Ideological Discrimination in Academe: The Burden of Proof

Steve Balch

When it comes to proving discrimination in academe, the bar is set fairly low. Little more than the simple fact of underrepresentation is usually required, after which the worst can safely be assumed. Exempt from this inference are a few groups deemed beneficiaries of past bias and hence legitimate targets for table-turning. Males, for instance, now constitute a declining minority of students at the baccalaureate level. There isn’t, of course, much official discrimination against them in undergraduate admissions, but that fact alone wouldn’t normally quiet worry about their underrepresentation – there might, after all, be covert prejudice at work. Given the status of males as a suspect class, however, the phenomenon generates only minor angst.

There is another even more interesting exemption. Conservatives are drastically underrepresented within faculties also without anyone (except other conservatives) appearing much to mind. Yet unlike males, conservatives are not official objects of disfavor, discrimination against them having no rationale that the academy is willing openly to embrace. Simply treating their underrepresentation as a non-problem is therefore not a feasible option. Instead, despite an overabundance of the kind of evidence generally thought damning, discrimination against conservatives is stoutly denied. In the eyes of academe’s defenders, less than conservatives’ numeric due is not less at all, merely a result of natural processes, to which no culpability attaches, and for which no exculpation is necessary. 

Is there something painfully two-faced here? The case can certainly be made. Looking out toward the public, university spokesman can’t afford to admit that their institutions may be taking a bead on conservative academics – too many citizens, and politicians, would, by implication, also be in those crosshairs. Yet administrators simultaneously realize that at their backs boils the fury of many faculty activists who believe the political right to be evil incarnate and its devotees the devil’s minions. For these fervid members of the university community discrimination against conservatives is virtually a moral mandate – and they cannot be opposed without risk. When it comes to ideological discrimination university leaders are thus pressed both to deny and allow, to repudiate the principle but wink at the actual practice.

Or at least that’s what one might suppose – until the relevant social science is examined. Taken as a whole it appears inconclusive, suggesting the possibility that there really may not be that much toward which a blind eye could be turned. Some investigators find evidence that academic conservatives, all things being equal, fare less well career-wise than do their liberal counterparts – though the statistical difference isn’t large.[1] Others discover that academic conservatives only infrequently report personal mistreatment, even if they think that those of their ilk can experience it.[2] Still others find that the left/liberal character of the professoriate rather innocently derives from self-selection, liberals gravitating toward academe because it’s been “typed” as a place for liberals to be. [3] Among researchers the question of academic discrimination against conservatives thus remains rather vexed.

But should it really? Might not the recourse to social science in this instance represent a kind of empirical overkill? However normal to our time and place, might it not be more than just a bit myopic, obscuring rather than clarifying judgment? While it may have its uses, could it be that survey research in its splendid isolation also possesses a capacity to distract from the otherwise obvious? Might it not be undermining, as social science sometimes does, the ordinary common sense of the matter?            

Survey research methodology has its own form of Heisenberg uncertainty. As it seeks greater precision about certain things, it can grow correspondingly vaguer about others. This is a result of the loss of information that frequently attends quantification, a move replete with trade-offs. Survey research can be exact in ascertaining correlations between formally defined factors, as well as tracking changing relationships among them over time. But in reducing the world to “factors” it necessarily simplifies, collapsing a wealth of experience into analytic categories feasible for statistical report and manipulation. As a result, complex arrays of attitudes find procrustean surrogates in a limited set of responses to a limited set of questions. Similarly, groups and subgroups get represented by artificially simplified indicators. Relationships also need to be more than just suggested by the data, to attain standing they must meet demanding tests of statistical significance as well. And so on.

This hardly renders survey research useless. It is a tool which, when employed with care, and due allowance for its artificiality, is a valuable adjunct to other forms of social inquiry. But there are numerous occasions when it yields less than might a plain dose of common sense. The exploration of anti-conservative bias in higher education is probably among them.

