Academic Conservatives and Survivor Bias
By David Henderson
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.”