The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion On the causes of ideological imbalance in the academy

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What is the reason for the ideological imbalance of most universities discussed in my prior post?  In 2003, David Brooks wrote a column on the relative lack of right-leaning voices in the academy that touched a nerve.

At the time I was a relatively new law professor. I found much in Brooks’ column that was confirmed by my own experience. Here is what I wrote in response at the time on the VC:

When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I had several long discussions with my senior essay advisor about whether to pursue my PhD. My advisor, who was himself quite liberal, cautioned against it, largely because of my emerging, right-of-center political views. As he described it, succeeding in the liberal arts academy is tough enough as it is without the added burden of holding unpopular views. To illustrate the risk, he noted that one of his colleagues on the graduate admissions committee explicitly blackballed each and every candidate who had ever received financial support (scholarships, fellowships, etc.) from the John M. Olin Foundation because, his colleague insisted, the Olin Foundation only funded people who thought like they did, and Yale did not want any graduate students who thought that way. If I truly wanted to be an academic, he counseled, I was better off going to law school. While he didn’t know much about the politics of the legal academy, a law degree would provide a better safety net than a history PhD. In the end, that’s what I did.
My experience in the academy further confirms Brooks’ account. Most of the hostility faced by conservatives (and libertarians) is not explicit, and often not conscious or deliberate. In many cases, the subject matter and methodology of conservative scholarship is simply of no interest to those on the left (and probably vice-versa). At schools where there are no tenured conservatives, job candidates and junior professors may be left without a “champion” to help them navigate the process. The lack of right-of-center views at some schools may also make even moderate conservatives appear “kooky” or extreme. By the same token, it is clear to me that many conservatives in academia cry “wolf,” or seek to blame political opposition on their failure to succeed in a highly competitive environment. Contrary to what some believe, not every conservative’s failure to get tenure is the result of politics. Those that do succeed, however, will often work on faculties with few like-minded colleagues.
To conclude, I think the bias against conservatives is real (if overstated) in many parts of the academy, particularly the humanities. Nevertheless, careful and talented conservatives can succeed in the academy if they are willing to become “lonely voices.”

My views are largely the same today. While I think there are many factors that contribute to ideological imbalance in law schools, including some amount of self-selection and the tendency of institutions to replicate themselves, there is also some amount of conscious (and unconscious) bias. For example, I know of law professors who would refuse to support hiring anyone who had clerked for Justice Thomas, and others that would not even consider interviewing fully qualified job candidates with overtly right-leaning entries on their resumes. This may not be the dominant cause of ideological imbalance — indeed, I suspect that it is not — but it plays a larger role than it should.

UPDATE: For those questioning whether there is any real ideological disparity in the legal academy, here is a study of law school hiring, a study of political contributions by law school professors, a broader analysis of diversity on law school faculties, and a study of legal scholarship that also finds a left-right disparity. Here also is some related commentary by Will Baude, Nicholas Rosenkranz, and Peter Schuck.