Unnatural Selection

Peter Wood

Why is the professoriate predominantly liberal?  

A. Because “There is an intrinsic link between liberalism and intelligence such that the more liberal views of those with advanced degrees reflect liberals’ greater academic potential.” [The liberals-are-smarter theory]

B. “Because cognitive development occurs with additional years of schooling, leading the intelligentsia to find fault with what they see as simplistic conservative ideologies.” [The more-learning-makes-profs-liberal theory]

C. Because the professoriate seeks a way to differentiate itself “from both the middle class and business elites.” [The profs-turn-liberal-because-they-resent-the-middle-class theory]

D. Because the entrenched liberals who dominate “knowledge work fields…refuse to hire colleagues with dissenting opinions.” [The liberals-are-biased-against-conservatives theory]

E. Because “The professoriate acquired a reputation as a liberal occupation” and liberals today “acting on the basis of this reputation and seeking careers that accord with their political identities, are more likely than conservatives to aspire to become academics.” [The self-selection theory]

F. Because conservatives are dogmatic and turn away from disciplines that require open-mindedness. [The liberals-are-more-open-minded theory]

G. Because professors tend more than most Americans to reside in cities and have fewer children, which favors their embracing liberal political views. [The lifestyle-liberalism theory]

H. Because professors are, on average, less religious than other Americans, which corresponds with their being more liberal. [The grad-school-appeals-to-secularists theory]

I. Because conservatives are more materialistic and are drawn to private-sector jobs; while liberals, concerned more with their “sense of meaning,” are more likely to be drawn to academic work. [The conservatives-prefer-money-to-learning theory]

This catalog of explanations is to be found in the first 11 pages of a new working paper by Ethan Fosse, Jeremy Freese, and Neil Gross, released yesterday. Their answer is an emphatic E. “Self-selection” in their view is the only answer for which they can find robust empirical support. If they are right, this should change one of the longest-running and often most bitter debates in contemporary higher education.

Political Liberalism and Graduate School Attendance:  A Longitudinal Study,” is the subject of two news reports, one by Peter Schmidt in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the other by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed. Schmidt’s report is mainly focused on a second paper issued by Gross and some of his colleagues, which reports on a study of how graduate studies directors responded to letters of inquiry from supposed undergraduates, some posing as Obama supporters and some as McCain supporters. Jaschik puts the emphasis where I think it belongs: on Gross’s much more substantial study of how, out of a cohort of 90,000 adolescents in 1994-95, about 550 enrolled in doctoral degree programs by 2007-8, when they were 24 to 32 years old.

Neil Gross is the primary figure here. He is a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia and has been a leading researcher on questions about the political orientation of the American professoriate. His 2007 paper with his colleague Solon Simmons, “The Social and Political Views of American Professors” was widely noted and discussed, not least for their claim that “moderates” outnumber “liberals” in the professoriate: 46.6 percent to 44.1 percent. Those proportions were achieved by means of definitions that pushed into the “moderate” category a lot of people who in terms of the broader spectrum of political opinion in the United States would almost certainly be considered “liberal.” Some observers, including Steve Balch (my predecessor as president of the National Association of Scholars) thought that Gross and Simmons had provided a public storyline that misrepresented their actual data. The data itself simply reinforced the well-established fact that the American professoriate is overwhelmingly on the left.

For some benchmarks, let’s take the 2004 presidential elections, in which as Gross (and Fosse and Freese) points out, four out of five American professors voted Democratic. And:

Credible estimates of the proportion of the faculty members who consider themselves liberal range from 44 to 57 percent, at a moment when just 14 percent of Americans strongly embrace a liberal identity.

Those “credible estimates” are, of course, based on self-identification and thus don’t count as “liberal” individuals who fairly consistently side with progressive ideology but think of themselves as “moderate.” The percentages also aggregate all academics and thus significantly under-represent the nearly total domination of liberals in some fields (e.g. social psychology), the domination by liberals of the core liberal arts, and the tendency of conservatives academics to be marginalized at second and third tier institutions, (see Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter, “The Vanishing Conservative – Is There a Glass Ceiling?” in The Politically Correct University, ed. Robert Maranto, 2009, for empirical evidence of the latter).

In his two new studies Gross cites his earlier findings without cavil, but his tone has shifted dramatically from an apparent effort to minimize the predominance of liberalism within the professoriate to a frank admission that that’s what the data shows.  So, for example, he allows:

Democratic Party affiliation and voting, and more progressive social and economic attitudes are correlated with advanced degree holding at the individual level.

 The question is not whether a disparity exists but why. Why is the American professoriate skewed far to the left of the American public?

