Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The bias of self-selection

The “leftist domination of college faculties,” sighs David French of the Alliance Defense Fund in a post at National Review Online, is “by now inarguable.” The argument has shifted to its cause.

Two new studies by academic sociologists have found that “self-selection” rather than bias accounts for the scarcity of conservative professors on university campuses (h/t: French). “There are just many more liberals than conservatives in the ranks of graduate students," the sociologist Neil L. Gross told the Chronicle of Higher Education. The fact that there are few academic conservatives “does not seem to be the result of bias or discrimination against them,” but appears rather to be the effect of self-selection among those who consider academic careers.

What is left out of account, though, is the way in which self-selection on the part of college faculties is a function of their power. Another term for it is faculty governance, which places exclusive responsibility for hiring and promotion in faculty hands. It is the faculty itself that is self-selecting, and with no outside checks on its power—sometimes the deans who are appointed to oversee the personnel decisions of departments are in collusion with them—why then should it occasion much surprise when the faculty selects more and more of its own kind?

The distinction between bias and self-selection, in other words, is without a difference. Let me illustrate from my own experience in the English department at Texas A&M University.

Every year the professors in the department are evaluated by a committee of their peers on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). A mid-range score of 3 is defined as “meeting departmental expectations.” In 2004, Paul Hedeen and I published Unrelenting Readers, an original anthology of contemporary poet-critics (the first of its kind), with a historical introduction, detailed biographical notes, and a comprehensive index. The next year, the evaluation committee, which was chaired by a full professor notorious in the department for his contempt for conservatives, gave me a score of 2 in research.

Now, perhaps a new co-edited book fails to meet “departmental expectations” in English at Texas A&M. Yet the same year that Unrelenting Readers was published, a leftist colleague co-edited a collection of conference papers with the University of Delaware Press. He received a 5 in research.

When I asked for an explanation, I was told that the presses were not comparable, even though Story Line, which has since gone out of business, was the leading publisher of the New Narrative poetry at the time, with writers like Bruce Bawer, Donald Hall, Mark Jarman, Frederick Morgan, Louis Simpson, and Richard Wilbur on its list. (I hadn’t realized that the University of Delaware’s was such a distinguished press.) When I threatened to file a grievance, the department head bumped my rating to 2.5 and promised me a raise commensurate with an even higher rating. Like a fool, I backed down and took the money. Fool? More like a whore.

There is more to the story. The chairman of the evaluation committee had already divorced his wife of twenty years and married one of his own PhD students at Texas A&M. Although two or three of us voted against her, she was hired on tenure track when she finished her dissertation, and though the same two or three of us voted against her again, she was duly tenured six years later.

Another example of self-selection rather than bias, I suppose.


Anonymous said...

I think that many public colleges are liberal petri-dishes because liberals are simply more active. There are conservative activists, of course, but it would be hubris to challenge liberals on that merit. I agree, however, that the encrusted supremacy of liberal educators must, in many ways, detract from the quality of education at most Universities.

AJ said...

Liberals are more likely to shoehorn a candidate into a position base don his "potential" than on his history of achievement. It's called giving someone an "opportunity" and so on--it's a central tenet of liberal ideology. Conservatives rarely do this, thus there are fewer conservatives in academia. Conservatives have a "earning" fetish, wherein one must earn things; Liberals don't because to liberals tradition, earning, standards are just Conservative nonsense meant to keep everyone else down.

ADDeRabbi said...

Admit it: you originally wrote "And speaking of whores" before deleting it and replacing it with "There is more to the story."

D. G. Myers said...

No, the whore was I. I entered the university for love and stayed for money.

49erDweet said...

Professor, it isn't only academia that succumbs to the temptation of self-selection. Politicians make the same error.

Mayor Curley of Boston - to ensure his reelection - for years drove away Anglo-Saxon voters and businesses to allow Irish workers to maintain a majority and vote for him. After 20 years he was still in office but his voters had become paupers due to industry flight job loss.

Mayor Young of Detroit thought he was doing the right thing for his base, black voters, by driving white-owned businesses from his city. He thought black-owned businesses would replace them, but that didn't occur with enough frequency and after five terms you see the result today in Detroit.

Department chairman have the best of intentions because they try to encourage and support mirror-images of themselves, and after all as chairs they must be perfect, right? So why not ten more just the same? Forgetting, of course, that if a human body had eleven noses and no legs it would sure have a difficult time surviving for long.

luke M. said...

Dude! (sorry, I mean professor), the silver lining here is A) that man pulled a Mcain and dumped his last-years-model-wife for a shiny new one, whilst simultaneously undermining the integrity of the University, while you on the other hand seem to be genuinely devoted to education. Keep up the good fight. I as a student appreciate it

claves curiae said...

If we don't submit what an institution is "looking for" it may be more difficult to receive acceptance, earn a living, support a family, and so on; so we submit accordingly. It's an act of Darwinian self-survival. Call this "self-selection," call it bias but it's actually a form of persecution.

We are very fortunate to live in a country of free speech with freedom of the press, which includes academic and intellectual freedom. If I'm not willing to stand on the principles of these rights and speak out, even if I do have family to support, then I perpetuate the bias and give it good standing. Taking the first step is an act of courage, but if I do not call it what it is and become part of the solution, then I'm part and parcel to the problem.