The professor track

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Are we led into our professions by our politics? Or by economics?

A few years ago, Alan Kors at Penn lamented the state of the academic world, specifically the rarity of the conservative professor. ”One is desperate to see people of independent mind willing to enter the academic world. On the other hand, it is simply the case they will be entering hostile and discriminatory territory,” he told the New York Times, when asked about his reaction when a conservative student reveals his intention to become a professor.

The Times suggested the reason for the imbalance of conservative vs. liberal professors is that hiring committees, made up of mostly liberals, aren’t excited about that which the conservative is likely to research and pursue. And thus, the campus is skewed.

Now there’s a new theory. Conservative students are less likely to pursue a PhD. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Matthew Woessner, a conservative Penn State assistant professor of public policy, has finished a study (“Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Doctorates“) showing conservative students “put more value on achievement and orderliness, and on practical professions, like accounting and computer science, that could earn them lots of money.”

How big of an issue is this? “I don’t sense that for many faculty who consider themselves conservative it’s a major problem,” says Dr. King Banaian, the chair of the Economics Department at St. Cloud State University. “I’ve been treated well. And, in fact, treated well by people who know my political views and want to engage in a discussion about them.”

Banaian says most faculty don’t want to engage in political discussions. “They want to come in, do their research, teach their students… and then go home at the end of the day,” he said.

So what’s the problem? “Sometimes you have people all of one viewpoint discussing a problem that’s happening on campus — issues regarding the proper curriculum, behaviors in the dormitories, or off campus, where I do think faculty that come from different viewpoints can provide a different perspective on what kinds of things students should be learning. What should be the mission of the university? And those are the places that because you are going to have this imbalance that we find, you’re also going to find those discussions are dominated by left-of-center faculty, and those are the discussions I’m more concerned about.”

Banaian, who also writes the blog SCSU Scholars, and also hosts a weekend radio show aimed at conservatives, contends the imbalance of philosophy shows up in the curriculum, by “marginalizing the Western Canon.”

Banaian says at least to some extent, there is a political distinction between the students he sees and the career track they follow. But he also thinks the track a student chooses is based on economic realities. “I would say we probably have a higher proportion of students in the business and economics fields than we would have, say, if you look at an English department or a sociology program. I think more to the point, is that there seems to be a strong socioeconomic reason why students pick certain professions over others. There are some professions they know where you can get a return on your investment, you can get a paycheck faster, and for those students who come from lower-middle-class backgrounds, that can be quite attractive. It turns out your students who come from higher-income backgrounds typically will choose professions where a PhD is needed to do what it is you’re trained to do.”

(Listen to the interview with Dr. King Banaian)

And you? Consider your career track. Did political philosophy, economic reality, or something else guide your decision?

(Photo: University of Minnesota)

  • GregS

    A better place to read the article, other than the notoriously unreliable New York Times, is The Chronicles of Higher Education See Conservatives Just Aren’t Into Academe, Study Finds

    The study reveals a number of things, a point of interest not covered in the article above.

    What they found was that students who believed their professors had the same politics they did rated a course more highly than students who didn’t. The Woessners also found that students were less interested in a course when they believed their professors’ political views clashed with their own.

    They published their findings in a paper called “My Professor Is a Partisan Hack: How Perceptions of Professors’ Political Views Affect Student Course Evaluations,” in the July 2006 issue of the American Political Science Association’s journal PS: Political Science & Politics.

  • Bob Collins

    Greg, I didn’t link to the article on the study in the Times. The link is to the same one you provided and I also linked to the study itself. The link to the NYT was the previous theory of several years ago.

  • “Choosing a career track” or “choosing a field of study?” There can be a big difference unless you’re speaking only about advanced degrees.

    When I was in a liberal arts college in the 1967-71 era, there was certainly less of an emphasis on choosing a career track at graduation, let alone earlier on. Today, “career track” implies a linear path that even fewer people follow out of the chute.

    But my personal answer has nothing to do with politics (though Paul Wellstone was one of my professors). I chose what I loved doing, and through three or more different “careers,” I’m still doing it.

  • c

    What about the professors at St. Thomas? Or does this theory about conservatives not apply to private Colleges? I swear as I drive under the Cretin overhead on 94 every morning the “Gimme Money Vibe” pies me in the face from this ultra conservative campus where the poor are not welcome.

  • Patrick

    I am pretty conservative, and while I won’t say the ONLY reason I declined to pursue a PhD was the (rather obvious) political leanings of the academic world, it certainly was a factor. My coworkers now are somewhat more liberal than me, but there are a few folks I can really relate to. Would I have found that in academics?

  • GregS

    “The poor are not welcome” at “conservative” Saint Thomas….hmmmmmm…see more poor at Saint Thomas than at uber Liberal Macalaster.