Saturday, April 02, 2005

Conservatives: Underrepresented in Academia?

Are there fewer conservatives in academia than there ought to be? A new study that suggests that there are is making a splash in the corporate media: Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, "Politics and Professional Advancement among College Faculty," The Forum 3.1 (2005).

According to the Washington Post, the study was "funded by the Randolph Foundation, a right-leaning group that has given grants to such conservative organizations as the Independent Women's Forum and Americans for Tax Reform" (Howard Kurtz, "College Faculties A Most Liberal Lot, Study Finds," Washington Post, 29 Mar. 2005, C1). Caveat emptor.

What data did the study employ?

"The data come from the 1999 North American Academic Study Survey (NAASS) of students, faculty and administrators at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. This survey was conducted in 1999 by Angus Reid (now Ipsos-Reid), a survey research firm" (Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte, (2005, p. 3).

(The 1999 "North American Academic Study Survey" by Angus Reid? I've never heard of the study before. Has anyone? Can't find anything more about the "North American Academic Study Survey" through Google Scholar, LexisNexis, JSTOR, Project Muse, Social Science Abstracts, Sociological Abstracts, and Worldwide Political Science Abstracts. Has anyone other than Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte gained access to the survey's data and analyzed them? If not, why not? It's a survey presumably taken six years ago, and no one has made a peep about it till now?)

Based on the obscure survey, Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte claim that "a sharp shift to the left has taken place among college faculty in recent years" (2005, p. 4):
Table 1. Ideological self-description of college professors and general public

(Carnegie 1984)
(NAASS 1999)
U.S. Public
(Harris 1999)
U.S. Public
(Harris 2004)
Right/Conservative 34% 15% 37% 33%
(Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, "Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty," The Forum 3.1, 2005, p. 4)
To show the "sharp shift," Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte played a statistical trick. Their NAASS sample is far less representative than the Carnegie study that they use for the point of comparison: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, The Condition of the Professoriate: Attitudes and Trends (Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1989). The NAASS's American sample consisted of "1643 faculty members" from "183 universities and colleges," containing "responses from 81 doctoral, 59 comprehensive and 43 liberal arts institutions" (Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte, 2005, p. 3), whereas The Condition of the Professoriate obtained data from "over 5,000 faculty employed at a variety of institutions from Two-Year Community Colleges to Research Institutions" (Tony Palmeri, "The Engaged University: The Ideas of Ernest Boyer," 25 Jan. 2002). Research has shown that faculty and students at research institutions are more liberal than those at primarily teaching institutions (see, for instance, Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd, "War and Dissent: The Political Values of the American Professoriate," The Journal of Higher Education 65.5 [September/October 1994], especially p. 586; and Richard F. Hamilton and Lowell L. Hargens, "The Politics of the Professors: Self-Identifications, 1969-1984," Social Forces 71.3 [March 1993], especially pp. 608-609, 613-614, 616), so the NAASS's exclusion of two-year colleges and overrepresentation of doctoral institutions is a recipe for accentuating the proportion of liberals. In short, comparing the Carnegie study and the NAASS sample is like comparing apples and oranges -- it is impossible to infer any shift over time from two incomparable samples.

What if Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte turned out to have a point, despite their small and unrepresentative sample? They find that "academic achievement matters most" in predicting "the quality of schools in which faculty teach," but "ideology is the second most powerful predictor in Model I (beta=.09, p ≤.001), accounting for more than one-fifth as much variation in quality of institutional affiliation as does achievement (beta=.39, p ≤.001)" (Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte, 2005, p. 10). As you can see, though, the coefficient of correlation between ideology and institutional prestige is rather close to zero.

Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte still suspect that discrimination is at work, but a minuscule correlation between professors' politics and institutional prestige doesn't necessarily mean conservative scholars are discriminated against.

Here are two hypotheses for further research:
  1. Considering academic and non-academic career prospects carefully, the best and brightest conservative young men and women, who would be qualified for academic careers at the most celebrated universities, prefer non-academic careers in business, politics, law, and medicine to academic careers, as tenure-track appointments are hard to come by and non-academic professional careers yield higher incomes on smaller investments of time and money than academic careers.

