Groupthink in Academia
Majoritarian Departmental Politics and the Professional Pyramid
February 11, 2009
Daniel B. Klein, Charlotta Stern
The Independent Review, Spring 2009
I have two reactions to this article and, admittedly, my views are at odds on the surface.
1. We hire people like ourselves and seek to work in a place that mirrors our views.
2. Universities should be different and attempt to encourage debate and discussion.
I don't know how to bring these two views into alignment. I would, however, draw a distinction between the humanities and "hard" sciences / engineering. The humanities are dominated by political theoreticians, while the differences in math, science, engineering, and medicine are less "political."
This does not mean there are not serious intellectual differences that shape every discipline; from computer science to physics there are debates about which lines of research to follow. The debates in physics are particularly interesting. However, it is not unusual to have a broad range of theoretical physicists at a major university.
By comparison, the like-mindedness of professors within the humanities results in narrow scholarship. The humanities end up framing scholarship in terms of gender, ethnicity, class, and so on. The left-leaning emphasis has been noted by researchers, though explanations vary (New York Times, 18 Jan 2010). Some suggest, as I would, that like-minded people end up working together. The downside is that students only hear one dominant ideology, expressed by professors they view as enlightened role models. It's only natural the students want to emulate their prestigious professors.
Most intellectuals develop ideological sensibilities by the age of twenty-five or thirty (Sears and Funk 1999), and afterward they rarely revise them substantially. Intellectual delight and existential comfort are taken not in reexamining prior decisions, but in refining and developing ideas along the lines already mastered (Ditto and Lopez 1992; Nickerson 1998). Professors are likely to respect scholars who pursue questions similar to their own and who master similar modes of thought.
Aspiring professors are often in graduate school during their twenties. This means they are establishing their ideological biases surrounded by professors. It's not much different in business, with young middle-managers or stock brokers all gathered around business leaders they admire. Biases are reinforced.
The notion of being so good that personality and politics don't matter is a nice, but naive ideal. Academic settings are particularly personality-based in the humanities. Few people care if a computer programmer is anti-social, or even if a physics professor is a little odd. But, the humanities are about people -- and the social aspects can dominate department structures.
Outsiders often think that the classical-liberal or conservative professor needs only to get tenure in order to ensure his professional success and psychic well-being. But imagine building a career through graduate school and pretenure employment (about eleven years) before feeling able to be yourself. You then find you are no longer yourself—not that your ideological views have changed much, but that any ideological motivation has likely receded. You "go native," as they say. Your twenties and early thirties are a crucial period of development, and these developments cannot be reversed. Moreover, even after being granted tenure, you depend on department colleagues for pay raises, resources, teaching assignments, scheduling, promotions, recognition, and consideration. Tenure alone is clearly not a refuge for the departmental miscreant.
How insular are academic departments in the humanities? The following data are revealing:
The hiring of senior faculty by prestigious departments is even more incestuous than the hiring of new PhDs.... Of the 430 full-time faculty employed by the top 20 sociology departments ... only 7 (less than 2 percent) received their PhD from a non–top 20 department, worked for three or more years in a non–top 20 department, and, after building their scholarly reputations, advanced to a faculty position in one of the top 20 departments. (2004, 247–49, 251)
The entire "top 20" idea bothers me a bit, for a number of reasons. The fact they rank each other and then hire in a self-referential loop is absurd. Yale hires from Harvard hires from Stanford hires from Yale. Not a lot of variation in the end. And students are exposed to a bland, homogeneity without necessarily realizing it. If every wise professor thinks the same way, that must be the right way to think.
As I said, I'm not sure how to change this. What I do know is that I think quite differently from my peers -- but I also went back to school in my late 30s after working in private industry. My views are more like those of the business people I admire than the professorship I encountered. Students need to know how business people think, but I don't see how that is going to happen.
At least I admit my biases were shaped by living and working outside academia. More professors should be recruited from the business world into the humanities.