The Counsels of Common Sense

What do we know about contemporary American universities? Nothing, I think, if not that they’ve become heavily engaged ideologically. They don’t endorse candidates or advise political parties, but the great majority, and almost all those of prestige, now regard themselves as agents of progressive social change in just about all of its myriad dimensions. This isn’t only a matter of faculties being disproportionately inclined to the left, as indicative as that, by itself, may be. It’s a matter of institutional commitments manifest in a sea of formal statements, sponsored programs, and admissions and recruitment policies, to say nothing of curricular and extracurricular content. The imperatives of race, class, gender, and transgender, global and environmental consciousness, sustainability, multiculturalism, and diversity now provide most of our universities with their moral marching orders, their pervasive pieties, their prompts for dudgeon, a beat for their rhetorical drums. In the realms of humane discourse the contemporary university is in no ways a house divided, it is a passionate chorus with a few harmoniously swelling themes. 

Perhaps some researchers will find in this characterization significant exaggeration. If so their demurral gets them off a conceptual hook. They need not infer what all other commonsensical observers would otherwise be compelled to – that such a highly charged climate is likely to contain considerable amounts of intolerance toward dissenters, that it will probably be less than extraordinary for many of its denizens to feel that error has no rights, and that fidelity to creed is likely to be at the back, if not the front, of the minds of a lot of decision makers – very much including those who pass on the qualifications of personnel.

These inferences simply reflect, or should, that knowledge of human experience and nature generally called worldliness, which mines a far deeper seam of social understanding than do the surfaces of survey research. Again, researchers are free to reject the picture of the academy I’ve painted and thus avoid the commonsense surmises that follow from it. But if they do, their rejection should be made explicit. They need to say out loud something like “I believe American higher education to be basically neutral in ideological outlook,” or “I believe that its stances on left-right issues are essentially middle of the road.” Whatever such avowals may do for their research methodology, they’ll certainly provide an illuminating revelation of their grasp of what’s real.

My point is not that commonsense inference should be regarded as dispositive with respect to the existence of significant, systemic discrimination against conservatives. There are always special cases that defeat commonsense – and the academy might conceivably prove to be one of them. Professors are unusual people. They staunchly proclaim a loyalty to the pursuit of the truth and intellectual freedom. They also strongly deny complicity in ideological discrimination. These claims can’t be dismissed out of hand. But however much matriculated, degreed, and post-degreed, professors haven’t quite managed to graduate from the human race, being, with everyone else, stuck with its failings, foibles, and unseemly proclivities. The issue then is not “proof” but its burden. If all the typical symptoms of a discriminatory environment are present, the burden of proof is on researchers who seek to show that discrimination in significant amounts isn’t taking place, not on those who suspect it is.

Here my position resembles that of much contemporary workplace discrimination law, but with a critical difference. In workplace law “disparate impact,” the underrepresentation of a particular ethnic group, or of women, compared to some benchmark population, shifts to the employer the burden of proving discrimination isn’t occurring. But common sense hardly suggests that, absent discrimination, different groups will be proportionately represented in a given workplace or occupational category. In light of variations in education, skill sets, aspirations, family circumstances, age ranges, etc. that distinguish groups, common sense suggests quite the reverse. Despite the fact that conservatives are underrepresented in academic life, and that the academy is keen to correct statistical underrepresentation when it arises in most other forms, the tell-tale warning signs of discrimination on which I’m relying – the strong creedal commitments of contemporary academe, subscribed to by powerful and vocal elements of the faculty and administration, and manifest in a wide variety of policies and self-definitions frequently at odds with the core values of conservatism – are of an immensely different sort than the simple fact of underrepresentation, which in the case of conservatives, as in those that relate to ethnicity and sex, might be entirely, and is certainly in some substantial part, attributable to non-discriminatory causes. They relate to deeply held beliefs, not statistical assumptions, and are thus plausible indicators of behavior.

(Let me hasten to add – and here again I’m parting company with workplace discrimination law – that I don’t believe the burden of proof should lie against individual faculty members, or academic departments, when ideological discrimination is charged against them. There may be significant, systemic discrimination against conservatives in academic life without individual scholars, or even the majority of ideologically committed scholars, ever engaging in it. [4] Moreover, to put individuals in the position of having to prove their innocence is always to invite abuses of power. The issue is not fundamental fairness toward individuals but the appropriate default option in survey research on ideological discrimination in academe; that is to say what researchers should circumstantially expect to be the state of affairs absent direct evidence to the contrary – a natural question given survey research’s methodological limitations. Whatever the remedies that might be useful in dealing with such discrimination on a systemic basis, eliminating the presumption of innocence for accused individuals or academic subdivisions, being neither just nor efficacious, shouldn’t be one of them.)               

