Bryan Caplan  

Does the Median Voter Model Explain Departmental Politics?

Bailie Mae... Look at Cuba...

Most academic departments are democracies, at least on paper. Do they work the same way as other democracies, where the median voter basically gets his way? (Well, at least that's my take on democracy).

From my experience, the answer is a strong yes. Hiring decisions are usually the main subject of controversy. The people who get hired generally match the preferences of the moderate members of the department in all major respects. If the moderate members want to hire theorists (often, though not always, because they are theorists), the department hires theorists. In departments where members care about politics (social sciences and humanities, for the most part), the winning candidates generally share the politics of the moderate members of the department. In fields like math, physics, and economics, where profs care more about merit than "diversity," (and strongly believe that a trade-off exists) you see far fewer "diversity hires" than you do in fields like English or sociology.

Another contentious issue, of course, is compensation. How unequal should salaries be - and should the main correlate of pay be merit or seniority? On this issue, I can't honestly say that I've actually looked at pay structures for various departments. But my impression is that fields where egalitarian values are weaker - like hard sciences and economics - have more inequality and less emphasis on seniority than other fields. (Anyone else care to chime in here?)

On the surface, there are two reasons to doubt that the median voter model would work at the level of academic departments. The first is the standard objection that the model requires unidimensional preferences. But there's lots of evidence from the real world of politics that multidimensionality is an illusion; while there are many issues, political struggle generally boils down to One Big Issue (like liberalism versus conservatism in the U.S.). It's far from clear that academic politics is any different, though the One Big Issue probably varies from field to field, and even department to department. (Is there One Big Issue in your department? If so, what?)

The more serious objection to applying the median voter model to academic politics is that the model assumes that two people actually want to be chairman! According to the model, the winning politician has to give the median voter what he wants. If he doesn't, a competing politician will. In academia, however, the job of chairman is often so unrewarding that it's hard enough to get one person to run for office, much less two. In principle, that should give the chairman some compensatory slack to do as he likes.

Perhaps the median voter model seems to work simply because the guy who gets stuck with the job is usually a moderate? As long as moderates predominate, this would happen with no selection mechanism at all. (Hmm, this reminds me of a paper I wrote on why dictatorship has less effect on policy than you'd think).

Are there any other big academic issues that I'm missing? How well does the median voter model work there?

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Richard Pointer writes:

I am on my way to getting rejects from all 7 of my choices for phd. Can you apply this to grad school applications too?

Unit writes:

Another Big Issue is good-researcher vs. good-teacher. I think you're right: departments often settle for a candidate who's a relatively good teacher and a relatively good researcher, but tend to shun the other two (more extreme) situations.

Phil Cohen writes:

But this seems to be the way economists work in general. For example a recent WSJ article assumes that economic predictions are normally distributed. Why shouldn't opinions on hiring be treated similarly.

NABE Forecasters: Stagflation in ‘08?

Feb 23, 2008 09:31:00 GMT

U.S. economic growth will slow to a crawl but avoid recession during the first half of this year while inflation will continue to rise, economists surveyed by the National Association for Business Economics said.

The association’s latest quarterly survey shows 55% of respondents expect the nation will avoid a recession. But they expect growth of the gross domestic product of just 0.4% at an annual rate in the first three months of 2008, followed by a 1% pace over the following three months.

Of the 45% who predicted the U.S. will enter a recession this year, most expect a “short and shallow” downturn. Only a few are projecting a “deep, protracted slide in economic activity.”

Despite the slowing economy, the forecasters raised their inflation estimates. They expect consumer prices to be 2.5% higher at the end of this year compared to last year. And they predict a key gauge of prices that excludes food and energy to rise 2% during that time.

The survey of 49 forecasters took place from Jan. 25 to Feb. 13, the group said..........

[From The Wall Street Journal online--Econlib Ed.]

David Tufte writes:

I think there are 3 aspects where - after many seconds of sorta' deep thinking - I'm not sure I can see through how this might work.

1) What if a department is looking to hire someone who is obviously and significantly better than current faculty along certain dimensions (e.g., like GMU hiring Vernon Smith).

2) How about if a department hires someone in a field that is not of interest to the median voter?

3) Tenure decisions always seem to be bidimensional: a) what is the person's vita like, and b) can we stand to have them around.

ajb writes:

You forgot one more important point: At the private schools which pay the most and usually have the most unequal pay (e.g. top econ or bschools), salaries are set by the Deans and the Chairmen, not the department. In fact, salaries are confidential information and it is often not possible for colleagues to do more than guess what those salaries are. Only state schools have to reveal the salaries. Published scales suggest less inequality than in top privates. Berkeley and the UC system always gets flack when it comes out that some of the big shots are getting paid 5X-10X what run of the mill profs get, especially across fields.

Dr. T writes:
Most academic departments are democracies...
The academic medicine departments that I know about resemble autocracies, not democracies. The chairs, who are not elected, control the departments. The first three chairs I worked for had dictatorial attitudes.

Compensation in academic medicine departments is not based on the median faculty preference but on what the chair wishes to offer. I knew a Medicine chair who paid abysmally low salaries to junior faculty ($50-60,000) so he would have more money for unfunded research. (Research was prestigious; young physicians were not.)

As for politics, there usually was strong competition for department chair positions. Sometimes there was a "shoo-in" internal candidate, but many times there was a national search. The department members had little input either way: the dean and a few key department chairs controlled the selection process.

Blackadder writes:

"According to the [median voter] model, the winning politician has to give the median voter what he wants. If he doesn't, a competing politician will. In academia, however, the job of chairman is often so unrewarding that it's hard enough to get one person to run for office, much less two."

My guess is that for the typical chairman, the overriding goal is not maintaining power but maintaining peace. If he does something that a lot of people don't like, the concern is not that people will vote him out of office, but that they will come and complain. This, I would imagine, would lead to results broadly similar to those under a median voter model.

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