WSJ: Campus Unicorns: Conservative Professors

29 Apr

From Shields and Dunn at the WSJ:

Everyone knows that academia is predominantly liberal: Only 6.6% of professors in the social sciences are Republicans, according to a 2007 study. But what is life like for the pioneering conservatives who slip through the ivory tower’s gates? We decided to find out by interviewing 153 of them.

Many conservative professors said they felt socially isolated. A political scientist told us that he became a local pariah for defending the Iraq war in his New England college town, which he called “Cuba with bad weather.” One sociologist stated the problem well: “To say a strong conservative political opinion with conviction in an academic gathering is analogous to uttering an obscenity.” A prominent social scientist at a major research university spoke of the strain of concealing his political views from his colleagues—of “lying to people all the time.”

Some even said that bias had complicated their career advancement. A historian of Latin America told us that he suffered professionally after writing a dissertation on “middle-class white guys” when it was fashionable to focus on the “agency of subaltern peoples.” Though he doesn’t think the work branded him as a conservative, it certainly didn’t excite the intellectual interest of his peers.

A similarly retrograde literature professor sought advice from a colleague after struggling to land a tenure-track job. He was told that he had “a nice resume for 1940.” As Neil Gross has shown, liberal professors often believe that conservatives are closed-minded. If you got to choose your colleagues, would you hire someone you thought fit that description?

Yet the professors we spoke to were surprisingly sympathetic toward their liberal colleagues. “The majority always thinks it’s treating the minority well,” said the tormented social scientist mentioned above. “That’s a basic psychological trick we all play on ourselves.” Reflecting on bias in the peer-review process, a sociologist told us: “I don’t think there is conscious bad faith going on. I think when people read things they wish to politically sympathize with, it adds brightness points.”

Some professors suggested that there are compensating benefits to being out of place. For one, it’s easier to make innovative contributions. “I really do feel sorry for your absolutely conventional liberal scholar,” a political scientist told us. He imagined that it must be difficult to discover something new from “within the framework of their thinking.” Another made the point by posing a rhetorical question: “I mean, how many ways can you talk about inequality?” Other conservatives appreciated being held to a higher standard. “You can’t be lazy. You can’t—you’re not going to be cut any slack,” a philosopher said. “I think that’s a real advantage insofar as it makes the work better.”

That underlines an important point: Political bias expresses an intellectual orientation—one that inclines us to find some questions more important and some explanations more plausible. Because of this, none of us can rely on our fellow partisans to identify flaws in our thinking. Building an academic community with varied biases, then, is essential to the very health of the social sciences. Political uniformity makes it difficult to converge on the best approximation of the truth.

It’s true that in some happy cases social science is self-correcting. But it can take a very long time. Sociologists spent decades playing down the importance of two-parent households before finally admitting that family structure matters. As a conservative in the field told us: “Basically, sociology had to be dragged kicking and screaming until it recognized that broken families aren’t a good thing. It’s like, if you have to spend decades and millions of dollars in [National Science Foundation] grants to convince astronomers that the sun rises in the east.”

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