Is academia serious about diversity?
. . . asks Greg Mankiw. It's hard to come to the conclusion that the answer is "Yes". Faced with overwhelming evidence that there is a massive, massive underrepresentation of conservatives at the elite level, almost none of them even considers, in passing, that there might be some sort of structural problem. No, clearly the reason that conservatives don't make it into the academy is that . . . they're inferior.
It's not as if we're talking about a severe shortage of fly-fishers either. One would think that a committment to diversity would start with a committment to diversity of thought. But then, having thoughts that disagree with the thoughts that academics have probably means there's something wrong with you, doesn't it?
Don't get me wrong: I don't think there's any sort of conspiracy against conservatives in the academy. I think, rather, that a combination of more subtle factors erects a wall that it's harder for conservatives to climb over. Unless they are really, really brilliant, academics, like everyone else, need personal connections to help them up the academic ladder, from recommendations to mentors to advisors. Those personal connections are always much easier to make with people you agree with. Nor would I discount the possibility that, just as women's work can be subtly dismissed because we know women aren't as bright as men, academics who think that conservatives are stupid would factor that into their assessment of someone's intelligence--and then factor that assessment into their assessment of someone's work. And of course, one's ideas are to some extent socially constructed; simply by virtue of the arguments and information we hear, even if there is no social pressure to conform, being surrounded by a political culture will tend to drag our ideas in their direction.
And the idea that academia exerts no pressures to conform is spectacularly hilarious to anyone who's ever spent any time at all around academics. Perhaps the funniest sight I have ever witnessed is the spectacle of a sociologist cruising straight past the analyses of power relationships and group norms that they apply to every single other facet of human existence, and insisting that the underrepresentation of conservatives in academic could only be explained by the fact that conservatives are a bunch of money-grubbing intellectual lightweights who can't stand rigorous examinations of their ideas, and moreover are too intolerant to fit into the academic community.
The sociologist, you see, is inside academia, and so able to analyze it better than outsiders. Also, the sociologist knows that neither they, nor any of their friends, is biased, so the answer must be that there's something wrong with conservatives.
It's odd, given this lack of bias, that one repeatedly hears from untenured academics who are in the closet. "Passing" is not usually a behavior one finds in a community where there is no prejudice.
Now, I think that affirmative action for conservatives would be an even worse idea than regular affirmative action; conservative intellectual life doesn't need to get any flabbier than it already is. But the Larry Summers speech should certainly give one pause. That it seems to have made so little impression on liberal academics should make the rest of us very worried indeed.