There can be no human society without conflict: such a society would be not a society of friends but of ants. —Sir Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies

A few months back the results of two large representative surveys of the political views of university faculty were published with little fanfare. This was reported on a web page of the Allan Bloom-inspired group Minding the Campus, but the details for the one by Jewish Research is here. (MtC seems to mostly have just copied what Jewish Research said.) Here is a link to another study, done by sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons at Harvard and George Mason, respectively. There was a little press coverage, e.g., this article in the Washington Post by Alan Cooperman. In the big scheme of things, this isn’t an enormous issue, so fair enough, but I still figured it would be worth some analysis.

In short, university faculty do not resemble the general population on their political and religious views. The data show that university faculty are similar to other “elite” groups of highly educated people in the society, i.e., more liberal than the norm, less religious, less likely to have voted for George W. Bush, etc.

Big surprise, there.

What’s interesting is what the studies don’t show. While university faculty are more liberal, less religious, etc., things are not monolithic. The vast majority still describe themselves as religious, have some involvement in a church, and so on. For instance, atheists—rare in the general population—are more common among university faculty, but by no means even close to a majority, making up about 8% of the respondents, with agnostics being about 12%. This is about three times the rate of the general population. The survey done by Gross and Simmons had an important caveat: Community colleges and state comprehensive universities have faculty that resemble the ordinary population more than elite institutions, which shouldn’t be shocking, either, since they tend to be drawn more from the ordinary population. This is important because a substantial majority of students attend these universities, not elite institutions. So in a sense, often the discourse is about what goes on at elite universities… which we shouldn’t really expect to resemble the general population much at all. The authors slice and dice the data in other ways; take a look at the original studies for more. The Gross/Simmons study is probably the one to read as it is much shorter and better written. (If you do, keep in mind that the margin of error for both surveys is about +/-4% on any estimates and if you want to be safe, don’t interpret differences less than about +/-6% as meaning much.)

Two groups, however, get singled out for special opprobrium among university faculty: Mormons and Evangelicals. I don’t pretend to understand the issue with Mormons aside from their appearance as a “mystery cult”—special underwear, closed temples, tales of revelation in upstate New York, and a history of polygamy will do that. But Mormons are far from popular among other groups, including Evangelicals, who like them even less than I suspect most university faculty do, so it’s unclear what to say about that. (Edit, 12/20/08: It seems that the Southern Baptist Convention may be responsible for much of the negative attention against Mormons.) On the issue of Evangelicals, the press releases have a certain doom and gloom aspect to them. From the press release on MtC:

Authors of the survey call this finding “alarming” and say those surveyed “have identified a deep and wide breach in the promotion and protection of diversity and open debate.” The report wonders about the long-term impact of prejudice against Evangelicals on campus and says it “stands out prominently in institutions dedicated to liberalism, tolerance and academic freedom…Colleges and universities have some serious soul-searching to do about these findings.”

Soul-searching? Hmmm…. Partisan agendas aside, lying behind the press release is, I believe, a theory of sociological representation, i.e., one that says that the distribution within an institution should resemble the society at large. (“Theory” here is being used in its philosophical, not scientific, sense.) In a sense, sociological representation is not a crazy notion, although different groups in our society can and do take it way, way too far, leading to things like the widespread gerrymandering of the 1990s to increase the number of representatives in the House from minority groups, made possible by an unholy alliance of left-leaning minority groups and conservative Republicans, both of whom could only agree on one thing: a desire to pick the voters rather than the other way around. The truth is, people self-select into all sorts of groups all the time. Furthermore, if you allow free association, identifiable sub-groups within society will not, in general, end up looking the population at large. For instance, people going into business tend to be much more financially motivated and generally economically conservative than Joe Average. I don’t hear conservatives hand-wringing about that.

2005 Economics Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling actually wrote a fascinating book considering (among others) the topic of segregation by individual choice, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, showing that very mild preference for “people like me” leads to near-total segregation quite quickly. (For the geeks: Schelling’s model was actually the first example of a cellular automaton model used to answer a real research question.) The result is counter-intuitive, but if you want to see what I mean, observe any large cafeteria where people get to choose their seats. Or you can play with Schelling’s model yourself (some assembly required). Anyway, the point is that underlying the hand-wringing about the fact that university faculty—and a lot of other social groups—fail to resemble the average population lies this notion of representation. Of course, many conservatives reject such a theory when it is applied in areas such as court membership (does the composition of the SCOTUS resemble the population at all? should it?), juries, boardrooms, and so on, but do seem to believe it about university faculty. Liberals like it when it comes to institutions they don’t control and feel the opposite in institutions they do. It’s not a good idea to trust the partisans on this issue (or, IMO, any issue, but that’s another story). Better, instead, to dig a little deeper….

(Continued here)

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