  2. Conservative young men and women who do choose academic careers prefer more conservative though less prestigious institutions to more prestigious but more liberal ones and seek out the former for study and employment.
The first hypothesis is especially promising, in light of time to degree (extraordinarily long in the most liberal disciplines), attrition rates (higher in the humanities and social sciences than in science), employment opportunities (very poor for humanists and social scientists), and lifetime earnings (salaries barely keep up with inflation in academia). Take history, for instance. Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte find 77% of history faculty members are liberal, 10% conservative, 70% Democrats, and 4% Republicans (2005, p. 6). Would conservatives want to be in a history department?
The time spent working toward the history PhD, for instance, grew longer and now surpasses every other discipline. Among the new cohort of history PhDs, the time spent registered for graduate courses increased, from an average of 9 (in 2001–02) to 9.3 years. In comparison, the average for all fields was 7.5 years. Given the extended time spent working toward the degree, it is hardly surprising that the average age of new history PhDs increased by two-tenths of a year, to 34.9 years—a year-and-a-half older than the average for new PhDs in all fields. . . .

Despite their years of effort, the new PhDs reported declining success in finding employment after they received the degree. The proportion of new history PhDs who reported "definite employment" fell from 52.9 percent to 51.3 percent—reversing three years of improvement. This is still well above the low point of 44.9 percent in 1998–99, but it does fit with our reporting on the declining number of jobs being advertised.2 Among the rest, 26.8 percent of the new history PhD recipients reported they were still seeking employment when they received the degree, while 14.3 percent planned to take or seek a postdoctoral fellowship, and 7.7 reported that they were uncertain about their future. (Robert B. Townsend, "Survey Shows Marked Drop in History PhDs," Perspectives 43:2, February 2005)
Keep in mind that the employment statistics above does not take high attrition rates into account:
On the first day of graduate school, everyone is still a success. All of the students gunning for Ph.D.'s have lived an academic life of achievement: honor roll, summa cum laude, certificates, scholarships, and parents who praise their intellectual prowess. Yet as many as half of those bright students -- many of whom have never tasted failure -- will drop out before they can claim their prize.

In some humanities programs, only one of every three entering students goes on to earn a doctorate. No comprehensive national statistics are available, but studies suggest that the attrition rate for Ph.D. programs is 40 percent to 50 percent.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Institutions that make it [information about completion rates] easily accessible are in the minority. At the University of California at San Diego, a comprehensive table of completion statistics is included in the graduate school's annual report, easily found on the Web. Duke University's Graduate School includes links to a wealth of admissions, enrollment, and completion data for prospective students on its Web site. There you can learn very specific information about individual departments -- for instance, that the Ph.D. program in literature bucks the national trend. Of the 27 students who started from 1992 through 1995, 17 earned their degrees, and only 6 have withdrawn.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Even students who make it through the rigorous selection process to win National Science Foundation graduate-research fellowships finish their Ph.D.'s at a rate of only about 75 percent. That's just a bit higher than other doctoral students in the sciences.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . .[T]he pot of gold at the end of the Ph.D. rainbow may not be there for every candidate. For many of them, despite their love of the subject and their dreams of reveling in the life of the mind, the most logical decision may be to leave.

After a year in a Ph.D. program in history at City University of New York, Nicole Kalian left to take a job as a publicist with a book publisher. Hers was the sort of early attrition that almost everyone agrees is the best kind.

