The Chronicle Review

Academe Is Overrun by Liberals. So What?

Oliver Munday for The Chronicle Review

April 01, 2016

E verybody loves diversity. It means decency and openness and we can’t get enough of it. Nowadays politicians, CEOs, and police chiefs call for diversity. In the universities, projects and programs pile up. We have diversity initiatives, statements, requirements, training, and courses — even diversity officers. Opposing diversity is like announcing membership in the Ku Klux Klan. You might as well climb on a desk and yell, "I am a racist and a bigot!" The diversity beast has grown so vast it is difficult to know where it starts and where it ends.

One thing is clear: Our obsession with diversity is fairly new. One marker might be the 1930s editions of the classic Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, whose contributors included many of the leading lights in sociology, anthropology, economics, and political science. Its 15 volumes have no entry for "diversity." Its comprehensive 150-page index has no reference to it. Now encyclopedias and handbooks exclusively devoted to diversity tumble off the presses. The editor of the new Routledge International Handbook of Diversity Studies celebrates the "outpouring of academic work surrounding diversity." The handbook has 41 contributors writing on subjects like "The Diversity of Milieu in Diversity Studies" and "Religious Differentiation and Diversity in Discourse and Practice."

Whence comes this beast? No one seems to know. Peter Wood, in his Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (Encounter, 2003), writes that before the 1978 Supreme Court decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, diversity was a "marginal idea." In Bakke, Justice Lewis Powell, writing the controlling opinion, suggested that universities have a legitimate interest in seeking diversity, which might include race. In making this argument, Powell leaned heavily on a two-page Harvard admissions document, which declared that "diversity adds an essential ingredient to the educational process." However, that diversity program had resulted in "very few ethnic or racial minorities" on the Harvard quad. "In recent years Harvard College has expanded the concept of diversity to include students from disadvantaged economic, racial, and ethnic groups." The formulation was brilliant. It avoided all red flags about racial quotas. It allowed admissions committees to discount scores and grades so as to admit someone in the name of diversity. It offered a broad idea of diversity that few could contest. It would have a fantastic run, which continues to this day.

No article, indeed no book, can hope even to outline the issues that the cult of diversity raises. For starters, what is not a sign of diversity? Are race, poverty, and Asian-Americanhood equally diverse? What about language spoken, religion, age, sexual orientation, income, and appearance? A danger exists that diversity loses all meaning as it balloons; the term becomes so lax that everything and anything signifies diversity.

The proposition that a university population — or a corporate work force — should be more diverse can be argued on the simple basis of justice: Doors should be open to groups that have historically been excluded. However, an assumption that a university should reflect the diversity of the larger population already gets tricky. Should all quarters of society demographically reflect all other quarters? Why? Should there be more pacifists in the military? Fewer Indian motel owners? As aggrieved critics of affirmative action have charged, at least when it comes to university admissions, more of one group means fewer of another; say, Asian-Americans or Jews, who are proportionately "overrepresented" at many elite universities.

A linkage between demographic and intellectual diversity lies at the heart of the argument that diversity is good for education, that student and faculty diversity abets the learning process. For that argument to make sense, people have to function as representatives of their group; otherwise, prioritizing group identity in the name of diversity is pointless — or no more convincing than a United Colors of Benetton ad, lovely but meaningless. Inasmuch as academic leftists champion diversity, a certain irony must be signaled. For decades they have poured scorn on "essentialism" and posited that all identity is "constructed." After years of postmodern guff, the arguers reverse themselves: You are your group identity, essentialism pure and simple.

A linkage between demographic and intellectual diversity lies at the heart of the argument that diversity is good for education.
Conservatives have long criticized this group approach as shortchanging the individual and promoting "group think." But in a shift, conservatives are jumping aboard the diversity train. They have turned diversity back on the diversifiers. To do this they have expanded the diversity categories by one more box. Diversity should now take measure of politics. Among the disadvantaged groups are conservatives themselves. Tactically this is brilliant but also a worrisome move.

Conservatives say they are underrepresented among college professors. (Oddly they, or the researchers who support their argument, do not target student populations for disparities, where the issue first arose. Might too many liberal students be admitted?) To show the faculty imbalance, scholars have matched names against voter-registration lists or sent out surveys to members of professional associations.

Recently some professors have gathered in a new organization, Heterodox Academy, to hammer away at this issue. The golden word appears in its founding statement. "Our mission is to increase viewpoint diversity in the academy." This means adding more conservatives. The outfit claims that its members cover the political spectrum, but they all object to a professoriate now "almost entirely on the left." For the Heterodox supporters, left-wing unanimity distorts research and teaching.

Heterodoxians and their sympathizers cite various surveys showing political lopsidedness on American college faculties. One small study, more than 10 years ago, found that while Left and Right in the general population are "roughly equal," on social studies and humanities faculties, Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly seven to one, which the authors describe as a striking "lack of ideological diversity." In the fields of sociology and anthropology, the ratios are even more skewed. In philosophy, in which few responded, the survey found only four Republicans. What’s next? A study showing English professors prefer shopping at Whole Foods to Walmart?

