Phi Beta Cons

Mysteries of Self-Selection

Fair-minded New York Times reporter John Tierney explains why few conservatives inhabit the land of academia. It’s not because they’re unintelligent or uninterested. Rather, ”self-selection” operates as conservatives scope out the academic terrain and see that they will not likely thrive in the atmosphere.

Or is it academia that is doing the “selecting”? Tierney describes the research of George Yancey, professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, who found that more than a quarter of sociologists he surveyed would be favorable toward a Democrat or an ACLU member and unfavorable toward a Republican; about 40 percent said they would have an unfavorable attitude toward a member of the NRA or an evangelical. “If you were a conservative undergraduate,” Tierney asks, “would you risk spending at least four years in graduate school in the hope of getting a job offer from a committee dominated by people who don’t share your views?” 

Tierney also mentions a field experiment, conducted by Neil Gross, professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, in which researchers posing as potential graduate students sent emails to various humanities departments — including literature, history, sociology, political science, and economics — describing their interests and credentials and asking if the department might be a good fit for them. Some of the mock applicants mentioned working for the McCain campaign and some for Obama. There was no discernible difference in the promptness of the reply or the enthusiasm expressed in the replies. This was taken as proof that discrimination is not a serious factor. But couldn’t it be that a feeler e-mail is not the same thing as an actual application, and it costs nothing to respond positively to something that is only potential? (Alternatively, could it be that many humanities departments are so aching for good students that they can’t afford to discourage potential applicants who at least exhibit signs of life? By the way, isn’t there something dishonest in this kind of research?)

Also, “The Still Divided Academy” found that only 7 percent of Republican professors felt there was a serious problem with discrimination against conservatives in academia. This is sometimes cited as proof that bias against conservatives is a myth. But Tierney points out that academic Republicans tend to be more liberal than Republicans at large — nearly two-thirds want stricter environmental regulations, for example — so they probably don’t rock the boat that much. Again, that mysterious “self-selection.”

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