"I didn't see any prospects for when I graduated," says Ms. Kalian, who was shocked to read an article about new Ph.D.'s who couldn't find jobs as adjuncts on enough campuses to earn at least $25,000 a year. "It was frightening, and I could never really shake that thought from my head." (emphasis added, Scott Smallwood, "Doctor Dropout: High Attrition from Ph.D. Programs Is Sucking Away Time, Talent, and Money and Breaking Some Hearts, Too," Chronicle of Higher Education 50.19, 16 Jan. 2004, p. A10)
What is intriguing, dropouts, if anything, tend to have higher undergraduate GPAs and GRE analytical scores than those who complete Ph.D. programs!
The Odds of Making It Through: Can You Spot the Dropout?
(Smallwood, 16 Jan. 2004)
In conclusion, while Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte's research exaggerates the proportion of liberals and leftists in academia today, it is true that liberals (though not leftists) traditionally outnumber conservatives in the humanities and social sciences, particularly at research institutions that require a doctoral degree as a condition of employment. What should be conservatives' response to that? I submit that conservatives ought to congratulate themselves. Thinking like the proverbial Rational Economic Man weighing opportunity costs and maximizing utility, many conservatives made the economically correct choice of staying out of Ph.D. programs, especially academic sweatshops in the humanities and social sciences. Alternatively, conservatives might apply their favorite tool, neoclassical economics, to the issue: the problem is that salaries that the best and brightest conservatives demand are too high -- lower their prices, and there will be more demand for them in the academic labor market. Liberals and leftists, on the other hand, should proffer a left-wing remedy that addresses a right-wing grievance while solving at least some of the many problems that plague the life of the mind: increase tenure-track jobs massively, and raise faculty salaries as well as teaching assistant wages (especially in the humanities and social sciences) dramatically, in order to make academic compensation packages competitive with what plastic surgeons, corporate lawyers, business executives, and politicians turned lobbyists would expect. In short, give conservatives what they do not have today: financial incentives to become academics. Turn the ivory tower into a field of conservative dreams of big money: if you build it, they will come.


ElProcesso said...

Wow, you certainly shot to hell (or pretty close to it) those aspiring BA students thinking of graduate school and particularly an academic career (as if there was already not enough cynicism, etc. and media, people, etc. telling one as much negatives as they can find).

Spart said...

Dear Yoshie:

Your criticism that the Rothman, et al., analysis of the NAASS data is not directly comparable to the earlier Carnegie surveys is valid. (Because the Carnegie surveys included faculty members from two-year colleges, who tend to be more conservative that their counterparts at more prestigious schools.)

However, the impact this has upon the overall results is minor since i) there are relatively few junior college faculty members in the survey samples (approximately 16% in the 1969 and 1975 surveys) and ii) while the junior college faculties are somewhat more conservative than other academics, they are still to the left of the general US population.

For more discussion of this point and additional data from the Carnegie studies, please see my post on this topic at



Yoshie said...

Thanks for very thoughtful discussion. I look forward to your next entry on this topic (as well as others).

I, too, believe that academia has shifted to the left since the 1970s (though the shift may be smaller or larger than your calculation indicates, depending on the quality of data collected by Angus Reid in 1999).

I'd offer several hypotheses for further research:

An increasing proportion of faculty members are women, and women are more likely to be liberal and to vote Democratic than men, shifting academia to the left over time.

Younger generations of faculty members come from less socially and economically privileged family backgrounds and work harder for less money (adjusted for inflation) and prestige than older generations of them. Poorer family backgrounds, lower real earnings, and lower socio-economic statuses are correlated with a higher propensity to hold political opinions on the left and to vote for the Democratic Party (or to the left of it, e.g., the Green Party).

Younger generations are more liberal on such social issues as abortion and homosexuality than older generations. As older scholars retire and younger ones get hired, academia shifts to the left over time.

Subsidies for higher education (in the forms of direct state subsidies to colleges and universities, research grants for professors, scholarships for students, and so on) have declined since the 1970s (in terms of the proportion of state subsidies in college and university budgets). Either Republicans actually give less money to higher education than Democrats, or professors believe that Republicans are less generous than Democrats when it comes to higher education subsidies. (Both may be true.) To combat the decline, professors have increasingly turned to the Democratic Party.

Spart said...

Dear Yoshie:

You may be interested in my latest post on this question (

I was able to obtain data from the 1997 Carnegie Faculty Survey that supports your view that there has been no sharp leftward shift in faculty opinions...

By the way, I really like your blog. (Though of course, I disagree with most of your political opinions.) You manage to find (and link to) some very interesting stuff, and do a lot of good original analysis. Keep up the good work!