Affirmative action and the Academy

by nkronos on February 12, 2011

A recent talk by Jonathan Haidt and covered by the New York Times–despite stating what is obvious to anyone familiar with academia and even most of those who are not–has caused a stir in its claims regarding the representation of political ideologies within the professoriate. Although the vast disproportion of Democrats and liberals to Republicans, Independents, conservatives, and moderates has long been in evidence–quantitatively so at least since Cardiff and Klein’s 2005 study–the controversy stems not from disputing the conventional wisdom that research has only reinforced. Rather, it is the causes of this apparent bias that generate much heat.

Dr. Haidt’s explanation:

This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity….Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities under-represented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation. But when we find out that conservatives are under-represented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.

According to Haidt, the nature of the discrimination is, at least in the case of his field of sociology, a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” hindering research and damaging credibility—and blinding sociologists to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals. From the global warming debate it is also obvious that even the natural sciences evidence this same hostility to contradiction of the group narrative. That is, whereas any research can be expected to face contradiction of its conclusions, the scientist who produces research unsupportive of the party line can expect ridicule, the scientist who offers even shoddy and unprofessional support can expect praise.

From the other side, liberals like Paul Krugman and Razib Khan have offered full-throated defenses of the status quo. Krugman says ideology is not race because one can choose ideology. He appears not to be familiar with other studies showing that perhaps a genetic predisposition toward ideology does exist. And importantly in the context of this debate, the genetic predisposition interacts with its social context (such as friendships) as to whether it will be expressed in attitudes and behavior.

Khan–like many pat-myself-on-the-back liberals–assumes “conservatives value the remuneration of the conventional private sector more than liberals, who may opt for the prestige and status of the Academy.” I have news for Khan: Outside the Academy itself, the prestige and status of those successful in the private sector exceed that of those in academia.

Haidt takes on his critics himself here.

Khan’s statement, however, illustrates the problem for society with academia’s bias. When one group excludes another, it is tolerable to American society for two reasons: 1) right of association or 2) a reasonable basis exists for the discrimination. We can eliminate the right of association for justifying the liberal discrimination against conservatives in this case because–whatever its members may think–the Academy is not a private club but a group of professions. In excluding conservatives, the liberals are depriving others of their livelihoods, just as though they opted to exclude all Orthodox Jews.

What about a reasonable basis? Certainly modern medicine can legitimately exclude from surgery the doctor who does not believe in germs and refuses to disinfect before operating. That, however, is a practice–not just a thought or idea.

The problem with unfair bias from a social viewpoint after all is not about the individual. All of us assume that life is not fair, so when a black woman is unfairly denied a job, why should we particularly care about that more than the bad singer being denied a place at the Super Bowl half-time show? Society’s interest comes from bias causing, in the case of irrational bases discrimination, less than optimum results. If the mediocre applicant gets the job because of prejudice, then the results for society will be worse than had the better candidate received the job.

In the field of education we should especially worry about less than optimum hiring because researchers and teachers produce the next generation of research and teaching. And so on. Moreover, today’s consensus may only be a local maximum or minimum that will never be recognized as such without the input of those who think outside the box.

Tenure, in fact, is usually justified with the purported need to protect academic freedom and expression, especially of unconventional ideas. Ironically, those who most support tenure tend to do so only when the ideas come from one particular side of the ideological spectrum.

Besides the tendency of the in group to reinforce its own views, it is likely the life experience of academics that causes them to become insularly liberal. Those living in a quasi-socialist environment will either adapt to it and like it, or go elsewhere. Those who stay will have little experience with how the rest of American society lives, other than what they read in their professional journals and see on TV–also presented by like-minded folks. Given the particular attractions of an academic career, the Ivory Tower is an unlikely place to “be mugged”–the metaphorical event usually described as necessary for turning liberals into conservatives.

Whatever their fairness, socialist systems, are not known for efficiency. Hence, our education system–at all levels–has become one of the most bloated in America in terms of dollars over results produced. Perhaps were there a better balance between conservative and liberal views, we would not be seeing such a ripening bubble in college education. And Forbes magazine would not be describing our universities as “On the Brink.

Perhaps it’s time for the Academy to consider the modest proposal of practicing affirmative action toward conservative job applicants.

Edit: The last line above is meant to be tongue-in-cheek with the “modest proposal” a reference to Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay. As a conservative, I’m not actually advocating any such thing.

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