On the absence of conservatives in higher education

9 Jun

From Steven HAyward in the New Criterion:

The social scientist Neil Gross made a splash last year with his book Why Are Professors Liberal, and Why Do Conservatives Care?, which, among other things, attempted to refute the claim that conservatives face ideological discrimination in academic hiring. There is some quantitative evidence (with more on the way soon) of ideological discrimination, which Gross grudgingly acknowledges, but he then goes to great lengths to argue that it is vastly overestimated.

He may be partly right, but not for the reasons his data-rich analysis lays out. Furthermore, Gross does not begin to reach the more important dimensions of the ideological shape of today’s humanities and social science departments that come into play before you even reach the fever swamps of race, class, and gender.

Liberals have pushed back against the charge of ideological discrimination in hiring with an entirely valid point: You guys don’t show up! There simply aren’t many conservative graduate students in the humanities and social sciences. If the top 200 universities set out to hire a conservative for each of their humanities departments, they’d run out after about 75; in some departments, they might run out of qualified conservative job candidates after about two. And if you can’t find newly minted Ph.D.’s for tenure track jobs, you have to poach the thin ranks of conservatives already in academia somewhere, leading to no net increase in conservative presence in universities. But while liberals can’t be blamed wholly for this, they can be blamed for acquiescing in, when not actively causing, the degradation of the humanities and social sciences in ways make academic track jobs repellent to many intellectual conservatives. Understanding what has taken place requires a three-part analysis.

First, it is necessary to take brief note of what so many are calling the “higher education bubble,” that is, the shockingly high cost of colleges and universities today. It is necessary to connect this trend with the precipitous decline in enrollment in humanities and social sciences—a 50 percent decline over the last generation. It is presumed that this decline is a direct result of education’s high cost and increasing job consciousness among students, but the decline in humanities and social science enrollment preceded the worst of higher education cost inflation. In other words, the soaring cost of college may have only aggravated a more important underlying cause.

Second, it is useful to pose a series of questions about what might be learned from the particular places where you do find conservatives in higher education—questions that are susceptible of a range of possible answers, and therefore perhaps more controversial.

Third, there is no escaping or papering over the substantive differences between the way left and right think about education itself. These differences explain a lot of things that have escaped notice, but taking these differences into account might ironically make liberalism more robust on campus.

Everyone knows what has happened to the cost of higher education: a 500 percent increase in college tuition in the last twenty-five years, while the Consumer Price Index rose just 115 percent. By contrast, health care costs have risen just 300 percent. The figure the White House put out to accompany President Obama’s speech last summer on this subject noted that, since 1983, tuition and fees at four-year public colleges have risen by 257 percent, while typical family incomes have advanced 16 percent. What is less well known is the adverse result: Today, only about 7 percent of recent college graduates come from the bottom-income quartile, compared with 12 percent in 1970, when federal aid was scarce. From a liberal egalitarian point of view, we’re going in the wrong direction.

The decline in humanities and social science enrollment began long before the current economic downturn made students more hyperconscious of the marketability of their degree. And if the enrollment in humanities courses continues to slide, can a reduction in humanities faculty positions be far behind? I think we are not far from starting to see “double-retirements,” that is tenure-line faculty positions in the humanities discontinued when a senior professor retires. Already we’re witnessing signs of a rapidly shrinking hiring market in the humanities and some social sciences. Political science hiring is down sharply in recent years according to numbers out of the American Political Science Association.

It could be even worse. In Vietnam, still run by the Communist Party, the very selective national university is offering free tuition to anyone who signs up for the university’s curriculum in Marxism. They’ve had to offer free tuition because no students have been signing up for these courses. I can’t help but be amused that the market-clearing price for courses in radical philosophy is lower in a Communist university than in American higher education.

All of this happens in the context of the peculiar world of academic employment in which the road to a professorship has always been steep. Now it’s no longer just a steep hill—more like a rock climb without ropes. Max Weber said over a hundred years ago that “Academic life is an utter gamble.” The odds are getting steadily worse, and if you’re a rational person calculating the odds, you may shy away from a Ph.D. track, or consider non-academic paths as more attractive than academic paths. This probably describes conservatives more than liberals.

It is here that some of the data that Neil Gross, Harvard’s Louis Menand, and others have unearthed and reanalyzed is interesting and helpful, and provides the transition to my short set of queries. Drawing on student survey data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, Matthew and April Woessner found that self-identified conservative students report higher levels of satisfaction with their university educational experience than self-identified moderate or liberal students, though not surprisingly conservative students report lower levels of satisfaction than liberal students with the humanities and social sciences. (Incidentally, the data found that liberal and conservative students tend to get higher grades than moderates or students who report no political outlook.)

On the surface you’d think that the pool of conservative students who express satisfaction with higher education would lead more of them toward graduate paths, except for their evident alienation from the liberal dominance of the humanities and social sciences, perhaps along with a perceived higher salience for conservatives on pursuing “practical” professional vocations. While these factors can’t be dismissed, Neil Gross points to compelling data about how the most important determinants of whether students go into graduate study are not large ideological factors, but mundane things like whether students have close relationships with professors or find academic mentors to encourage them along graduate paths. And lacking mentors and direct encouragement means that liberal predominance in graduate education, and hence the ranks of left-leaning professors becomes self-reinforcing, even if there is zero political bias in hiring decisions.

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