Discrimination in the History of Academe

Ideologically driven discrimination has long been rife in institutions of higher learning. Take as illustration American universities of yesteryear – not very long yesteryear, but that of the period around the turn of the twentieth century. Their doctrinal commitments were, in many respects, substantially different from those of today, but no less firmly held by their dominant fiduciaries. Leading institutions generally saw themselves as embodiments of an established order that was explicitly Protestant Christian. They also regarded themselves as proprietors of an Anglo-American political and cultural tradition, to say nothing of conventional notions of gentility and good breeding. With such decided affinities it’s not surprising that they also discriminated.

To a substantial degree this was based on class. While some scholarships were available, few would have contemplated a “needs blind” admissions policy even had endowments then been large enough to support one. Although America was already considered an exemplar of mobility, helping its “better elements” to reproduce themselves culturally was still part and parcel of the university’s role as social buttress.

With respect to racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination, not yet illegal in the private sphere, only the flimsiest of polite disguises, and sometimes not even that, concealed its practice. In the South, of course, racial discrimination was universal, but even outside the South universities like Princeton de facto excluded black students. Ivy League institutions placed ceilings on the number of Jews. Discrimination in faculty hiring, particularly against Jews, though not as overt as in student admissions, was also widely exercised. The celebrated Morris Raphael Cohen spent most of his career teaching philosophy at CityCollege. It took until 1938 for the first Jew, Lionel Trilling, to be tenured in Columbia’s English Department.

Not surprisingly, when intellectual policing occurred it was largely directed against liberals. The attempt to oust economist Richard T. Ely from the University of Wisconsin in 1894, the dismissal of economist Edward A. Ross from Stanford University in 1900, the forced resignation of John M. Mecklin at Lafayette College in 1913, to take the most celebrated cases, all involved scholars whose opinions on economic or religious issues were in one way or another “progressive.”

In these episodes the forces pushing for proscription emanated from a regent, a donor, and a president respectively, with resistance coming from faculty members who, with the professionalization of scholarly specialties, were increasingly asserting a right to be the sole judges of their peers. But that didn’t mean that faculties were unwilling to enforce their own concepts of professional mission and ideological correctness when these drew challenge. A conspicuous example was the termination of Lienhard Bergel by the Rutgers German Department in 1935. Pre-war German Departments understood themselves as bridges of friendship and cultural appreciation between America and Germany and in some cases, as at Rutgers, were led by Nazi sympathizers. Outspoken anti-Nazis like Bergel were frequently unwelcome.            

It’s easy to forget the extent to which orthodoxy permeated earlier eras of academic life, or the extent to which professors regarded themselves as its enforcers. At the forefront of university faculties in the medieval and early modern periods were religious orders like the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and later, the Jesuits, each committed to combating heresy. With the Reformation universities were sucked into one or another of the religious camps, their faculties becoming polemical redoubts for contending churches. America’s early colleges also had articles of faith and a strongly clerical outlook. Even philosophic stances – Cartesianism, for instance, in certain seventeenth and eighteenth century French universities – could assume a quasi-orthodox status. While original work was done in these institutions, and intellectual disputes were many, freedom was ultimately subordinate to creed.

Is any of this surprising? I think not. Intellectuals live and die by ideas. Their reputations, livelihoods, and egos depend on being able to prevent those with which they’re identified from being successfully attacked. This doesn’t mean that they need to suppress intellectual challenges, they can choose to meet them fairly, head on – yet the temptation is always there. Non-intellectuals are rarely in this position. To the extent they bother with ideas (outside religion), they are usually things that can be taken or left depending on perceived utility. But for an intellectual the free flow of ideas can, at the least, make workaday life disagreeably unpredictable and, at the most, threaten to topple professional hierarchies. When these hierarchies are linked to worldviews and movements passionately embraced, an impulse to impose consensus, rather than allowing it to evolve spontaneously (or not), shouldn’t shock.

In the natural sciences there are often conclusive tests whereby the theoretical wheat can be separated from the chaff. Powerful new ideas can’t long be denied. But in humane discourse, opacity is more the rule. And as clarity and rigor wane, the temptations to use institutional authority, rather than evidence, to enforce agreement multiply. It’s generally in these realms that political correctness arises.     

Rebutting Common Sense

And so let us return to the question of the burden of proof. If the intellectual atmosphere of academic life offers many good reasons for presuming that ideological discrimination will occur and, under contemporary circumstances, that it will be directed against conservatives, what would be necessary to defeat the presumption?

