A Poor Whitewashing Job

(Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles. The second can be found here.)

Why is it that the great majority of college professors are liberal (i.e., hold mostly to “progressive,” pro-state ideas about politics and economics) and why should conservatives be concerned that they are? Those are the two big questions that University of British Columbia sociology professor Neil Gross addresses in his new book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?   

Gross admits that he comes at this from a left/progressive perspective, but says that he just wants to objectively report and analyze. Although he affects neutrality, Gross often betrays his leftist stereotypes about conservatives and, more importantly, is content to do only the most superficial probing before declaring that the problems conservatives see are mostly imaginary.

In short, Gross is a good example of the sort of liberal intellectual Professor Jonathan Haidt wrote about in his book The Righteous Mind, which is to say, someone who attacks his philosophical opponents without really understanding what they’re saying.

Liberals will probably respond in the future to conservative arguments about the politicization of the faculty by saying, “Well, Neil Gross disproved all that!” but the author’s analysis merely gives the higher education system a poor whitewashing.

I am going to divide my commentary on the book into two pieces, with the second to appear in the near future.

First, why are most professors liberal?

Gross contends that the best explanation is that the job of being a professor has been “imprinted” with liberalism and thus few non-liberals are attracted to it, just as few men are attracted to nursing. “[L]iberals are drawn to graduate school and academic work because they sense a fit with their politics, while conservatives are led away,” he writes.

Academic work, he argues, is more appealing to those who are open-minded, tolerant, and patient thinkers. Most conservatives, however, are supposedly too dogmatic and authoritarian to have much interest in such a career. Therefore, self-selection is the best explanation for the predominantly liberal composition of the faculty. Few conservatives and libertarians think it would suit them.

An aside: while Gross claims that his analysis is objective, throughout the book we find hints that he holds to the leftist stereotype that conservatives are intellectually rigid people who demand order and don’t tolerate new ideas. Even though he quotes the great free-market scholar F. A. Hayek at one point (regarding the leftist tendencies of the professoriate years ago), Gross never considers the fact that many conservatives and libertarians are drawn to Hayek’s thinking precisely because he was an open-minded opponent of imposed order.

Much of the conservative/libertarian agenda consists of efforts to throw off authoritarian controls in favor of the spontaneous order of voluntary action, so the notion that conservatives are unsuited to the free-thinking, creative work of the academic world is just a stereotype with no explanatory power. 

Conversely, if you want to see dogmatic opposition to new ideas, just see how many “liberal” professors react when someone challenges them on the need for affirmative action, minimum wage laws, or similar leftist beliefs.

But what about the argument that conservatives aren’t so much “led away” from academic careers as they are kept out by incumbent liberals who don’t like dissenters in their midst? Doesn’t discrimination play a role? Gross makes an unconvincing case that discrimination is too rare to worry about.

To begin with, he quotes two liberal professors he interviewed, both of whom said that they would never consider the politics and philosophy of applicants for faculty positions. One was an engineering professor who said, sensibly, that nothing about the person would matter except his knowledge of electricity. The other was a sociologist who said she felt it her duty to focus only on an applicant’s qualifications and performance. Thus, Gross concludes that “the binding power of professional norms” militate strongly against political discrimination.

That’s pitifully weak. Even if professors don’t overtly declare that they won’t tolerate non-liberals in their midst, the hiring process can be skewed without anything so blatant as a “No Conservatives Need Apply” sign. All it takes is for those on hiring committees to prefer applicants with views they find “collegial.” A conservative or libertarian historian, for example, probably wouldn’t get serious consideration in a department where “progressives” and Marxists dominate.

Gross would have us believe that “groupthink” (as Professor Dan Klein puts it) plays little or no role in keeping conservatives and libertarians out of many fields in the humanities and social sciences because liberal professors are so committed to those “professional norms.” The trouble is that we have seen numerous cases where it’s clear that political/philosophical discrimination was at play, such as the Theresa Wagner case at the University of Iowa, where leftist opponents were unguarded in saying that they wouldn’t tolerate a conservative on the law school faculty.

Of course, some professors are willing to put ideology aside when evaluating prospective colleagues, but if you observe higher education for any length of time, you see that many others are intensely partisan. They declare that “teaching is a political act” and proudly proclaim that their role is that of “change agent.” It’s naïve to contend that “professional norms” keep such people from preferring those who agree with them and brushing aside those who don’t.

The other piece of evidence Gross uses to rebut the discrimination argument is an experiment he ran using fake emails from non-existent students who were inquiring about graduate school.  Some of the fake emails were cast as coming from liberal students and others as from conservatives. Gross found that the grad school professors were scarcely more favorable to the liberals than the conservatives, leading him to conclude that discrimination has little explanatory power.

That isn’t convincing either. Many graduate departments hesitate to turn away students since if they don’t keep the numbers up, funding could dry up. It isn’t surprising that the imaginary conservatives didn’t encounter blanket opposition to their inquiries.

Moreover, the trouble for conservative students begins after they have been admitted. As Hillsdale history professor Paul Moreno told me via email, a conservative student in most graduate history programs would have a very hard time finding mentors who were the least bit sympathetic. And if such a student should manage to get through and earn his doctorate, the waiting job market is far more dangerous for conservatives than for liberals.

Gross concedes that academic fields differ with regard to their attractiveness or repulsiveness to would-be conservative/libertarian scholars. He writes that, for example, “it would be foolish for someone with truly antifeminist sensibilities to become a sociologist….” Yes, but there are extremely few prospective academics with “truly antifeminist sensibilities” these days; the fact is that that unless someone adheres unswervingly to feminist theories, he (or she) would immediately be vetoed in most departments. By using that “antifeminist sensibilities” phrasing, Gross  underplays the extent to which  Women’s Studies (and many similarly politicized fields) repel all but the true believers.

Thus, he is correct in arguing that “imprinting” keeps conservatives and libertarians away–but not from the professoriate generally. Rather, they’re kept away from numerous fields where fidelity to liberal ideas has become obligatory. Much of the humanities and social sciences have become hostile environments for non-liberals.

Conversely, there are no fields where liberals face general hostility. The fact that many departments are minefields for conservatives and libertarians while liberals encounter no minefields helps explain why the professoriate is so lopsided.

Gross tries to argue that the academic playing field isn’t really so unbalanced, claiming that many economists and business school professors extol “the virtues of capitalism and the market” and that many engineering professors do so “to the extent that a major aim of engineering programs is to give students the skills they need to design the products that firms will make and sell, and all the more easily in a pro-business economic environment—and for other engineering students, the skills necessary to design products with military application.”

That passage again shows how little Gross knows about the people he’s analyzing. In most economics and business programs, the professors do not “extol capitalism.” Economists usually discuss where market forces work well, but also where they don’t. Few of them are cheerleaders for Hayekian or Friedmanite laissez-faire visions and they don’t try to counter the statist thinking that emanates from so many other departments.

Hardly any business professors get into such arguments at all. They try to teach managerial knowledge and skills, not to refute the heated arguments about the venality of capitalism–as one economist Gross interviewed admitted he makes the central point of his course!

As for engineering, there is no “conservative tilt” at all. How to design things that will work has nothing to do with the economic system or rectifying alleged social problems. The Soviet Union needed good engineers just as much as we do and the teaching was the same objective material. Gross’ strained effort at finding equivalence between these objective fields and the many departments where blatant politicization is widespread is laughable.

In sum, Gross gives an unconvincing explanation for why most professors are liberal, one that exculpates the faculty for hostility towards those who disagree with their beliefs.

My next piece will look at his theory about why conservatives care. Hint: It’s even worse.