Among the responses to the advocacy for class, ethnic and gender diversity at top universities which received another airing last week, it is common to see conservatives argue, with quite a lot of justification, that whatever causes the differential flows of various population groups in these universities is having its impact well upstream of admissions departments. Whatever’s going on, so the argument goes, it’s not Cambridge’s fault or Harvard’s fault – it’s too late by the time the application is submitted, because whatever makes people apply or not apply to these universities is the real predictor of their representation, rather than discrimination by the universities.
In the same breath, though, a need for political diversity (or ‘viewpoint diversity’) at universities has become something of a cause celebre among these same conservatives. These thinkers (with some exceptions) usually argue that the sharp decline in the relative number of conservatives in the academy since roughly the end of the Cold War represents instances of conscious discrimination on the part of a left-leaning faculty: discrimination against me, but not against thee.
There might in fact be a similar upstream reason why conservatives are crowded out of the academy. The critical legal theorist Mark Tushnet noted en passant that “[b]ecause the opportunity costs of becoming a legal academic are higher for right-leaning potential academics, the academy is likely to continue to have a bias toward the Left”, and muses that a possible solution to this might be to favour and encourage academics to do consultancy work. Essentially, right-wingers are more likely to be drawn to profitable careers, and therefore face greater relative barriers to transitioning to the academy. Tushnet’s field, law, is a very good example of this: neoliberals or conservatives (particularly the fiscally conservative) are probably more likely than socialists or social democrats to take on highly-paid positions as law partners. We might note that this idea does not rule out the place of political discrimination, as George Yancey outlines at Patheos, but that it posits – fairly convincingly – that the main driver is economic pressure, rather than cultural discrimination.
This raises the question of why the ratio, according to Jonathan Haidt, has got dramatically worse since the early 90s, having been fairly constant since the Second World War (Tushnet anticipates the problem in 1991). To answer this we should remind ourselves that since the 1970s the measures of income inequality in the United States and United Kingdom have rapidly increased. It seems quite rational to conclude that not only do conservatives face greater pressures to stay out of academia and in the money-making business, these pressures have ramped up in recent decades. Indeed, in most fields peak earning is around the age of 45-55 – so the potential graduate students of 1990 would have been guided by the outcomes of the potential graduate students of 1970, the first wave who might have benefited from increased income concentration in the upper ranks. It is reasonable to conclude that had these financial incentives been less acutely concentrated in the last 30 years or so, conservatives would not be an endangered species in faculties in the US and UK.
We are faced then with a pleasingly ironic conclusion: the only lasting solution to the underrepresentation of conservatives and neoliberals in the academy might, in fact, be to adopt more strongly redistributionist policies, reducing the incentives for fiscal hawks to remove their intellectual powers from the public sphere and apply them to making money. Might we then see a conservative movement for a wage cap in the near future? Conservatives for Corbynomics has a certain ring to it.
 Tushnet, ‘Critical Legal Studies: A Political History’ Yale Law Journal 100.5 (March, 1991), 1515, 1534 (n. 92).