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How bad have universities got?
Conservatives exaggerate, but liberal bias is a real problem in universities; three factors underpin this.
Universities are increasingly accused of bias. According to critics, high concentrations of liberals entail groupthink and discrimination against conservatives. Announcing the establishment of the University of Austin, founders cited damning statistics. Nearly a quarter of American social science and humanities academics support dismissing colleagues who have unorthodox views in areas such as immigration or gender differences. Four out of five American PhD students are willing to discriminate against right-wing scholars.
These statistics are important, but there are countervailing trends; most academics remain tolerant and many conservatives relish working in the sector. Moreover, conditions differ sharply across institutions and faculties; left-wing authoritarianism may be embedded within certain environments, yet others are models of tolerance. Debates which exchange statistics are often fruitless, opponents talking around each other. But deeper trends are elucidative. In recent decades, three developments have increased pressures for bias within universities.
Firstly, there is the rise of the education cleavage. As Western societies have embraced mass higher education, access to education increasingly shapes politics. Education predicts liberal attitudes on issues such as immigration, Brexit and the death penalty, those with less education tending to adopt conservative positions. There is a crucial implication for universities. Because universities provide education, they gather individuals who tend to have liberal views. Exceptions always exist, yet the education-liberalism nexus implies that liberalism will predominate; most academics have higher degrees and students work towards degrees.
Notwithstanding intentions, this encourages groupthink. Normative judgements underpin most academic topics, meaning that interpretations are crucial. When most academics are liberals, liberal positions have a natural advantage. This is particularly relevant to contentious topics which are open to multiple readings. Immigration is one, interpretations of this topic arguably reflecting liberal preferences. This is inevitable. When institutions gather people with similar values, practices will tend to reflect aggregate preferences.
Secondly, the class profile of academics has become more important. Whilst academics have always been part of the professional class, their membership of the sociocultural class is increasingly significant. Sociocultural occupations include lecturers, doctors and social workers; these are jobs in which task structures are ambiguous, necessitating creative responses, and relations with service users are critical. Such emphasis on creativity and care means that sociocultural workers are predominantly liberal.
In recent decades, the sociocultural class has grown, becoming politically important. In left-wing parties, sociocultural workers increasingly form critical masses, enabling significant policy influence; the US Democrats and UK Labour Party have changed on these lines. Though many academics have always identified with the goals of left-wing parties, identification has increased, reflecting the hegemony of sociocultural workers. This makes academics more prone to partisanship. In Marxian terms, academics are becoming a class for itself, albeit as part of a broader class.
Thirdly, academic inquiry is becoming politicized. Traditionally, academia is premised on the idea that most objects of inquiry exist independently of the social world, this being a central Enlightenment value. But this is under threat. Constructivists emphasize the social construction of reality; consequently, everything is political, even technical subjects such as mathematics and engineering. This position has long been present in academia, associated with scholars such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, but has become increasingly popular. Crucially, administrators now champion it. Following the emergence of Black Lives Matter, universities have started to politicize hitherto technical subjects; events which aim to ‘decolonize’ technical subjects are common.
This is unnerving. Strictly, these fields may not be apolitical, all knowledge being socially embedded, but links with politics are weak. Politicization of these fields is invasive, needlessly dividing people and lying in tension with the liberal tradition. Historically, liberalism minimizes the reach of politics, recognizing that societies need non-political spaces; authoritarian ideologies are the inverse, seeking to politicize these spaces. This process can be exaggerated; within academia, many fields remain weakly politicized, traditions of independence and technical subject matter preempting radicals. But trajectories are worrying. When academia is politicized, bias will probably follow.
Those who impugn universities sometimes predict their demise. In my opinion, this is wrong. Universities are ancient institutions with formidable resilience. They have navigated challenging conditions before; they will do so again. Notwithstanding these caveats, recent developments are concerning. Pressures for bias reinforce each other, articulating differently in distinct contexts. Many environments remain untouched, but partiality is a consistent threat, deep-rooted changes promoting it. The factors which I have identified are far from exhaustive.
If universities are to meet such challenges, the quality of this debate must improve. On both sides, people often dismiss the claims of rivals with isolated anecdotes, opponents talking around each other. Discussion of deeper challenges will enhance debate; even those who doubt that universities are biased should consider them. Such reflection might build empathy with opponents. In this debate, mutual understanding is in short supply, exacerbating disagreement.
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