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How Not to Address Liberal Bias in Academia

I agree it's a problem. I don't agree it needs a solution.

Politically, academia is about as unbalanced as Norman Bates. Attempts to justify it contain eerie echoes of a 1950s CEO explaining why blacks and women simply weren’t qualified to ever do anything more taxing than make coffee and sweep floors.

I have argued about this topic before, and I am not going to rehash. Accept, arguendo, that academia isn’t balanced. The problem is bigger in some disciplines, smaller in others, but there’s nowhere that the skew doesn’t show up to some extent. Nor is it simply caused by academia hewing to its good old empirical priors while American politics moves wildly in other directions; academia has moved sharply to the left. What should we do about it?

Well, the first thing we should consider doing is “nothing.” As a public policy choice, "nothing" is far too often undervalued -- indeed, often ignored. But as I like to say, the existence of a problem does not imply the existence of a solution. It does not guarantee that any plausible cure will be better than the disease.

And how big a problem is this, really? Yes, it’s hard on conservatives who may find it harder to get that academic job they’ve always wanted. But as any statistician will tell you, expecting every subgroup to exactly mirror the larger population is folly. Unless you can show that this is having a big impact on academia, and the larger society that depends on its research -- and show that you’ve got a solution that will actually make academia better rather than worse -- then probably “nothing” is what we should do.

Liberals who have been nodding along, and any conservatives who disagree, will notice that these are, of course, exactly the arguments that have long been leveled against “affirmative action.” And some conservative lawmakers have apparently decided that affirmative action isn’t so bad after all. In at least two states, legislators are pushing language that would force the state university system to be more politically representative by incorporating more conservatives.

These measures do not seem overlikely to pass. But the mere fact that they are being put out there is interesting, because for years conservatives have been saying they didn’t want quotas. Now maybe some do.

That’s not entirely surprising. For a while now, Jonathan Haidt and the rest of the fine folks at Heterodox Academy have been patiently arguing that academia’s bias does matter. For one thing, it skews how research is done, and gets bias-tainted results. For another, there’s at least some evidence that conservatives are being discriminated against for their beliefs, and we tend to think that stereotyping and excluding people is bad. And for a third, an academia that becomes an institution dedicated to pushing a particular political agenda, and producing research that “proves” that people who embrace that agenda are smarter and more rational than those who don’t, is an institution that has made itself profoundly politically vulnerable.

This bill is a symptom of conservatives' antipathy. So are bills attacking the tenure system. The more successful academia is at turning itself into a pure redoubt of progressive ideals, the more likely that castle is to fall.

That’s not to say that quotas for conservatives are a good idea. For one thing, it’s a whole lot easier to lie about being a conservative than it is to pretend to be a Hawaiian native. The most likely result of forcing schools to maintain ideological parity with distribution of party registrations within the state is that a lot of professors (the ones who don’t care about voting in primaries) will switch their voter registration. This not only doesn’t improve matters, but will actually destroy one of the best measures we have of the partisan skew in the academy.

For another, the mechanics are daunting. Party registrations vary year to year: do you fire a math teacher who’s ace at teaching calculus because oops, we have one too many Republicans now?  And for a third, the pipeline of graduate schools has not produced all the conservative PhDs you’d need, and at best, won’t for many years. Where do you find professors? Especially ones who are willing to move to your state? Picture bidding wars over a handful of conservatives, and skyrocketing tuition costs.

But the very existence of these bills should be a warning sign to academia, and not just at state schools. (Virtually all of the colleges that aren’t state schools are nonetheless dependent on free-flowing student loan dollars, and that program too will be vulnerable if conservatives decide it’s just a way to fund their political enemies.) The impregnability of the ivory tower is an illusion, because it depends more than ever on a steady flow of government money. If academia defines itself too explicitly as the enemy of the folks controlling that money, the spigot will turn, and the garden inside will rapidly begin to dry up.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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