David R. Henderson  

Academic Conservatives and Survivor Bias

Jerry Taylor's Sleight of Hand... Innovative bureaucracies?...

Someone on Facebook this morning linked to an interesting, but misleading titled, op/ed on conservatives in academia. The op/ed, by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr., is titled "Forget what the right says: Academia isn't so bad for conservative professors," and appears in the Washington Post.

Shields is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and Dunn is an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. They coauthored Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University.

Their op/ed is much more nuanced than the title suggests. Here's a paragraph that, given the article's title, might surprise you:

First, conservative professors are not helpless victims -- they have become quite skilled at navigating the progressive university. About a third of the professors we interviewed said they concealed their politics prior to earning tenure. Of course, being in the closet is not easy. (One particularly distressed professor told us: "It is dangerous to even think [a conservative thought] when I'm on campus, because it might come out of my mouth.") But it's also a temporary hardship, since nearly all the conservatives whom we interviewed planned to emerge from the ivory tower's shadows after gaining tenure. Once tenured, conservatives are free to express their politics and publish research that reflects right-wing interests and perspectives. As one put it to us: "I don't mind causing trouble now."

My own impression is that libertarians are treated better than conservatives, but both groups face the challenge above.

Some people might say, "Oh, concealing my political views for 6 to 10 years is no big deal." I have trouble concealing my views in a one-hour conversation. Even if I zip my tongue, which I have become not bad at, my body language and facial expression show a lot. I would not be a good poker player.

And beyond that, one of the things that many conservatives and libertarians like to do is academic work and teaching in which their views show up. Take teaching. I don't know, for example, many economists who teach a lecture on public choice in which they don't end up concluding that the government doesn't work very well in most instances. Or consider research. Often the research you choose to do reflects your prior beliefs about government policy. That doesn't mean that you can't reach conclusions that are at odds with your priors, but let's say that you're analyzing price controls on oil. It's unlikely that you'll find great effects. So it's not just no big deal to conceal your views, as Shields and Dunn admit in the quote above.

The reason for the title of this post is this excerpt from the paragraph above:

they have become quite skilled at navigating the progressive university.

Exactly. That's what you need to do. And not everyone is so skilled at that. So what you get is survivor bias. The conservatives and libertarians who make it are either those who go where there are a fair number of people who share their views or those who get "skilled at navigating."

It's pretty easy to understand why a lot of people who could be promising academics don't want to live that way for 1/14 to 1/8 of their life.

They also write:

This prejudice has professional consequences for right-leaning academics. Scholars Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter found that socially conservative professors tend to work at lower-ranked institutions than their publication records would predict. In addition, a study of elite law schools shows that libertarian and conservative professors publish more than their peers, which suggests that conservatives must outshine liberals to reach the summit of their profession. The finding is especially striking given that other research suggests it is more difficult for scholars to publish work that reflects conservative perspectives.

That, plus the navigating, reminds me of something I read somewhere after the very productive scholar Aaron Wildasky of UC Berkeley died. (See this excellent piece that he and his son Adam did for The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.) Apparently someone had said that his example gave the lie to the idea that you couldn't be an iconoclastic conservative scholar in a top school. Someone else responded that the Wildavsky case, far from being a counterexample, made the point about bias: you had to be that good to make it if you had his views.

I do agree with their conclusion, especially with the inserts I've added in brackets:

And, finally, movement conservatives [and libertarians] should deescalate their rhetorical war against the progressive university. Such polemics, after all, may inadvertently solidify progressives' troubled rule over academia by discouraging young conservatives [and libertarians] from becoming professors.

P.S. You might wonder how I made it in academia given that I didn't hide my views at all and that my Fortune and Wall Street Journal articles, although they didn't count towards tenure, displayed my views. My answer is two words that I learned from my daughter Karen. My wife was back east for her stepfather's funeral and I was taking care of Karen for 3 or 4 days. Toward the end of that time, I lost patience with her and yelled. She pointed her finger at me and yelled back "Be nice."

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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Peter writes:

Lesson: Tenure is not only a moral hazard in an economic sense (it removes the incentive to continue to work hard), it is a moral hazard in a personal sense (denying one's own self).

It is an anachronism that should be abolished.

Nathan Forczyk writes:

I can claim to have experienced the ire of both left wing and right wing academics. After defending my dissertation I left academia for the financial sector.

While in graduate school, I told a professor that was head of my committee that I did not hate Reagan as much as she did. It wasn't long after that my committee collapsed and I ended up transferring to another department within the same university.

Near the end, I taught at a different school that was in the state capital. That department got grant money by issuing reports to rubber stamp the (very red state) government's plans. I was told my funding was gone and oddly a graduate student I knew that was from a wealthy and politically connected family got my spot. He was straight down the line a GOP loyalist.

