Do Conservatives Self-select Away from Academic Careers?

by Lee Sigelman on February 20, 2008 · 5 comments

in Academia

Academicians in this country, especially those in the social sciences and humanities, are disproportionately left of center, or at least centrist, politically, rather than conservative. That finding has cropped up in so many surveys over the years that I won’t even bother to cite sources. Let’s just take it as a fact and go from there.

Go where? How about adressing the “Why?” questlon? It’s here that things begin to get interesting.

One answer is that conservatives are discriminated against in academia. They don’t get hired in the first place, and the fortunate few who do find academic employment aren’t tolerated for long by their liberal colleagues. That answer is simple, straightforward, and politically combustible. It’s the standard story that conservatives tell and liberals dispute.

Now, however, comes quite a different answer. Based on their recent research, Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner contend that the culprit isn’t discrimination against conservatives, but rather self-selection on the part of conservatives. In a paper titled “Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Doctorates, Woessner and Kelly-Woessner conclude that “The personal priorities of those on the left are more compatible with pursuing a Ph.D.” than are the priorities of their conservative counterparts. For example, liberal undergraduates are more likely than conservatives to do research projects with their professors. More importantly, conservative undergraduates are outnumbered by two to one in the social sciences and humanities. Conservative students are more oriented toward financial security and raising famlies. Accordingly, they gravitate toward more “practical” courses of study that lead them into highly remunerative professions like accounting and computer science. They’re also less willing to delay having children—a common pattern in academic life, where childbirth often awaits a favorable tenure vote.

For a chatty and not especially informative introduction to this project in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, click here. For a copy of the paper itself, click here.

(By the way, you should check out Matthew’s website, which has some handsome photos of the canine members of the family.)

{ 5 comments }

Peter G. Klein February 20, 2008 at 1:19 pm

Thanks for the pointer to the Woessner and Woessner paper. The self-selection argument is an old one, going back at least to Hayek (1949). Writes Hayek (pp. 379-80):

Nobody, for instance, who is familiar with large numbers of university faculties (and from this point of view the majority of university teachers probably have to be classed as intellectuals rather than as experts) can remain oblivious to the fact that the most brilliant and successful teachers are today more likely than not to be socialists, while those who hold more conservative political views are as frequently mediocrities. . . . .

The socialist will, of course, see in this merely a proof that the more intelligent person is today bound to become a socialist. But this is far from being the necessary or even the most likely explanation. The main reason for this state of affairs is probably that, for the exceptionally able man who accepts the present order of society, a multitude of other avenues to influence and power are open, while to the disaffected and dissatisfied an intellectual career is the most promising path to both influence and the power to contribute to the achievement of his ideals. Even more than that: the more conservatively inclined man of first class ability will in general choose intellectual work (and the sacrifice in material reward which this choice usually entails) only if he enjoys it for its own sake. He is in consequence more likely to become an expert scholar rather than an intellectual in the specific sense of the word; while to the more radically minded the intellectual pursuit is more often than not a means rather than an end, a path to exactly that kind of wide influence which the professional intellectual exercises. It is therefore probably the fact, not that the more intelligent people are generally socialists, but that a much higher proportion of socialists among the best minds devote themselves to those intellectual pursuits which in modern society give them a decisive influence on public opinion.

TheOneEyedMan February 20, 2008 at 1:28 pm

You still have ambiguous causality.

Knowing or believing that academia is inhospitable to conservatives could discourage students from studying those areas in the first place.

Knowing that many of the corporate jobs in the social science jobs are in LA, SF, NYC, and Boston, which may be far from the conservative places that these students hail from.

Also, is it true that students are generally more liberal than older people?
“conservative undergraduates are outnumbered by two to one in the social sciences and humanities.” If there are twice as many liberal undergraduates as conservative ones, there isn’t much content to this ratio.

Lee Sigelman February 20, 2008 at 2:54 pm

Richard Posner has some interesting thoughts about self-selection into or away from academia; click here. Among other things, he notes that members of the military are disproportionately Republicans. Does that mean that the military discirminates against Democrats? Maybe or maybe not, but a more plausible account would be that liberals are less drawn to military service in the first place. Another of his points is that liberals may be more attracted, and conservatives less so, to the “quasi-socialistic” culture of academia. Like so much of what Posner writes, you may like it or not, but it will make you think.

Will February 20, 2008 at 4:24 pm

Its an interesting exercise to copy/paste “black” for “conservative” in this post and see where you would critique that argument.

Self-selection do to different “personal priorities” wouldn’t fly as an explanation for low college attendance by blacks.

That said, “personal priorities” are probably correlated to some extent with political affiliations whereas the same isn’t true of race.

Matt Jarvis February 20, 2008 at 5:09 pm

For my money, the self-selection argument has the most to it. Note the graph in the paper (figure 7) on personal priorities: liberals care much less about raising families and making money than do conservatives.

I’d like some panel data to get at whether this is induced during college (those who take classes that are more “liberal-oriented” get taught to value those things less, for example), but I think not. I didn’t major in political science because the professor was liberal or conservative (and heck, I was kind of up in the air at that point). I majored in it because I liked it. I’m going to guess those same values that caused me to like it are associated with the value of wanting to do this instead of law school (and the attendant MUCH higher income)

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