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Why conservatives find it harder in academia
This week, there was renewed debate over bias in academia, the conservative political scientist Eric Kaufmann leaving Birkbeck and complaining of attacks on his freedom of speech. Whilst I am sympathetic to Kaufmann, for reasons we will see, there is little point speculating about individual cases.
The institutional foundations of this process are more important and interesting, enabling deeper analysis of such processes and progression beyond the ‘He said! She said!’ discourse which, too often, characterizes debate about academic bias.
As I have argued on this Substack, liberal values have become hegemonic in the postmaterial West, changing the incentives of liberals and encouraging intolerance. There are particularly high liberal-conservative ratios in universities, meaning that the expression of conservative views tends to be more difficult.
Liberal majorities are novel. Exceptional spheres aside, conservative values dominate traditional societies, reflecting precarious economic conditions. In some cases, conservative domination is unambiguous, minorities which offend orthodoxy being purged. But in more enlightened societies in which conservatives are still majorities – Western countries throughout most of the 20th century are good examples – conservative domination takes a different form. In such contexts, political radicalism, atheism and homosexuality might have been legal, yet did not enjoy popular approval.
Traditionally, liberals have been adept at identifying the ways in which such minorities were subject to bias, even when the law guaranteed equality. These range from the concepts of hegemony and systemic racism to theories of preference falsification and homophily. The strongest theories demonstrate the human dynamics through which institutions favour majority preferences. For example, the theory of preference falsification shows how minorities tend to conceal their opinion.
What happens when liberals become the majority? Liberal domination may not exactly resemble conservative domination – arguably, liberals place greater emphasis on self-expression and autonomy - yet it is difficult to believe that liberals are exempt from the social laws which, in other contexts, liberals advocate.
One can assert that liberal pressure on conservative academics is incomparable to some of the historic wrongs I mention above – and I agree – yet this is distinct from the issue of whether Western academia disadvantages conservatives.
Research demonstrates this. In a recent survey of almost 2500 academics working in over 100 countries, the renowned political scientist Pippa Norris finds a ‘fish-out-of-water’ effect. In developed countries with liberal cultures, conservative scholars report threats to freedom of speech. In developing countries with conservative cultures, liberal scholars report such threats. Given the diverse countries included in the survey, it seems unlikely that threats are imaginary.
We should add a caveat. In Western universities, radical progressives may also encounter colder climates. After all, this movement proposes major changes to liberalism and, though sometimes overlooked, supporters of the ideology complain about reaction to their ideas. In academia, the dominant ideology is a form of left-liberalism which, though increasingly combined with parts of progressivism, has a moderate core. Conservatives are the primary outgroup, but not the only.
Of course, such trends are very broad. Countries and universities have separate path dependencies, meaning that common pressures will have distinct effects. In some contexts, pressure on conservative academics may be egregious. In others, it may be scarcely discernible.
Debates about academic bias will not end any time soon. Given the importance of education as a predictor of liberal values, liberals will dominate Western universities for the foreseeable future and bias against conservatives may remain a problem.
But as debate moves forward, we should reflect on institutional processes; these are most revealing.
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