Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A View from the Right in a Left-Leaning Tower

What follows is a GUEST POST by University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student Robert Kelchen. I have had the privilege of working with Robert since 2008; we have co-authored two articles, including this one on the effects of financial aid. Upon reading John Tierney's take on the dominance of liberals in academe, I asked Robert for his thoughts-- and here they are. SGR


My name is Robert Kelchen, but many students and faculty who know me at the University of Wisconsin-Madison often introduce me as "the conservative guy" or "my Republican friend." I am used to this sort of introduction after being in Madison for four years; after all, I can count the number of conservative or libertarian doctoral students who I know on two hands. I have been told several times in the past by fellow students that I am the first right-leaning person with whom they have ever interacted on a regular basis. Prior to the passage of Act 10 (the law that restricted collective bargaining), I was one of the few students at the university to request a refund of the portion of the Teaching Assistants' Association dues that went toward political or ideological activities. This also meant that I had to give up my right to vote on issues germane to collective bargaining (the primary purpose of the union), but it was a sacrifice that I was willing to make. During the protests at the Capitol throughout the spring semester, I did my best to stay out of the fray and keep very quiet about my personal opinions.

Sara asked me for my thoughts on the recent New York Times article about why there are so few conservative students in graduate school. I had to consider the offer for a while, as making this post would make my political leanings more publicly known and could potentially affect my chances of getting a job in two years. However, I just could not pass up the opportunity to comment on this article in the newspaper of record for American liberals--and the same paper that ran a front-page article about Sara being one of a new generation of less politically-oriented professors.

My initial reaction to the article was to try to think of a conservative or libertarian professor in the School of Education at UW-Madison. To the best of my knowledge, there are no professors in the entire school, let alone my home department (Educational Policy Studies) who publicly identify as being right of center. However, this does not mean that there are no conservative faculty. A likely explanation is that faculty (and students) who do not identify with the liberal majority stay quiet about their political beliefs. The reaction of the majority of the faculty and graduate students during recent political events makes speaking out as a conservative a lonely proposition. It also means that there must exist other "elite" institutions that have a higher proportion of conservative faculty.

I do not put any stock in the Gross et al experiment mentioned in the article, which sent out letters asking for information about top graduate schools and included whether a fictional student worked for the Obama or McCain campaigns. Working on a presidential campaign does tell something about a student's political beliefs, but a student's GRE score and college performance (in addition to ability to pay) matter much more than that information. Additionally, the study only used male "prospective" applicants, a potentially serious limitation. (Not to mention that John McCain is a fairly liberal Republican who partnered with ex-Senator--and Madison hero--Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform. He is much more palatable to the left than someone like Michelle Bachmann.)

This leaves several possible explanations for why conservative students are less likely to go to graduate school and stay in academia later in life than liberals. A potential explanation mentioned in the article (and is echoed by several of the comments on the article) is that conservatives do not have the mental abilities to go to graduate school. That is entirely bogus, as noted in the article. I do not put much stock into the hypothesis that conservatives are less likely to be in academia due to discrimination on the acceptance (graduate students) or hiring (faculty) side, although this very well may be true in isolated institutions and departments.

The argument of self-selection, in which conservatives choose not to pursue a career in higher education, is the likely culprit for why I know only one other conservative graduate student in the entire School of Education. Much self-selection occurs because of how attending graduate school delays one's ability to make a reasonable salary. In "red" states, adults are more likely to get married at a younger age than those in "blue" states; the need to support a family can detract both women and men from spending an additional six or more years in school. The claim made by Peter Wood from the conservative National Association of Scholars, that conservatives choose not to pursue a graduate degree because of the perception of liberal bias, is likely responsible for part of the attendance gap. I would say that, holding all other factors constant, it is easier to be a majority liberal than a minority conservative. However, the common perception that conservatives know all other Republicans in the area or that we're always expected to engage in political discussions at the drop of a hat (or that we agree with everything that Sarah Palin says) probably do not cause many students to shun away from graduate school. The perception of liberal bias likely drives away many more students than the actual amount of liberal bias.

In closing, I would like to thank Sara again for the opportunity to post my thoughts. Next time you talk with a conservative, please realize that we are not bad people because we have different political viewpoints. Most of us, regardless of ideology or partisan affiliation, believe in the importance of public education even though we disagree on the best ways to improve the current system.