatically overrepresented among graduate students. So whatever phenomenon is driving this has been around in some shape or form for a long time. Which isn't to say that the exact shape of this hasn't changed – it has shifted a little bit – but the basics have been there for a while.

There are competing theories about this. One theory I find fairly persuasive is the idea that early in the 20th century, basically for contingent historical reasons, academia became socially defined as an appropriate place for people with liberal sensibilities.

During the progressive era [there were] big fights over the meaning of academic freedom, as a small number of very left-leaning social scientists found themselves in big public tussles with university trustees over their calls to break up big capital. I think it has resulted in a show that academia was a hospitable place for people with liberal-leaning views.

That social definition of what it meant to be a professor spread and became established. Increasingly, liberal students who were academically talented said, Hey, this is a professional career I can really see myself being in, and conservative students didn't. For me, that is what the driver of this is.

I think there are other theories, most of which don't hold much water. Some are advanced psychological theories explaining differences: something about the personalities of conservatives that makes them less interested in academic questions, which I have not seen evidence of. There are certainly those on the left who think this has to do with intelligence, which, again, I haven't seen any evidence of that either — that just seems like a self-serving explanation from the left.

A third account is that liberals and conservatives might have different values, and the values that conservatives might have leads them to other occupations; that they are more inclined to go into business and make money, and if they were to go to graduate school it would be to get their MBA. But I don't think the different values hold that much weight either.

At the end of the day, the big part of it is what our social understanding of different occupations look like. If you think about a professor, author, researcher, whatever, you think of somebody who has leftist sympathies. And ultimately, changing the political composition, if that is something we want, then we have to change the social perception.

TG: Something Kristof floats is this idea of affirmative action for conservatives, noting that conservatives themselves wouldn't stand for that. So when it comes to feasible solutions, how do you take steps toward changing social perception?

NG: One thing I think Kristof doesn't do a very good job of distinguishing is between the research function of the professoriate and the teaching function of the professoriate. In terms of teaching, political diversity does seem to be a reasonable kind of thing to want.

Certainly in any field, especially in social sciences, there is political content, and most professors try not to force their political views on their students. But in a country, particularly now, that is divided and in a tense period of polarization, there is a real benefit to students being exposed to politically diverse points of view. I see the logic of that. I think the way to get to that is with more conversation, which is something Kristof called to at the end of his column.

But the second piece, which is different from the first, is that somehow there would be a research benefit to having more political diversity. And this seems to be really mixed up.

As I think about the fields I have been involved in — theology, social science, philosophy, economics — there is real diversity in the field. But the diversity that matters here isn't political diversity; it is diversity among people with different kinds of theories, different kinds of methods, different kind of understandings of how the social world works, and that is the kind diversity we should be fostering. We should foster real intellectual diversity, not just political diversity, because they are not the same thing. Sometimes that overlaps.

When people describe sociology as an echo chamber, to me that's really strange, although while there may be underlying political agreements with sociologists, there is tremendous disagreement in the field [about] what sociology should look like, what the theories should be, what the message should be. Really fundamental questions.

If the goal is to reenergize social sciences, the idea that you can just insert more people with a different political point of view into the equation and you will get tremendous creative synergies seems to be extremely far-fetched. We need to do more to revive the social sciences, but that's not it.

TG: I'm interested in this idea that fostering political diversity doesn't necessarily foster intellectual diversity. I went to University of Wisconsin Madison, and as students we saw the token few conservative professors — which differed from a more politically diverse student body. And while they were professional in teaching, you see and benefit from their political diversity in the ways of approach and understanding.

NG: Intellectual diversity is referring to, among other things, theoretical diversity, that overarching perspective that is relevant to explaining things in your field. It refers to methodological diversity — what techniques you see as most helpful to studying the things your field takes seriously. It refers to interdisciplinary diversity: your willingness to engage with ideas from other fields.

I think that intellectual diversity can include historical diversity, the degree you bring historical facts to bear on your findings and arguments, and not just parochial debates as to what is happening right now.

Political diversity, as I understand it, is where do you fall on an ideological scale from left to right? And I recognize fully that there may be some ways political diversity feeds these other forms of intellectual diversity. But more political diversity does not necessarily get you more intellectual diversity.

TG: How do you understand the role of professionalism in fostering political and intellectual diversity?

NG: Sometimes the public doesn't fully recognize how professors take the norms and practices of their disciplines really seriously. One way to move the conversation forward is for professors to have more sustained discussions about the role their own politics plays in their research. These are topics that are sometimes discussed but could be discussed more – much more open discussions about what professionalism looks like in academia.

But again, these are not issues at the top of anybody's agenda. If you ask Americans what their main concern with higher education is, it's not political diversity, it's cost – whether their college education will get them the kind of jobs they want. I'm not trying to minimize the significance of this, but it's not at the top of any institution's agenda.

TG: Having researched and written about this extensively, presumably you are in a lot of these discussions about political diversity among academics. What are those conversations like?

NG: Sometimes the conversations about political diversity seem really frustrating. They might agree with the advocates of political diversification that we need less explicit politics in the social sciences and humanities, but like me they are skeptical that the way to do this is to just hire more conservatives.

What people need is more people regardless of political affiliation, who want to do their best and can do research that is objective and can speak with real merit to what is happening in the world today.