The ‘Problem’ of Liberal Academics, Again

Eric Alterman debunks the recurring argument that liberal dominance of academia is detrimental to society.

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David Horowitz, above, has been decrying liberal dominance in academia for more than a decade. But a University of Virginia social psychologist has also taken up the argument and is highlighted in a recent <i>New York Times</i> article. (AP/Bebeto Matthews)
David Horowitz, above, has been decrying liberal dominance in academia for more than a decade. But a University of Virginia social psychologist has also taken up the argument and is highlighted in a recent New York Times article. (AP/Bebeto Matthews)

Here we go again. The periodic “problem” of liberal dominance of academia is back. Indeed, it never left. Former left-wing-Stalinist-turned-right-wing-Stalinist David Horowitz has been bilking gullible wingnut contributors for more than a decade now by making this same complaint, most often in lurid McCarthyite terms. But Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia social psychologist celebrated in a recent New York Times column by John Tierney for insisting that the liberal bent of social science professors represents a “statistically impossible lack of [ideological] diversity,” is no David Horowitz (or he wouldn’t be worth discussing).

Again, Haidt’s news is not new. Horowitz’s ravings aside, we heard four years ago from a team of sociologists that “Democrats typically outnumber Republicans at elite universities by at least six to one among the general faculty, and by higher ratios in the humanities and social sciences.” One study found, for instance, that Democratic-leaning psychology professors outnumber Republicans by a factor of nearly 12-to-1. Overall, when it comes to social science faculty, 72 percent identify as liberal.

What Haidt brings to the party is a new thesis. He insists, according to Tierney’s reporting, that liberal social scientists constitute a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility—as well as blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for nonliberals.

Haidt adds, “Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation. … but when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

Well, perhaps, though, it’s just a hypothesis. And when you examine the details of his case they begin to look less impressive than Tierney tries to make them. Speaking of then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1964 infamous report on the state of the “Negro family,” Haidt notes that it left Moynihan “shunned by many of his colleagues at Harvard as racist,” adding, “Open-minded inquiry into the problems of the black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed. Only in the last few years have liberal sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along.”

If only life were so simple. It’s true that Moynihan was shunned by some on the left and unfairly labeled a racist. And it’s furthermore accurate to observe that important areas of discussion were likely shut down as a result of the treatment accorded Moynihan. But while Moynihan was always a spirited thinker and brave intellectual spirit, he was a decidedly careless social scientist. His report, while prophetic in significant respects, contained a number of cockamamie arguments based on the role of slavery on the contemporary black psyche. It was at least understandable that so many academics who studied the complexities of the situation were reluctant to embrace his arguments.

A second example of Haidt’s (and Tierney’s) focuses on the case of Larry Summers, “then president of Harvard, [who] was ostracized in 2005 for wondering publicly whether the preponderance of male professors in some top math and science departments might be due partly to the larger variance in I.Q. scores among men (meaning there are more men at the very high and very low ends).”

“This was not a permissible hypothesis,” Dr. Haidt says. “It blamed the victims rather than the powerful. The outrage ultimately led to his resignation. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely.”

Well again, yes and no. Summers did not actually present any evidence for his thesis, and the fact that the president of Harvard was presenting it had the likely consequence of discouraging women from entering fields in which they had not had the chance to succeed in the past. Plus, the insistence that it cost Summers his job ignores the fact that Summers has famously offended a rather large portion of those with whom he’s worked in the past and may not have been the best choice for the job in the first place. Certainly this was the case in his deliberate alienation of then-star Harvard African-American studies professor Cornel West, who as a result left for Princeton.

Clearly Summers was a bull in a china shop and might very well have been forced out of Harvard no matter what he thought about women and science.

Finally, the causes for liberal domination of social sciences are not that mysterious. Professors care less about money than most people, which makes them less likely to be Republican. What’s more, they value evidence over ideology, and so are unlikely to be seduced by arguments that merely assume the superiority of “free market” in every area of life (except when corporations need a bailout).

They are aware, for instance, that invariably for the past half-century, Democratic administrations have outperformed Republicans in terms of economic growth without exception.

Paul Krugman puts it thusly: “Biologists, physicists, and chemists are all predominantly liberal; does this reflect discrimination, or the tendency of people who actually know science to reject a political tendency that denies climate change and is broadly hostile to the theory of evolution?”

Conservatives who oppose affirmative action on racial or class grounds appear awfully sympathetic to it on ideological grounds, at least when it might redound in their favor, whether in academia or in journalism, where the practice has become fully entrenched in recent years to judge by the quality of the right-wing bloggers hired at, say, The Washington Post.

Conservatives also do not complain that top U.S. military officers skew 66 percent Republican. Nor do we hear much complaint about the fact that the ranks of corporate CEOs are dominated by people who, judging by the evidence, do not appear to care terribly much about economic inequality.

In his famous 1950 forward to the collection, The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling observed, "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition," adding that “the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse … do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."

Trilling did not much care for the future of what passed for conservative thought in the United States. But he did worry liberalism would grow weak and flaccid without strong conservative thinkers to challenge and sharpen it. And here, and only here, can one find a sensible albeit arguable case for academic affirmative action for conservatives. Though I’m not sure conservatives should be the ones making them.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.

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