Sunday, August 28, 2005

Yet Another Meaningless Study of Professor Donations to Political Parties... conservative John McGinnis at Northwestern (which, speaking of political bias, is a school now fairly notorious for only hiring or making offers to public law scholars on the right) and described here.  Since fully two-thirds of law faculty at the 21 schools surveyed do not contribute to political candidates, the study, as presented in The Times, tells us quite close to nothing. 

After all, we all knew before this article that the legal academy, like the entire academy, was more liberal than the population at large.  So the interesting question concerned proportions.  But if only one-third of faculty even donate to political candidates, then the fact that 70-90% of them donate to Democrats tells us nothing concrete unless (1) we assume that likelihood of donating to political candidates was evenly distributed across political sympathies (which seems unlikely to be true for a whole host of obvious reasons), and (2) we assume that, even among the 1/3rd who do donate, choice of whether to support a "Democrat" or "Republican" tracks political ideology of faculty, which also seems unlikely to be true (after all, there are still liberal Republicans, and many very conservative Democrats; there are libertarian faculty who won't support theocratic, anti-intellectual Republicans; there are social democrats and socialists who will support Democrats as the lesser of two evils; and so on).

Let's look at one example I know a bit about:  the University of Texas School of Law.  According to the McGinnis study, only 25-30% of the Texas faculty donated to political candidates, and 88% of those who did, gave to Democrats.  It would produce uproarious laughter in the faculty lounge, though, if someone suggested that 88% of the Texas faculty were Democrats.  I had occasion before to consider this question; here is what I wrote then:

Universities are, in fact, the most politically and intellectually diverse institutions in American society.  In which corporate boardroom or elite law firm does one find not only Republicans and Democrats, but also Burkean conservatives, libertarians, social democrats, and socialists?  Yet this is typical of every major university in the country.  As an example, I looked at my own law faculty, with 65 members; I have no idea what the political views of 12 members of the faculty are, which leaves 53 whose politics are known to me.  (I could run the same exercise with my philosophy faculty, but I have no idea what the political views of most of my colleagues are there.)  Of those 53, 10 are on the right (conservatives or libertarians--slightly more are libertarians), 13 are in the American "middle" (6 are moderate Republicans, 7 moderate Democrats), and 30 are on the left (liberal, social democrat, socialist--most of these are American liberals, needless to say).  Self-selection would seem the most obvious explanation for this distribution--just as it would be for the distribution of political views at the large New York law firm I worked at, which was skewed in the opposite direction, but much more radically (there were some liberals, but no one to the left of liberal, for example--well, except me, of course, but I kept that to myself).

Moreover, situate my faculty in the context of the legal academy at large, and it is even clearer how much more politically diverse the academy is than the society at large.  Confining ourselves to just the top 25-or-so faculties, there are a handful of schools definitely skewed further to the right than the Texas faculty (e.g., Chicago, Northwestern, Virginia, George Mason, San Diego), another handful definitely skewed further to the left than the Texas faculty (e.g., UCLA, Georgetown, Wisconsin, Berkeley), with the rest being hard to place without more information--though for almost every faculty in the top 25 (including places like UCLA and Berkeley), I can identify three or more well-known scholars on the right; no doubt there are more simply not known to me.

There is no doubt that the academy is to the left of the society at large; there is also no doubt that views to the right of the society at large are better represented in the academy than anywhere else.  The fact remains:  for genuine diversity of political viewpoint, no other major institution in American society holds a candle to the universities:  not corporations, not law firms, not Congress, and so on.

Perhaps Professor McGinnis's actual article addresses these problems with the data.  But The Times story is just confusing, though it will, no doubt, be warmly greeted by those committed to affirmative action for conservatives who can't make it on the merits of their work.

UPDATE:  Steve Bainbridge (Law, UCLA) comments on this article (see the first trackback), which reminds of an earlier dialogue he and I had on the subject of political bias in law school hiring.

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