Evidence of various sorts can be imagined, though so too can many practical difficulties in gathering it. Committed conservatives constitute no more than a thin scattering in academe, especially in those fields where their views would be apt to generate controversy. Broad samplings of the professoriate are therefore unlikely to uncover those most vulnerable to discrimination in statistically significant batches. Personnel deliberations are wrapped in confidentiality and resolved on the basis of qualitative judgments whose essence is hard to capture through purely quantitative measures. In fields where conservatives are found, they are often concentrated in particular sub-domains, for example, political theory in political science, or physical anthropology in anthropology, making it more difficult to compare their treatment with the norms of the field as a whole. These are by no means insuperable problems but they raise the hurdle for overcoming the presumption of discrimination even higher than it would otherwise be.             

There is, however, one approach that recommends itself, to me at least, as direct, feasible, and potentially decisive in overcoming the presumption of discrimination:  the testimony of affected parties in the relevant fields that discrimination isn’t occurring. By this I don’t mean the claims of the presumptive perpetrators, who have every reason to see things through rose colored glasses. (Though if, in zealous candor, a fair number admit to discrimination it should pretty much settle the matter.) It’s the putative victims whose testimony would carry the credibility the burden of proof demands. To be sure, nothing like their complete denial of discrimination’s existence would be necessary. A commonsense take on human nature expects grousing, even opportunistic lying, from the members of purported victim groups. But if a majority of conservatives in the fields where ideology seems most salient affirmed the absence of discrimination against those like themselves, the presumption could be considered rebutted.[5]  (Denial of discrimination by supposed victims carries more weight than affirmation. In contemporary America accepted victim status carries real advantage, non-victimhood doesn’t. For psychological as well as political reasons it is therefore often sought. Complaints of victimization can’t, of course, be swept aside – they might well be confirmed by other facts. But absent evidence of coercion, denial is dispositive in a way affirmation isn’t.) [6]         

Most attempts to study academic discrimination fall into the aforementioned trap of being overly expansive, lumping humanities and social science faculties together with those in the natural sciences, the applied sciences, and the business and professional spheres. While this often reflects an understandable desire to preserve within general faculty surveys subgroups large enough to produce statistically significant correlations, it simultaneously washes out the vast differences in academic culture that distinguish the more and less politicized domains, resulting in the likelihood of finding statistically significant relationships actually being reduced. It also tends to make questions asking about the personal experiences of conservative professors potentially misleading, since the majority will be located in disciplines like engineering, business, and the natural sciences, where ideology isn’t an issue. Researchers would be better advised to zero in on fields with a reputation for politicization like anthropology, education, history, literature, psychology, sociology and, to a somewhat lesser degree, political science. (Economics, rather ideologically bifurcated, and classics and philosophy, less politically engaged, should, perhaps, be considered separately. The fields most vociferously committed to social change, such as ethnic studies, women’s studies, and social work, aren’t likely to have enough conservatives in them to locate respondents.)

These fields contain only a relatively small subset of all faculty members. Nonetheless, the presence (or absence) of discrimination within them is crucial, for they constitute the academic lens through which society views itself, and the medium in which future opinion leadership is nourished. Even if there were discrimination against conservatives in electrical engineering, its cultural consequence would likely be nil.

The criteria for selecting respondents will be as important as those for selecting fields. Defining conservatism on the basis of self-designation, or even answers to a set of conventional questions about contemporary political issues, is inadequate. What we’re looking for are scholars who are not just to the right of ideological center (which in the academy may be decidedly on society’s left), but ones who care strongly about their worldviews and who see a connection between them and their work. They wouldn’t have to be rightwing polemicists masquerading as scholars (we’d hope they weren’t), but they’d have to be, in some sense, the opposite numbers of the members of the faculty left, that is to say, the left’s natural antagonists, the ones it would be most be tempted to hamper or exclude.