I never cared much for politics and in a way I think thats how I ended up irking both sides. At least academics eventually get to voice their opinion. In my current role I cannot express any opinion to anyone.

Andrew_FL writes:

It's not just academics. Anywhere dominated by left wing people you have to conceal your views if you want to avoid being ostracized. PC culture is getting worse, too. I used to feel like I could be candid with good friends, but not anymore.

With regard to writing/working on things that reflect your beliefs, I have the opposite problem. I write/analyze fiction as a hobby. Maintaining credibility with a largely left wing community on things totally unrelated to politics requires that I can never let them know what I really think about anything political.

Noah writes:

Perhaps conservative intellectuals are just thin-skinned, and prefer to leave rather than have to defend their ideas?

On the matter of "Be nice" - my personal experience was that the conservative professors (don't wanna name names, but they also tended to be heavily recruited for public speaking gigs), when questioned about their models in class, would offensively or patronizingly attack me for my stupidity in not understanding how patently obvious their models or theories were, whereas in cases where I thought introducing right wing orthodoxy to the debate was the more important counterpoint, I found myself met with patient explanation of why such orthodoxy did not offer a sufficiently satisfactory explanation.

Be nice indeed. That might help a lot.

MikeDC writes:
And, finally, movement conservatives [and libertarians] should deescalate their rhetorical war against the progressive university. Such polemics, after all, may inadvertently solidify progressives' troubled rule over academia by discouraging young conservatives [and libertarians] from becoming professors.

I don't see how talking about progressives' rule over academia is going to be more discouraging than the reality of progressives' rule over academia.

Why shouldn't young conservatives be discouraged? Even if we take having some conservatives in academia as a good thing (I do), I see
1. A low probability of challenging the rule of absurd political correctness through the appointment of more conservatives.
2. A very low success rate and very low utility gains for successful conservative academics. How much utility does one gain by being in the closet? Not much, I'd imagine. Even with the freedom of tenure, how much tripe would you have to wade through as a conservative academic? An enormous amount. For every one of these "success stories" of people who deceive everyone into tenure, there has to be quite a few "failure stories" of people who spend a big chunk of their lives striving toward a goal they fail to reach. Yuck. That sounds awful.

David Hart writes:

I found that having a split (or rather multiple) personality helped in coping within academia (where I dwelt for 15 years). Since libertarians have views which crossover the traditional political spectrum, talk to conservative colleagues about topics we agree upon, such as free markets, limited government, and the evil wars the other party starts; talk to social democrats about the evils of crony capitalism and the evil wars the other party starts; talk to Marxists about the ruling class and the wars they start. You can then get on well with them personally around the office and the staff club. You just have to reassemble your brain at the end of the day to restore your sanity.

Brad writes:

One of the best examples of being nice is Milton Friedman. He had the uncanny ability to rip apart your argument while maintaining a smile.

I read the op/ed, by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr., on the struggles of conservative college professors and thought it embarrassingly laced with Stockholm syndrome.

I served for three years at an assistant professor in the political science department at Williams College. At the time, I was one of only three registered Republicans on the staff.

Here are links to two articles regarding my story.



I am especially bitter about how my doctoral dissertation was belittled by the political science department at Williams College. I developed my thesis while living in poverty, working as a gardener, and surviving without health insurance.

I’m still immensely proud of it.

It hurts me to think of all the young conservative professors who are being harmed by our college and university system. I left the profession for precisely the reasons you cite. I knew that my research had to be better than my liberal peers, and that it would be harder to get my ideas published as a conservative.

It wasn't worth it to me. I went into the private sector and now own a small consulting practice. I'm thankful for social media, however. At least now there is a channel for discussing the matters.

Mark writes:

I think there's no denying that conservative or libertarian faculty are held to higher standards of conduct in universities. If one of the former should, say, openly criticize affirmative action or suggest gender differences are largely innate, he must do so very carefully and politely to avoid scandal, and even then, he risks student protests and calls for resignation (Larry Summers and the Christakises, who weren't even conservative by any stretch, being two notable examples).

A progressive faculty member, however, may openly make bigoted remarks about males or white people or call for '1%ers' to be flayed or suggest the world would be better off if all males were eradicated, or what have you, and the worst that will likely happen will be an article written about them at thecollegefix.

I am lucky to be in the hard sciences now, but the atmosphere is pretty undeniable in the social sciences and humanities, especially in recent months with all the protests. If you're a right of center (or even just not far enough left of center) person, you have to learn to keep quiet at times. Hurting the wrong person's feelings, no matter irrational they are, can end a career.

Plucky writes:

I'll take "Barriers to Entry" for $2000, Alex

Josh Dunn writes:

David, Thanks for getting past the headline. It is terribly misleading and it wasn't ours. We didn't see it until the Post ran the piece.

David Henderson Author Profile Page writes:

You’re welcome, Josh. And thanks for commenting.

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