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Do Conservatives Self-select Away from Academic Careers?

- February 20, 2008

Academicians in this country, especially those in the social sciences and humanities, are disproportionately left of center, or at least centrist, politically, rather than conservative. That finding has cropped up in so many surveys over the years that I won’t even bother to cite sources. Let’s just take it as a fact and go from there.

Go where? How about adressing the “Why?” questlon? It’s here that things begin to get interesting.

One answer is that conservatives are discriminated against in academia. They don’t get hired in the first place, and the fortunate few who do find academic employment aren’t tolerated for long by their liberal colleagues. That answer is simple, straightforward, and politically combustible. It’s the standard story that conservatives tell and liberals dispute.

Now, however, comes quite a different answer. Based on their recent research, Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner contend that the culprit isn’t discrimination against conservatives, but rather self-selection on the part of conservatives. In a paper titled “Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Doctorates, Woessner and Kelly-Woessner conclude that “The personal priorities of those on the left are more compatible with pursuing a Ph.D.” than are the priorities of their conservative counterparts. For example, liberal undergraduates are more likely than conservatives to do research projects with their professors. More importantly, conservative undergraduates are outnumbered by two to one in the social sciences and humanities. Conservative students are more oriented toward financial security and raising famlies. Accordingly, they gravitate toward more “practical” courses of study that lead them into highly remunerative professions like accounting and computer science. They’re also less willing to delay having children — a common pattern in academic life, where childbirth often awaits a favorable tenure vote.

For a chatty and not especially informative introduction to this project in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, click here. For a copy of the paper itself, click here.

(By the way, you should check out Matthew’s website, which has some handsome photos of the canine members of the family.)