Conservatives in academia and the network effect

Prof. Stephen Bainbridge has some interesting observations on the roots of the liberal-vs-conservative disparity in the humanities and among law professors — reaching, in one example cited (Berkeley and Stanford), 9-to-1 overall, and 30-to-1 among junior faculty.

This would be less of an issue if professors did not insist on bringing their politics into the classroom. But:

“For instance, nearly half said that their professors ‘frequently comment on politics in class even though it has nothing to do with the course’ or use the classroom to present their personal political views. In answers to other questions, the majority acknowledged that liberal views predominate. Most troubling, however, were the responses to the survey item ‘On my campus, there are courses in which students feel they have to agree with the professor’s political or social views in order to get a good grade’ — 29% agreed.”

This sort of thing is one reason why I gave humanities courses a wide berth in college, despite my fascination with subjects like history and politics — at least, nobody can fail you on a math, physics, or chemistry exam for having the “wrong” views.

As George Will scathingly put it: “American campuses … cultivate diversity — in race, skin color, ethnicity, sexual preference. In everything but thought.”

However, Prof. Bainbridge observes:

It is the question of a “fair shot” that is the real problem. Actual bias is a problem, but probably isn’t as much a one as conservatives outside the academy would like to believe. As Volokh Conspiracy blogger Juan Non-Volokh observed: “My experience in the academy … confirms [that most] of the hostility faced by conservatives (and libertarians) is not explicit, and often not conscious or deliberate.” Mine too, although there have been a fair number of questionable moments.

The real culprit is the law school hiring process. Each fall the Association of American Law Schools collects resumes from prospective law teaching candidates, which are then transmitted to the appointments committee of each law school. The members of that committee then face the unenviable task of winnowing down well over a 1000 applications to a list of 25 or so candidates with whom the committee will meet at the so-called “meat market” convention. After which, the committee must further winnow those 25 or so down to a smaller number, 3-5, who are invited out to the law school for on campus interviews.

As a result, the hiring process is almost entirely negative. You spend the vast majority of your time winnowing the application pile — i.e., finding reasons not to hire someone. If you have on-site interviews of 0.3% of the applicant pool, any opposition by any committee member is enough to exclude someone. At the early stages of the process, they barely need to posit a reason.

In my experience, it thus is a lot harder to get somebody hired than it is to block them from being hired. The process isn’t as explicit as the blackballing scene in Animal House, but the law school hiring process is just as weighted against hiring. (And I mean hiring anybody, regardless of political affiliation.) Any opposition (for whatever reason) therefore is usually enough, absent a very strongly committed pro-hiring faction.

In most cases, a candidate’s best chance of surviving the winnowing process is for someone on the committee to become the candidate’s champion. The champion will pull the candidate’s resume out of the slush pile and make sure it gets flagged for close review. Because most law schools lack a critical mass of libertarian and conservative faculty members, however, there is nobody predisposed to pulling conservative candidates’ AALS forms out of the slush pile (and a fair number of folks inclined, whether consciously or subconsciously, to bury them). Applicants with conservative lines on their resume — an Olin fellowship, Federalist Society membership, or, heaven help you, a Scalia clerkship — thus tend to be passed over no matter how sterling the rest of their credentials may be.

In contrast, the latest left-leaning prodigy from Harvard or Yale has a mentor at one of those schools who makes calls to his/her buddies and ideological soulmates at other law schools. The recipients of those calls then flag the prodigy’s file, giving them a critical leg-up in the process. Law school hiring tends to be driven by the self-perpetuating network of left-leaning senior faculty.

It may not be deliberate bias, but there still is a disparate impact.

Indeed. Some observations from a science professor I sent this link to:

With senior hires, the track record of the candidate generally speaks for itself. With junior hires, you’re always taking a chance, as there just hasn’t been time for the candidate to build up an independent publication record, let alone a citation impact record on his ‘own’ work. So people tend to over-analyze letters of recommendation, and these can often be spun either way to some degree. In the exact sciences, it’s unlikely you’ll be explicitly blackballed for having the ‘wrong’ political orientation as it’s generally irrelevant to your work — but having unpopular political views may definitely mean people are less likely to ‘spin’ your file on your behalf. However, somebody who really believes in you as a scientist may become your advocate even if he’s radically different from you politically. Somehow, I don’t see the latter happen much in the humanities.

UPDATE: my correspondent adds:

I would however not put it past some of my climate science colleagues to try and ‘poison the well’ for an candidate in their own field if he were an AGW skeptic.


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