Self-Selection and Ideological Imbalances in Academia:

A recent paper by Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner argues that much of the massive ideological imbalance in academia may be due to self-selection. Theis survey evidence shows that conservative undergraduates are less interested in doing original academic research and developing a "philosophy of life" than liberal ones, while showing greater interest than liberals in making money and raising a family. The authors claim that these differences in attitude are likely to lead liberals to self-select into academia and conservatives to self-select against it.

Woessner and Kelly-Woessner emphasize that these self-selection arguments are not incompatible with discrimination-based explanations. Indeed, one of their other interesting findings is that conservative undergraduates have, on average, weaker mentoring relationships with faculty members (who at most schools are overwhelmingly liberal) even after controlling for the students' academic records. Obviously, faculty mentoring at the undergrad level is often crucial for facilitating later efforts to get into a top grad school. Nonetheless, the authors argue that their attitudinal variables probably do account for a large portion of the ideological imbalance in academia.

I agree that self-selection probably plays an important role. It would be a serious mistake to attribute the ideological imbalance in academia solely to discrimination, or even primarily. But I am somewhat skeptical about the particular variables emphasized by the Woessners. If interest in making money were a crucial variable in steering conservatives away from academia, one would expect their representation to be much higher in high-paying academic disciplines such as law, where faculty members routinely make six figure salaries and often have extensive consulting opportunities. Yet the ideological imbalance in legal academia is very large and fairly similar to that in other academic fields.

In my view, a focus on raising a family should make academia more attractive to conservatives rather than less. Relative to other professional jobs, academic careers are actually quite family-friendly. Unlike most other professionals, professors have a high degree of control over their schedules. They can also do a much higher proportion of their work at home, which makes it easier to spend time with kids. Universities also tend to have extremely generous family leave policies for faculty. Moreover, universities often give substantial tuition discounts to children of their faculty - an important benefit for social conservatives with large families. Some schools even subsidize private secondary school tuition for faculty children.

I'm not saying that the academic life is a family idyll. But it's closer to being so than most of the available alternatives for ambitious undergrads. It's true that the interest in starting a family is negatively correlated with interest in pursuing a PhD in the authors' regression model. I suspect, however, that this is a statistical artifact stemming from the fact that those conservatives with the strongest interest in raising families are also more alienated from the dominant academic ideology than even other conservatives are (perhaps because they are more likely to be highly religious and belong to theologically traditionalist denominations).

On the other side of the ledger, I'm skeptical that wanting to develop "a meaningful philosophy of life" really has much to do with wanting to be an academic. And, in the authors' regression model (Appendix A), this indicator is only a weak (though statistically significant) predictor of interest in pursuing a PhD.

Like other studies of academic ideology, the Woessner and Kelly-Woessner paper also suffers from the failure to consider libertarians separately from conservatives. As I discuss in this post, libertarians are about 10-15 percent of the general population and are likely to be disproportionately represented among non-liberals likely to be interested in pursuing academic careers. Relative to conservatives, libertarians are about 20% more likely to be college graduates (see Table 10 in the linked paper) and threfore more likely to be potential candidates for academic jobs.

Although I'm not aware of survey evidence on this point, I strongly suspect that libertarians are closer to liberals than to conservatives in their interests in doing research, developing a philosophy of life, and raising families. Yet libertarians are almost as underrepresented in academia as conservatives are. Certainly, they are nowhere close to constituting 10 percent of faculty in any field other than economics. It is possible that libertarians are more interested in making money than liberals are; the claim is often made, though I have yet to see any systematic study that proves or disproves it. But even if this stereotype is true, it doesn't explain why they aren't better represented in law and other high-paying academic fields.

UPDATE: As I implied in the original post, I don't think that either the ideological imbalance in academia or the flaws of some of the Woessners' self-selection arguments prove that there is extensive ideological discrimination. Indeed, I think the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia is partially due to self-selection factors (though probably not the ones this paper focuses on). On the other hand, there is significant evidence that discrimination plays an important role as well. See this post for links.