Is high representation of the Left in academia over-representation?

I’ve read Chris Hanretty’s blog on party support among higher education professionals — and before that, Noah Carl’s report for the Adam Smith Institute — with great interest.

A higher proportion of higher education teachers and professionals than the population at large support Labour and the Greens, consistently so over the six waves of the Understanding Society survey fielded over 2009 to 2015. This is roughly consistent with Carl’s findings from a non-random sample collected by the Times Higher Education.

The question then is whether they are ‘over-represented’, and secondly whether this is a problem. Even leaving aside more detailed analysis, the graphs don’t compare like-with-like in terms of education levels, or cognate sectors in which HE professionals might otherwise be found: the civil service, applied research and consultancy, secondary teaching and so on.

That academia forms a particular culture which has become more politically-differentiated over time is plausible: the growth of tech, the creative industries and applied research and consultancy sectors may have drawn away the type of personality who, 40 years ago, would have stayed within the academy. Further, academia is not highly-paid and those who value material rewards are less likely to choose it.

It’s more likely that political differentiation arises from a selection effect rather than through a particular culture of conformity becoming more prevalent. Further work is needed to examine whether academic political culture has become self-reinforcing, whereby those who feel politically-different either moderate their views, or eventually choose a different working environment. 
 
There is then the question of why over-representation matters. This isn’t self-evident, particularly for subject areas where political values have nothing to do with how researchers set research priorities — is there a left-wing statistical physics?

In any case, research specialism only partly depends on the interests and values of academic researchers themselves; it also follows the priorities set by external funders, and given the emphasis on research-led teaching, it depends too on the interests and values of students themselves. These may be driven by their ultimate career plans, but more often their current concerns, especially since much of the value of a degree depends on the reputation of the institution rather than the programme itself. Increasing competition for students may have resulted in disciplinary interests changing over time. But tendencies towards the faddish are managed in turn by universities, professional bodies, and the demands of employers to maintain the coherence of a particular degree programme and what counts as a discipline.

The humanities and social sciences are often easy to criticise in the manner of contemporary art. To be fair, researchers in the HSS often pursue more esoteric or experimental interests in their own spare time, not themselves treating it as core work. Yet, such work may fall foul of online campaigns to ‘defund’ and the tabloid test, because there’s a presumption that it is all publicly-funded.

The science historian Alice Dreger and psychologist Jonathan Haidt have written powerfully of the tensions between pursuit of truth and social justice in the contemporary academy. The journalist Nick Cohen has written of a culture of conformity in British academia and postmodernism’s illiberal traits. Public support for funding could potentially weaken where voters and political representatives perceive university researchers as failing to communicate outside a closed circle, as irrelevant, inefficient, or unrepresentative of the interests and needs of the economy and society at large.

The value of intellectual diversity is well-established: low diversity leads to groupthink, lower creativity, and potentially to partial problem coverage. Good ideas emerge at the intersection of different clusters, but diffuse most thoroughly within groups; in turn, the attractions of productive working with like minds may lead to neglect of different views or insights from different fields. A good deal of the findings in this area have been made with private sector data, and such issues will be at play for other professions too. I talked recently with a data scientist who was very concerned to foster intellectual diversity in his firm: he recognised the tendency to see Maths PhDs as natural candidates by recruiters, to the neglect of the feel for consumer trends that social scientists offer. It’s fascinating, but too tempting to rush in and say academia has a particular problem, or that viewpoint diversity equates with intellectual diversity.

It isn’t clear either that there is a single better-informed authority in a position to assert what such interests or needs are. And it’s vital to protect research and the research agenda from political interference: academic freedom is an important bulwark against political over-reach. As libertarians often argue, an ill-conceived intervention may prove worse than the original issue.

It’s unclear how low political diversity might be addressed if diagnosed. A political test for joining an academic institution is difficult to conceive, to put it mildly. I’ve been on interview panels: my university gives good training on how to moderate cognitive biases, and score each criterion in turn so that there was no premature judgement that a particular candidate would ‘fit’. There may be panels which, when sifting candidates, think ‘not one of us’ in the face of a superb publication record; but we’d need evidence. A randomised controlled trial, perhaps (though I’m not sure the ESRC should prioritise a social science of academia right now).

My slight concern is that the growing tribalism we’re witnessing in the world at large also affects us, and that there is a temptation to pick sides: there’s an Us and Them, that if a report comes from the Adam Smith Institute it must be biased, and the defences go up. What I did find interesting is that the estimate of Left support from the Times Higher sample was not far off the USoc estimate. Carl’s report is of value, and I’m glad it was put out there. His recommendations are primarily that academics should just be more aware of ideological difference, and seek to challenge their own viewpoints and biases. Hopefully, the kinds of measures which make recruitment procedurally fair should foster viewpoint diversity as much as other forms of diversity.

And there are other priorities — widening access to higher education in the first place; addressing a whole plethora of other inequalities in the profession (though we shouldn’t just presume that members of under-represented groups would be naturally Left or liberal); and just getting on with doing the kind of research which challenges preconceptions and making the case for it. US-style campus culture wars are of great interest, but my sense is that it’s a different case for a range of reasons and that we shouldn’t rush to draw close parallels.

Beyond that, ongoing initiatives fostering links between universities and civil society, and innovations speeding up the publication process, should bear fruit with ideas being put to the test much sooner; but this is in the service of intellectual rather than political diversity. Again, it is open to researchers to open up new sub-fields and intellectual communities if they perceive poor fit with existing communities (and of course this happens all the time). Then, it’s a matter of competing for resources to organise new professional communities and to develop intellectual programmes. If particular fields exhibit social or intellectual closure, space does open up for fresh thinkers — and indeed their findings — to make their mark.

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