The assumption of all these studies is that political variations require correctives. But why should political proportions be constant across society?

The relationship between political diversity and intellectual diversity is, at best, tenuous. Presumably, the former abets the latter; that is, a balance of conservative and liberal professors would lead to better teaching and research. Conversely, having fewer conservatives on campus damages the educational enterprise. But is there evidence for that belief? Virtually none.

Implicit in this body of research is that Democrats and Republicans teach or do research differently. A course on Chaucer or Rome taught by a Democrat supposedly diverges from that taught by a Republican. But the bigger issue is this: Much of the discussion about political diversity in academe turns "politics" into a feature of group identity like race or ethnicity. But "politics" is not a fixed attribute. People’s politics can and do shift. Politics are not like national origins. "Men can change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religion, their philosophies," wrote Horace Kallen a century ago, but "they cannot change their grandfathers."

L ast year a team study appeared in Behavioral and Brain Sciences about "political diversity" in social psychology that has attracted much comment. All six of its authors belong to the Heterodox Academy. Their findings have provoked many of the big guns in social psychology to respond. Steven Pinker dubbed the article "one of the most important papers in the recent history of the social sciences." What did the study show? Put on your seat belts.

The study proclaimed the news that many more liberals than conservatives populate social psychology. The findings delighted conservatives, who found additional confirmation that they belonged to a disadvantaged group in the university. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, declared that "a team of scholars from six universities" demonstrated the "shocking" lack of campus political diversity. "The authors show that for every politically conservative social psychologist in academia there are about 14 liberal psychologists."

That social psychologists tend to be liberal cannot be surprising. Virtually all the founders or key figures of American social psychology — Carl Murchison, Gordon Allport, Kurt Lewin — belonged on the left. Murchison, who edited one of the first handbooks of social psychology in 1935, has been called "a radical in outlook" by a historian of the field. His Social Psychology: The Psychology of Political Domination (1929) wanted a committed political psychology, not one focused on "mere verbal definitions." He feared for the future of narrow social psychology, which had escaped a death notice, he added, "chiefly because no one has called in the coroner." Allport, who wrote about prejudice, including fascism, saw himself as a liberal activist and recruited for a union, the American Federation of Teachers, at Harvard. Lewin had links to the leftist Frankfurt School and collaborated with Karl Korsch, a leading 20th-century Marxist.

Another question must be asked: Why do devotees of political diversity in academe focus on the humanities and social sciences? Why not the medical sciences? Earth sciences? Aerospace engineering? After all, those fields — nowadays identified as STEM — possess the clout, money, and prestige. If one were interested in how politics influences academic life, why not tackle the big players? Why not consider the politics of drug research, with its real money and consequences?

One reason is obvious: Liberals do not outnumber conservatives in many of those disciplines. The "team of scholars from six universities" — José L. Duarte, Jarret T. Crawford, Charlotta Stern, Jonathan Haidt, Lee Jussim, Philip E. Tetlock — admit that "there are many fields" where "self-identified conservatives" are "about as numerous as self-identified liberals: typically business, computer science, engineering, health sciences, and technical/vocational fields." (Two members of this team teach in business schools.) That covers a lot of turf — indeed, most of the university — and it’s expanding.

It is hardly a secret that dwindling funds and students beset the humanities across the land. "The overall picture of Humanities concentrator numbers over the last 60 years is one of slow to deep decline," summarizes a recent report of the situation at Harvard. Instead of considering this crisis, the diversity enthusiasts want to check the political allegiances of a shrinking staff, a version of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In response to a critic who also wondered why they did not monitor political diversity where it might count, such as in the military, Duarte et al. declared, "The main reason is that we are social psychologists, not members of the armed forces." This advances insularity as a research program: Social psychology studies social psychologists. The crucial political categories in this study remain unexamined at best, provincial and ideological at worst. "The political party and ideological sympathies of academic psychologists have shifted leftward over time" runs the descriptor under the first graph of their findings. It charts the ratio of Democrats to Republicans or Liberals to Conservatives. In the 1920s it was close to 1:1, and through the 1950s only 2:1, but in the ’90s the ratios change dramatically, and by 2010 the graph shows Democrats to Republicans 14:1. This might seem impressive, but it leaves out one thing: reality.

How can this shift be considered apart from larger political shifts? Perhaps psychologists have not changed, but the political landscape has.

There is some evidence that conservatives in the social sciences feel beleaguered -- but probably so do leftists in business schools.
Since the 1950s, and especially since the ’90s, the Republicans have moved sharply to the right. This is hardly news. The party of Dwight D. Eisenhower, which shepherded through the National Defense Education Act in 1958, became the party of Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and Marco Rubio, all of whom denounce higher education, science, and the Department of Education. That there are many serious and responsible conservative thinkers cannot be doubted, but an anti-science, anti-evolution, and anti-climate-change ethos increasingly characterizes the Republican Party. Any study of the "shifting" political allegiances of the professoriate that ignores these larger shifts cannot be taken seriously.

