Typecasting: Why Nurses are Women, Cops are Conservatives, and Professors are Liberals

Ashley Thorne

Patricia Cohen reports in the New York Times on yet another study that asks why college professors are overwhelmingly liberal. The working paper, authored by sociologists Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse, concludes that the main reason for the disparity is occupation typecasting. Fewer conservatives want to go into academia, just as fewer liberals become police officers and few boys dream of becoming nurses when they grow up. Such stereotyped professions tend to maintain social homogeneity.

But stereotypes exist for a reason. According to Gross and Fosse, professors are more likely to have fewer children, advanced degrees, “higher levels of tolerance for controversial ideas,” non-conservative religious beliefs, and a disparity between their education levels and their income. These qualities are more compatible with a liberal political outlook.

Gross has been cranking out volumes of research on this theme. NAS has commented on his 2007 report, The Social and Political Views of American Professors, as well as his 2009 paper “American Academe and the Knowledge-Politics Problem” (see NAS’s response). His work is generally hailed as proof for debunking conservative-group-propagated myths about the problem of politics in higher education. Gross, however, tends to confirm what NAS and other organizations decry.

This is evident in his new report with Fosse, which concludes:

our findings contravene an explanation for professorial liberalism commonly given by liberals—that professors tend to be liberal because liberals are smarter than conservatives. If anything, our theory of occupational reputation and aspirations suggests that American society is increasingly selecting professors not on the basis of intelligence or insight alone, but rather on the basis of a conjunction of perceived academic potential and liberal politics—a development long in the making that might, depending on one’s point of view, be seen as having positive or negative consequences for scientific and scholarly creativity.

In other words, the issue is not that conservatives have low IQs. The issue is that universities like to hire liberals. Thus, conservatives are kept out because their politics don’t match up with dominant views. Gross and Fosse conjecture that such bias could “be seen as having positive or negative consequences for scientific and scholarly inquiry.” But it seems a stretch to imagine it as being beneficial for scholarship. Title IX exists because of the fear that women were being kept out of athletics due to typecasting. No one considered that selection of athletes on the basis of maleness could “be seen as having positive or negative consequences for scientific and scholarly inquiry.”

Title IX mandates “gender equity” (equal numbers of male and female participation) in every educational program that receives federal funding, undermining freedom of choice. In the same way, an affirmative action program to mandate hiring quotas for conservative faculty members would harm the integrity of our colleges and universities. It would be wrong to force conservatives in; it is also wrong to force them out.

The New York Times article portrays the study as proof that conservatives simply are less interested in the scholarly life. Cohen’s tone echoes that of Title IX critics who say, “Maybe women just aren’t as into wrestling as men are. Why should we force an unnatural equality?” But conservatives are wary of becoming professors, not because they care little for academia, but because academia cares little for them. Thus Cohen and others writing about the report (i.e., the Chronicle of Higher Education and Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Ed) subtly distort the facts.

Cohen quotes Gross saying, “The irony is that the more conservatives complain about academia’s liberalism, the more likely it’s going to remain a bastion of liberalism.” A fortified bastion is the university indeed. Will tongue-holding break it down? Learning from the Left, the only way to break down stereotypes is to scowl enthusiastically at those who slur the “underrepresented” group. But as we often see, that approach usually results in deepening the divide between identity groups instead of bridging it. Political diversity among college professors thus remains an elusive ideal. 

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