Isolating this particular group also follows from common sense.  Overtly anti-leftist intellectuals are going to bear the brunt of discrimination because they’re the only group that can really challenge the other side. Intellectual climates aren’t shaped by the meek and mild. The left, within both faculty and administration, frame academic discourse as much as they do, not because they comprise absolute majorities, but because they so deeply care, and in caring, sweep aside the more measured but tepid sentiments of the less engaged. A change in the academic climate will require an intellectual check on the left’s passions that can only be exercised by counterparts equally passionate (whose potential excesses would in turn be curbed by the left). While the number of outspoken conservatives currently in the humanities and social sciences are few, what happens to them is thus immensely important. It is their ability to enlarge their footholds that will determine whether the academy can regain its intellectual balance and health, whether an intellectual space can be reopened wide enough to embrace a broad spectrum of ideas, left, right, and center.            

Furthermore, whether or not these robust conservatives had personally experienced discrimination is probably of less moment than whether or not they believed it was befalling their philosophic peers. A good many will be senior scholars who established themselves within their fields and departments during less ideologically fraught times, while others, given the natural workings of professional selection, will be in anomalous departments, or anomalous institutions. Such situational facts shouldn’t prevent them from knowing the temper of their fields as a whole – in light of their own intense views they’d be acutely aware of having an oppositional status – but these same facts would, in many cases, shield them from having personally felt the adverse effects.

In all likelihood the reputation for discrimination they believed their fields deserved would be communicated to younger conservatives considering entering them. Since the deterrent effect of anticipated discrimination might well be as significant as the effect of its actual practice, their assessments would thereby gain an additional importance.      

Would they answer accurately and honestly? Not necessarily any more so than their colleagues on the opposite shore. Their own partisan sentiment, or a touch of paranoia, could seduce them into stretching the extent of prevailing biases. In their describing a negligible problem might swell into visibility, a moderate one become overwhelming. (My guess is that most would gratefully acknowledge fair treatment from colleagues with little stomach for their views, though this may be to overestimate humanity’s generosity of spirit.) A smaller number of probing in-depth interviews, rather than the broad strokes of a questionnaire might provide one way of hedging against mischaracterization.

Of course rigorous social science may not have the means to rebut all the assumptions of common sense, even when ill-founded. In light of its limitations there may be questions it simply cannot decide. Hypothetically, common sense may be way off base about academic discrimination against conservatives without there being a scientifically reliable way of exposing the displacement.

But that’s not likely. What common sense advises – that people with powerful convictions will often fail to see the merits of opposing views and demonize those who hold them; that absent external restraint, intense believers will frequently seek to suppress dissent, ingeniously finding pretexts, and feeling all the more virtuous for having done so; and that those who view the scholarly calling as the practice of politics by other means will many times turn it into something more akin to war – is, though probably open to falsification, also very probably true. [7] And thereupon hangs proof’s burden.


[1] Rothman, Stanley, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte. 2005, “Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty.”, The Forum 3: article 2.

[2] Smith, Bruce L.R., Jeremy D. Mayer and A. Lee Fritschler, Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute Press, 2008, 71 – 91. 

[3] Fosse, Ethan and Neil Gross, “Why Are Professors Liberal”, Working Paper, January 15, 2010. 

[4] The term “significant discrimination” may suggest different things to different observers of academic life. Yet if African-American or female graduate students and faculty members encountered racial or sexual discrimination in a sizeable fraction of the personnel decisions (let’s say 20%) in which they were involved, and if, as a result, even those who didn’t were anxious about the possibility and had their career choices shaped by it, I think most everyone would agree that this amounted to a significant problem. The current academic environment being what it is, I believe there is every reason to assume, absent compelling contrary evidence, that ideological discrimination encountered by vocal conservatives in politically colored fields is at least of this magnitude.     

[5] The Smith, Mayer, and Fritschler data actually covers some of this ground. Having asked a sample of professors – all fields included – whether they believed that in hiring “conservative and liberal candidates are treated similarly, 60% of the “very conservative professors” believed that there was either a “strong” (36%) or “weak” (24%) preference for liberals. Of the “very liberal” only 11% believed that there was “strong” (5%) or “weak (6%) preference for conservatives. The authors are unimpressed.      

[6] I think the possibility of “false consciousness”, that is, of academic conservatives being unaware of discrimination against them, can confidently be dismissed.

[7] The most probable result of interviewing strongly conservative faculty in fields with ideological salience would, of course, be a litany of stories fortifying rather rebutting the presumption of discrimination. Common sense wouldn’t be disconfirmed, but the exercise would put a human face on the problem. 

Image: Scales of Justice - Frankfurt Version by Michael Coghlan / CC BY-SA 2.0

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