Duarte et al. briefly allude to political reality at the end of their study, referring to the increasing conservative distrust of science and how that has played out in efforts to cut federal support for the social sciences, specifically the Coburn Amendment, which sought to stop the National Science Foundation from funding political science that did not promote American security. "We aspire to prevent social psychology, or psychology from being next," Duarte et al. write. Their memories are short. They have already been next.

In 1996, a Republican congressman from Arkansas, Jay Dickey, with strong backing from the National Rifle Association, added an amendment to a spending bill that effectively blocked federal support for research into gun violence and prevention. The American Psychological Association issued a statement of protest. Since then federal funding for such research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has fallen 96 percent. (Twenty years later, in the wake of endless mass shootings, Dickey, no longer in Congress, takes it back. "I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time. I have regrets.")

How do Duarte et al. respond to Republican efforts to defund research? They blame the victim. "If the academy is becoming steadily more liberal … is it a wonder that some conservative Republican politicians want to cut funding for some social sciences?" Such congressional actions are provoked by "social science’s ideological lopsidedness." In other words, the academy should beef up its intellectual and political diversity. Following this reasoning, biology departments might add a few creationists; earth science some climate-change deniers; astronomy a few New Age astrologists.

On the contrary, if the research is good, defend it. That’s what the APA did in 1996. It didn’t call for balancing out research into gun violence with NRA-backed scholars.

Of course, if the research is bad, then, say that, too. Duarte et al. do not come up with much on this score, mainly that studies of prejudice and intolerance show a liberal bias. Their examples would persuade only social scientists who prefer pretty bell curves to unattractive reality. Liberal researchers, we are told, have missed that "prejudice is potent on both the left and right." Apparently some social scientists have found that while conservatives might be prejudiced against "Left-leaning targets (e.g. African-Americans)," liberals might be prejudiced against "Right-leaning targets (e.g. religious Christians)." OK, but those are not symmetrical "prejudices;" one designates a racial group, the other a group of believers.

There is bad social science out there and enough anecdotal evidence to confirm that conservatives in the social sciences feel beleaguered — but probably so do leftists in business schools. How much of the bad social science is driven by leftist politics? Critics have found little. Politics evidently drives reactions to research on everything from the origins of World War I to the parenting abilities of gay parents, but reaction is not research.

A scanning of journal articles in the social sciences confirms Carl Murchison’s old plaint. "It is with something akin to despair," he wrote in 1935, "that one contemplates the piffling, trivial, superficial, damnably unimportant topics that some social scientists investigate with agony and sweat." In 2010, Lawrence Mead charted articles in the American Political Science Review and found what he called a new "scholasticism," a rising tide of insular studies marked by hyperspecialization and mathematics. This seems more apposite than a supposed lack of political diversity in the social sciences.

The recommendation by Duarte et al. for more political self-awareness by social scientists cannot be harmful and might be beneficial. But Duarte et al. abet a diversity obsession that is already troubling. They also recommend — besides the suggestion to eliminate political joking on campus — that departments should "expand" diversity statements to "include politics"; they want conservatives promoted in the same way as other "underrepresented groups." Gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, income, and now politics — and hired and unhired on the basis of it. They are not alone in proposing that in the name of diversity, conservatives go to the head of the line. A new book on the conservative professoriate by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University (Oxford University Press), carefully supports the idea. "The problem with the academy is that it lacks one significant kind of intellectual diversity" — conservatism. Shields and Dunn argue that valid and consistent diversity programs must address this shortage. "The Bakke rationale obliges its defenders to support affirmative action for conservatives." All aboard! The diversity train waits for no one.

W e have come a long way since Justice Powell’s 1978 decision in the Bakke case laid the groundwork for our present-day cult of diversity. By the 1970s, the student population of American universities was changing, and in the course of the 20th century the political composition of the faculty altered as well. The labor economist John R. Commons recalls in his autobiography, Myself (1934), the years before World War I, when the faculty of the University of Wisconsin was "perhaps nine-tenths on the conservative or reactionary side." Even then, he remarks, the myth of a "radical" university circulated widely.

The real marker of change might not be Powell’s legal opinion, but one of its sources. Powell drew upon and quoted a 1957 Supreme Court opinion by Justice Felix Frankfurter. This was a case from the McCarthy era in which a vigilant State of New Hampshire prosecuted a university lecturer, Paul Sweezy, one of a very few openly Marxist intellectuals in the United States. Frankfurter wrote a rousing defense of the university to conduct its own activities "as unfettered as possible."

In his concurrence, Frankfurter quoted the forceful and eloquent statement of the open universities of South Africa. In 1957 those universities protested government efforts to force apartheid upon them. "Diversity" surfaced in their statement. The open universities demanded the right to admit students on the basis of merit, not categories. They declared, "If some are excluded for nonacademic reasons — whether it be religion, sex, race or color … the discovery of truth is hampered," and the community suffers.

The shoe now is on the other foot. The demand is not to stop exclusion, but to require inclusion — with politics added to the mix. The danger, however, is the same.

Russell Jacoby is a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles.