Krugman on Political Bias in the Academy

By April 5, 2005

Columnist Paul Krugman has written an interesting column (registration required) addressing the recent study that shows dramatically higher proportions of liberals in university faculty than conservatives. He makes a number of important points about how forces beyond universities’ biases perpetuate this imbalance.

One of the most obvious is “self-selection,” as Krugman points out. A related one that he doesn’t mention is “momentum”: once colleges and universities started to lean a certain way, conservatives became less interested in making a life there. This process repeated over a long period time would certainly contribute to the imbalance. He also makes an important point that the beliefs of some conservatives make it unlikely that they would want to join academia. After all, if you do not believe in evolution it is pretty unlikely you would want to study to be a biological anthropologist, or if you believe the world is 6,000 years old you are unlikely to want to be a geologist.

I disagree with Krugman where I disagree with many political commentators: they dismiss the other side entirely and ascribe pernicious motivations to why the other side might even be concerned with those issues, rather than entertain the possibility their opponents’ concerns might be sincere or have some grain of truth. I never assume the moral purity of either side of an argument, but I do attempt, sometimes unsuccessfully, to see their points. Working at FIRE for the past four years, I find it hard to imagine that some immoral (and often unlawful) viewpoint discrimination does not take place in hiring. After all, if a student merely making a conservative or non-p.c. point can be punished as if it were a hate crime (see the Cal Poly, Gonzaga, and UNH cases), I have a hard time believing that a historian, for example, who takes a socially conservative approach to history would not have that held against him or her at some universities. As the person who did case intake for FIRE for years, I have seen far too many cases of orthodox religious or conservative points of view being treated as academic heresy to believe that no viewpoint discrimination is taking place in hiring and promotion. I believe it is important to bring situations in which viewpoint discrimination is at work to light, and, where appropriate, to challenge attempts to censor or stifle opposing points of view, no matter what view they oppose.

If you were to eliminate all of the unlawful viewpoint discrimination against religious or conservative professors (or would-be professors), however, I still think colleges and universities would tend to tilt politically liberal, and will for the foreseeable future, for a variety of reasons that have more to do with personal choices and self-reinforcing partisan ideas of “us” and “them” than the malicious exercise of bias. Heavy-handed attempts to legislate a “fix” to this problem such as those envisioned by Florida Rep. Dennis Baxley would only hyper-politicize the campus environment and make real and open discourse that much harder.