February 3, 2005

The shameful voting record of academics

Well, the bloom's off the rose, definitely, for the view of academics as politicized. It turns out that, if we trust the methods in one study of academe's party registrations, the greatest threat to the patriotism of universities is in the apathy of the faculty, not its politicization. Daniel Klein and Andrew Western's study of voter registrations at Stanford and Berkeley show that a surprising number of faculty aren't registered as either Republicans or Democrats! Almost 50% of academics for whom Klein and Western scoured records for were either not found or otherwise didn't fit into a Republican-Democratic dichotomy. From the accompanying Excel file, we find that the most apathetic departments must be in business disciplines. In the marketing and accounting departments at these two universities, for example, more than two-thirds of the faculty were either not found or didn't have major-party affiliations (19 just not found). In general, professional schools and disciplines are the "worst:" out of 346 faculty the study looked for, they couldn't find major-party registrations of 186 (or 54%). But the Music Department at Stanford shouldn't be cut any slack, either, as only 4 of 13 had major-party registrations. How awful!

Let's take a step back and look at the methods, though: this study relies on what social historians know quite well as the imperfect, often atrocious, attempts at matching individuals across different databases. In the 1970s, there was a small cottage industry in matching census records to city directories and other databases, and what historians found out is that matching is a very hard business indeed. Names change, they're listed in variant forms, and so forth. Other names are so common that you can't reliably assume that the Tom Smith you've seen in the census is the same person you found in the city directory.

Klein and Western acknowledge some of the difficulties, but they generally gloss over them (in part because they're not historians or from fields with similar work experience). The discussion that I found most painful to read is this not-quite-acknowledgment of the flaws when they discuss disciplines outside the liberal arts:

The matter of the business school is important because when claims of political lopsidedness are raised, people often suggest that the business school leans in the opposite direction and helps balance things out. Our investigation provides evidence to the contrary, but we did not get as good a reading as we had hoped to. (p. 24)

When the clear majority of faculty are simply not found, it's hard to make any claim, and certainly not anything like an "established fact" (p. 31) as the authors write at the end of the paper. I don't think anyone should be surprised that there is disproportionate party registration in fields, nor that liberal arts outside the sciences are disproportionately liberal at Berkeley and Stanford. That's a far cry from discussing "the campus" as a monolithic entity on such data, assuming that Berkeley and Stanford is representative of colleges and universities more broadly, or describing it in such quasi-conspiratorial ways as I've seen in the more hysterical forums. Why not conduct the same study (with more caveats about the matching, of course) at Santa Clara University (where Klein works)?

And, of course, I can't help but suggest folks read the far more witty comments on keeping conservatives out of academe and campus brainwashing" by Michael Bérubé.

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Posted in Academic freedom on February 3, 2005 11:38 AM |