Phi Beta Cons

Liberal Academic Bias and Conservative Contempt

I was finally able to read through Megan McCardle’s outstanding piece on liberal bias in academia, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s long (for a blog post), detailed, and it rings true. Though I’m not an academic, I feel as if I’ve never really left the academy. After law school, my first major client was a private university, I left the law firm world to teach for two years at Cornell Law School, and I’ve defending academic freedom since I left Cornell ten years ago. I’ve represented conservative and Christian professors in litigation, I’ve been on the admissions committee at an Ivy League law school, and I’ve attended literally countless professional conferences. In short, though I’m not a professor, I’m very familiar with academic culture and the exclusion of conservatives, and I have experienced the academic monoculture up close.

In conservative circles, you often hear a refrain that goes something like this: “Faced with evidence of racial disparities, the academy has declared an emergency, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into diversity programs, and implemented far-reaching affirmative action programs. We conservatives, however, face a wall of denial, obfuscation, and deception.” While I understand the impulse to compare ideological discrimination and marginalization to racial discrimination, and I think Megan’s comments regarding the manner in which in-groups justify their exclusion of out-groups are extremely insightful, the analogy ultimately fails.

Race discrimination — for a very long time — was systematic and pervasive across virtually every single professional field in the United States. In other words, it wasn’t as if academia had established a special enclave of discrimination in a world where young black students would be welcomed with open arms in law, medicine, or investment banking. In reality, the academy may have been less racist than the rest of society (but not by much). Faced with this reality, battering down the doors of the academy was part and parcel of a much larger effort to reform our culture from the ground up, to make it a place where equality of opportunity across all fields was more than rhetoric. For a very, very long time, black students considering their options didn’t have any obvious career path. And education was less a gateway to guaranteed success than just another avenue of frustration and despair. Is it any wonder that the black community has not necessarily embraced education as the key to its future — when for generations racism was the a far greater impediment to progress than ignorance?

Given that historical reality, conservatives who compare their plight in the academy to the plight of blacks overcoming racism are comparing apples and oranges. Conservatives don’t face a professional world that shuns them but instead a world where essentially every profession welcomes them with open arms — all but one. Not to engage in too much dime-store psychology, but that typically means conservatives aren’t so much interested in battering down the door to the faculty lounge as they are in dismissing the relevance and importance of college faculty. In other words, conservatives look at the closed shop of modern academia and snort in contempt rather than gaze with longing.

And they have good reason for their contempt. The ideological monoculture has created an academic class that can be remarkably narrow-minded and shockingly ignorant. In my own conversations, I’m sometimes simply stunned at professors’ ignorance regarding, for example, Christian theology, military history and strategy, and conservative ideas. Yet that ignorance doesn’t stop a freshman English instructor from deriding the “religious Right,” caricaturing conservatives, and opining authoritatively on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Conservative undergrads who bother to read Hayek, Rand, or C. S. Lewis are often insufferable simply because they immediately become better-informed about conservative thought than most of their professors.

#more#Faced with a professional world where they have options in law, medicine, finance, politics, engineering, technology — indeed any field they desire to enter — why would conservatives choose to enter a field they see as representing the perfect storm of ignorance and condescension? To be sure, some are drawn to the “life of the mind” and eagerly desire tenure and the opportunity to become full-time scholars, but most realize that the “life of the mind” can be lived in many fields and perceive the academy — with ample justification — as perhaps the least open to free inquiry of any professional field in the United States.

Thus, conservatives start to view academics with contempt and derision, and the feeling is mutual. Professors call conservatives “anti-intellectual,” while conservatives respond, “You call yourself an intellectual?” We’re in the grips of a vicious cycle. Conservatives spurn the academy as closed-minded, and then the academy grows more closed-minded as it becomes ever-more ideologically uniform. I’ve spoken to many department chairs who say, “I’ve never discriminated against a conservative, but I can’t say that I’ve seen any conservative applicants.” But why would a conservative apply? If the emphasis of the sociology department is, say, sociology and queerness, or the sociology of gender, then that’s simply not going to interest many conservative applicants. And if that is the department’s emphasis, an applicant with a CV that is devoid of any scholarship on queerness isn’t going to get a second look.

The end result looks a lot like this:

So while in theory, it’s true that you can’t simply reason from disparity to bias, I have to say that when you’ve identified a statistical disparity, and the members of the in-group immediately rush to assure you that this isn’t because of bias, but because the people they’ve excluded are all a bunch of raging [a******s] with lukewarm IQ’s . . . well, I confess, discrimination starts sounding pretty plausible.

When that group of people is assuring you that the reason conservatives can’t be in charge is that they do not have open minds . . . when the speed and sloppiness of their argument make it quite clear that they rejected the very possibility of discrimination without giving it even a second’s serious thought . . . well, I confess, it starts sounding very plausible.  More plausible than I, who had previously leaned heavily on things like affinity bias to explain the skew, would have thought.

As a practical matter, this all means that the ideological monoculture will be more enduring — though less unjust — than racial discrimination. More enduring because it is based on mutual disgust, less unjust because conservatives are hardly left without alternative options. I simply do not see the ideological disparities shifting over the short, medium, or even long term.  


The end result is a lose-lose proposition: for conservatives, for liberals, and for our culture. Competing ideologies are walled off in their own enclaves, and our minds are dulled as we reinforce our own brilliance and disparage the other group’s blindness. A few years ago, I attended a major Heritage Foundation event and an academic conference in the same week, and I was struck by the fact that the two sides described each other in the exact same terms.  


“Liberals (conservatives) respect logic and reason while conservatives (liberals) appeal to fear and ignorance.”


“Liberals (conservatives) subordinate science to ideology and disregard any evidence that rebuts their worldview.”


All in all, I think the Left has the better deal. While think tanks like Heritage, AEI, Cato, Hoover, and others exert undeniably significant cultural influence (influence far greater than their size or budget would suggest), I’d trade control over every major and minor academic institution in America — with direct access to roughly 14 million young minds every year — for a few great think tanks. And I’d make that trade in a heartbeat.


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