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Wishful thinking on the Right

Reader comment on item: Conservative Professors, an Endangered Species

Submitted by Norman Levitt (United States), Apr 12, 2005 at 20:25

In a nutshell, I disagree that the reason for the undoubted disparity between liberal and right wing professors on most mainstream (that is, unaffiliated with conservative religious groups) campuses. A small fraction of that imbalance can be attributed to exclusionary practices on the part of left-leaning faculty--but no more than that. Indeed, there are areas where left-of-center scholars find themselves at a disadvantage. For instance, this is a fact of life in economics because of the hegemony of "neoclassical" economists. And obviously, business schools are hardly hotbeds of leftism. Consequently, there is probably at least a rough balance between leftists and rightists who are derailed for explicitly ideological reasons.

What, then, accounts for the overwhelming prevalence of left-of-center (as this is defined in American politics) sentiment among professors? I offer some thoughts from my own long experience as one of the breed, leading to conclusions that the right will find quite unpleasant, but which are nonetheless quite sound. I have worked at universities as a member of mathematics departments for almost 40 years. In particular, I have been at my current institution for 35 years, most of them as a member of the senior faculty, in a department of about 100 members. In that capacity, I have participated in hundreds of hiring and promotion decisions at all ranks, from post-docs to full professors. If anything is clear, it is that no factors apart from the candidate's research and teaching ability (mostly the former, to be frank) have ever been permitted to be mentioned, let alone taken into consideration. Ethnicity, sex, religion, personal friendships, and, above all, political views are simply not taken into account. Anyone trying to inject such concerns would be shouted down immediately. Most of the people we hire are strangers, apart from a brief visit where the main business is for them to lecture on whatever arcane mathematics they specialize in. There is no way of knowing what their ideological or social views are.

So what is the resulting distribution of political views? Quite simply, the overwhelming majority of my colleagues are emphatically liberal in political outlook. Just to give a benchmark, it's quite clear that at least 90% of them voted for Kerry in the last election (that may be understating it).

What accounts for this immense disparity (which will be found at almost all "research oriented" mathematics departments, by the way)? Obviously not discrimination against conservatives or favoritism toward liberals in the hiring and promotion process. The simple, and most likely answer, is that people with enough brains to do mathematics (and that means an awful lot of brains) simply don't buy into the right's Weltanshauung. Extrapolating a little bit, the same general principal applies to many other academic fields--within the humanities and social sciences, as well as in the "hard' sciences. The blunt truth is that, though there are numerous exceptions, smart people by and large don't think very much of conservatism. One can see the same phenomenon in action in the political views of students at elite universities, those where SAT scores of 1500 are routine. The political mood is overwhelmingly liberal.

It is ironic, but unsurprising, then, to see conservatives whining to their pet politicians, demanding that they pressure universities into hiring professors on the basis of political views. This is "affirmative action" of the most obnoxious sort and in the end amounts to a demand that faculties be dumbed down in order to make them more congenial to the right. The right argues that faculty opinion ought to be more in tune with the opinion of the general population. One might as well argue that a large number of Creationists should be appointed to biology departments because a huge number of American citizens believe in Creationism!
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