Gross and his colleagues answer this via a very deft reuse of a large-scale longitudinal study of “health behaviors” of American adolescents. The study, called Add Health, had nothing to do with the decisions of the participants to seek doctoral degrees.  That was just incidental data picked up along the way which felicitously allows the researchers a sample that has no built-in biases on the subject. Re-purposing the Add Health study, of course, does pose the challenge of finding data in it that bears on all those conflicting explanations I’ve listed above. How can you tell whether liberal students are more likely to seek college degrees because they are simply smarter than conservative students (hypothesis A, above)?  The Add Health data includes the results of “picture-based vocabulary test, the results of which correlate highly with other cognitive measures,” and the researchers use high school GPAs as “proxy for academic orientation and preparation.”

With a dozen or so such proxies, Gross and his colleagues winnow the list of possible explanations.  Ad seriatim:

A. Good high school grades and a good vocabulary are “strong, positive predictors of graduate school attendance,” but including them “in the model attenuates the liberalism effect.”  [The liberals-are-smarter theory fails.]

B. The “numbers are consistent with a modest graduate school liberalization effect.”  “36 percent became more liberal and 23 percent became more conservative.”  [The more-learning-makes-profs-liberal theory is weak.]

C. “Americans who are liberal during the typical college years are more likely to attend graduate school with the aim of completing a doctorate than are their moderate or conservative peers.’  [The profs-turn-liberal-because-they-resent-the-middle-class theory fails because the students who become professors are already predominantly liberal.]

D. “Our findings do lead us to doubt that discrimination against conservatives is the major cause of professorial liberalism.” [The liberals-are-biased-against-conservatives theory is set aside.]

E. “The fact that just under half of graduate students are liberal seems a much more likely proximate cause of the phenomenon of professional liberalism overall.” [The self-selection theory is declared triumphant.]

F. “We find no evidence that the liberalism effect is explained away by the association with conscientiousness or having a fertile imagination and graduate school attendance.”  However, “an interest in abstract ideas […] is a major predictor of graduate school attendance.”  [The liberals-are-more-open-minded theory fails, though they are more prone to abstraction.]

G. “Early marriage corresponds with an unexpected 3.7 percentage point increase in the likelihood of pursuing a doctorate, although this effect does not meet classical standards of statistical significance.” [The lifestyle-liberalism theory is contradicted by this.]

H. “Religious faith in a respondent’s life has no effect on her or his propensity to attend graduate school versus stop at a bachelor’s degree.” [The grad-school-appeals-to-secularists theory fails.]

I.    “Materialism is a small, statistically insignificant predictor of graduate school attendance.” [The conservatives-prefer-money-to-learning theory fails.]             

In short, all the self-congratulatory rationalizations for liberal domination of the academic professions fail to find support in this rigorous study.  This is a major finding, but Gross oddly throws his rhetorical emphasis on something else.  Peter Schmidt quotes him as declaring that “The relative paucity of conservatives in the professoriate” [Schmidt's words]

does not seem to be the result of bias or discrimination against them.  [Gross's words]

Here, unfortunately, Gross offers what looks like a strange over-simplification. I am perfectly persuaded by his model of “self-selection” as the primary means by which the liberal professoriate continuously reproduces itself. But this is a foreshortened observation, not unlike explaining the line in front of the movie theater by hypothesizing that the people in line want to see the movie. Granted this is a better explanation than “the people in the line are smarter than those waiting in front of the dry cleaning shop hoping see the latest Pixar adventure.” Or the explanation that they are “waiting because they are more open-minded than the people across the way at the restaurant.” But none of this gets to the question of why these particular people have chosen to stand in line for this particular movie. The explanation that Gross and his colleagues have put forth amounts to saying that the self-selected movie audience builds itself on its pre-established predilections.

It is a theory innocent of any idea of marketing or any mechanism of an active dynamic between what the sellers want to sell and what the buyers can be persuaded to buy. That graduate school these days appeals to those who already see themselves as liberal can surely surprise no one. Gross thinks this fact goes far towards refuting the idea that active bias plays a significant, let alone a determinative role, in sustaining the liberal preponderance among faculty members. But it is no kind of refutation at all.

The line of self-selected liberal students waiting to get into liberally-dominated programs is “self” selected only in the sense that it is the target audience.  Bias is a lot more complicated than hanging the equivalent of a “No Irish Need Apply” sign in the window. One would think that liberals, who have made the study of discrimination one of the central themes of their scholarship for the last half century, would understand that. The most effective way to keep out a whole class of people who are unwelcome isn’t to bar entry, but to make sure that very few in that class will want to enter. If it comes down to it, entry can still be impeded through other techniques, the feminist and the multiculturalist vetoes on the faculty search committee being the deadliest as far as conservatives go, although there are others.

The companion paper to the one I have been discussing is titled “Political Bias in the Graduate Admissions process: A Field Experiment.” It is in my view a slighter work, but given the attention that The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed have paid to it, I should comment on it too

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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