Do We Need Affirmative Action for Conservatives?

Fred Block | Research professor of sociology at U.C. Davis

An Argument on Academia’s Rejection of Diversity

Every once in a while, conservatives find it useful to employ the same intellectual logics that they have relentlessly mocked when used by their ideological opponents. And the results are instructive.

On October 30, 2015, the New York Times published an op-ed by Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, a leading right-wing think tank. The piece, “Academia’s Rejection of Diversity” argued that conservative thinkers are being excluded from U.S. universities.

Brooks’ piece is typical of how conservatives occasionally find it useful to employ the same intellectual logics that they have relentlessly mocked when used by their ideological opponents. His recent column is an extended complaint about the lack of ideological diversity within universities because of the under representation of conservative thinkers in social science departments. But his argument mirrors the case for affirmative action for women and minorities that has been anathema to conservatives, and he chooses to forget the familiar right-wing rejoinders when racial or gender under representation is broached.

First, there is the problem of claiming discrimination just because a statistical pattern exists. Conservatives, including the Supreme Court majority, have consistently said that just because there are few African Americans in a certain job category or few women on corporate boards of trustees, that hardly indicates discrimination. Maybe, Latinos like living in neighborhoods with other Lationos and do not want to live in lily white suburbs. Maybe, women simply choose not to be in the top echelons of corporations because they do not want all that stress. While these claims are implausible, sometimes statistical inequalities exist because of self-selection biases. Men, for example are underrepresented among childcare workers not because of discrimination but because of self- selection.

So maybe there are relatively few young conservatives who choose to apply to graduate programs in the social sciences because such people value other things more such as making lots of money or wielding political power. Perhaps, sociologists and social psychologists do not have to slam the door on conservative applicants because studying the social determinants of individual behavior does not seem like an important task for conservative militants in their twenties and thirties.

Second, when affirmative action advocates argue for reducing barriers to minorities and women, their opponents say things like. “Do you want us to lower standards? Do you want female fire fighters who lack the physical strength required for the job? Do you want us to let mediocre minority students be certified as surgeons even if they couldn’t pass the courses?” Is Brooks suggesting that social science departments should let conservative students move ahead in our programs even if they cannot master the classic works in the field? Should they be exempted from the required courses in statistical methods?

The reality is that there are conservative thinkers in all of the social science fields. People with wildly libertarian ideals get Ph.D.’s in economics all the time, and there are economics departments where you would be very unlikely to find a Bernie Sanders’ supporter.

Such luminaries of the right as Newt Gingrich, Charles Murray, Niall Ferguson, and Paul Wolfowitz have Ph.D.’s in the social sciences.

The only piece of data in Brooks’ piece comes from a study of the field of social psychology that purports to find that 82% of respondents admitted that they were more likely to hire a liberal than a conservative colleague. But what Brooks doesn’t tell us is that social psychology is a small and embattled sub-discipline within psychology which tends to be a very ideologically diverse discipline. In fact, the discipline was recently rocked by the discovery that leaders of the American Psychological Association worked closely with the Bush Administration’s torture program. The fact is that most professors in the social sciences would welcome talented conservative thinkers to their programs. The argument that such students are not enrolling because of discrimination is as plausible as the claim that there is massive discrimination against white players in the NBA.

Ultimately, Brooks’ argument is a disingenuous effort to divert attention from two ugly realities. First, his conservative compatriots like the Koch Brothers are spending tens of millions of dollars to influence colleges and universities to advance and legitimate free market and other conservative ideas. There is a conscious effort to tilt the playing field of academic life towards one ideological side, but the perpetrators are not liberal and progressive scholars; they are right-wing billionaires. Moreover, the organization that Brooks heads collects millions from the rich to fund research to support the right-wing cause. How many progressives does Mr. Diversity have on his staff?

Second, if Brooks truly wants to understand why there are so few serious conservative intellectuals, he needs to confront the rampant anti-intellectualism of the right-wing movement today. People who think that all of human wisdom is already contained in the Bible might not be that interested in studying the rich traditions of secular thought of both liberal and conservative thinkers. People who are convinced that all of climate science is a gigantic left-wing conspiracy are probably ill-equipped for the skepticism and empiricism that is a hallmark of the social sciences. In a word, President Brooks should clean up his own house before he accuses others of discrimination and ideological rigidly.

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