Cass Sunstein’s Curiously Contradictory Case for Conservative Professors


This week, the legal scholar and sometime Obama-administration official Cass R. Sunstein published an essay arguing that American professors are mostly liberals and that this is a problem. Notwithstanding the banality of that claim, his essay seems worth a reply, if only because Sunstein is a famous example of the liberal professors in question.

But upon closer inspection, the essay is remarkable for another reason: Sunstein has co-opted boilerplate conservative talking points about academic bias in order to make what appears to be a liberal argument for changing nothing about the liberal academy at all.

“The Problem with All Those Liberal Professors” goes like this:

Among professors at elite liberal arts colleges, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a wide margin. This is “genuinely disturbing” because it suggests that colleges are discriminating (or are likely to discriminate) against conservatives, at least unconsciously, when hiring professors.* Furthermore, the lack of conservative professors probably creates an “information cocoon” that diminishes the education students receive. It also may encourage scholars to hew to the prevailing political orthodoxy rather than make independent judgments. Colleges should not address this problem by offering “affirmative action” for conservatives, since they should hire on the basis of expertise rather than popularity, but professors do have an obligation to represent conservative opinions fairly in the classroom, and departments should hire at least a few conservatives (or “people who will represent” conservative views) in order to ensure a diversity of opinions on campus. 

Note the crucial mismatch between claims and evidence: Sunstein assumes, but advances no specific evidence, that liberal professors currently are not presenting conservative views fairly in the classroom, yet he also believes, again without specific evidence, that they have the ability to do so. In other words, he claims that a liberal-dominated faculty is obviously unfair to conservative arguments, just judging by the numbers, but also that a liberal-dominated faculty is not inherently unfair to conservative arguments.

On a charitable reading, I suppose, Sunstein may be implying that there is some minimal level of faculty Republicanism necessary for a fair campus conversation to happen—a level that falls somewhere above 0% but not necessarily as high as 50%. On this reasoning, perhaps, he would be implying that Wellesley (Democratic by 120:1) might be compromised in its teaching quality when Lafayette (Democratic by 6:1) isn’t. That would be a comprehensible and defensible claim, whether or not it is correct.

Yet that seems like a point that Sunstein could easily make by actually making it, rather than by speaking vaguely of ideological “skew” or “prevalence,” implying throughout the article that any Democratic dominance, especially in politically sensitive disciplines, is evidence of a problem.

Oddly, as well, Sunstein undercuts his own argument—quite badly—when he concedes the following:

It is true that in some fields, political affiliations do not matter. In chemistry, math, physics and engineering, students should not care about the party affiliations of their professors. Sure, it’s conceivable that Democratic chemistry professors want to hire fellow Democrats. But that would be surprising. In all likelihood, they are looking for good chemistry professors.

This admission weakens Sunstein’s case in two ways. First, Sunstein has already told us that Democrats do outnumber Republicans in chemistry (5:1), math and physics (6:1), and even engineering (1.6:1). Yet this somehow doesn’t bother him. He says he’d be “surprised” to learn it’s a result or cause of ideological favoritism, and he thinks students “should not care” that their chemistry professors are practically all Democrats.

Given those statements, how can Sunstein be confident that a similar discrepancy is related to foul play in other fields? How can he claim that six-to-one dominance by Democrats is normal and healthy in physics, but an eight-to-one dominance by Democrats is either evidence or a cause of baseless discrimination in political science?

Indeed, Sunstein’s reasoning here seems precisely backward. One can easily imagine that advanced study in political science would influence scholars’ political ideologies in predictable ways. That’s exactly what we should expect if political science is a remotely rigorous discipline. (Whether it should result specifically in voting for Democrats is a different question; the point is, we should expect some kind of consistency in political outlook among scholars in the field.) But there’s no obvious reason to expect advanced study in physics to change someone’s political opinions.

In other words, it’s in physics, not political science, that an ideological imbalance looks like prima facie evidence of groupthink or baseless intolerance. In a field that actually studies politics, some kind of partisan skew makes perfect sense.

Second, Sunstein’s admission weakens his case because it leads him to imply there is a fundamental difference in political sensitivity between math (Democratic by 6:1) and music (33:1), or between chemistry (5:1) and biology (21:1). How exactly is “left-of-center bias” more troubling in a musician than in a mathematician? Or how exactly does Sunstein imagine that conservatories are discriminating against Republicans five times as much as mathematics departments?

It’s quite difficult to understand how hiring discrimination would result in thirty-two extra Democratic cellists for every Republican, or for that matter how Democrats would conspire to keep Republican cellists out of work. A much more plausible explanation is that the sort of people who seek academic jobs in music (for whatever cultural or practical reasons) already tend to be Democrats, and that for some reason this tendency is more pronounced in music than in math.

Then again, this should be enough by itself to cast Sunstein’s argument into doubt:

Such discrimination [against potential faculty members] might take the form of unconscious devaluation of people whose views do not fit with the dominant perspective. For example, young historians who cast Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in a terrible light might not get a lot of job offers.

Consider for a moment the strangeness of the claim: Sunstein is offering us the insight that historians might not get many job offers if other historians think their interpretations of history are wrong.

Of course, there should be room for disagreement among historians—and to varying degrees there is, including with respect to the New Deal. There has to be some, or else the entire business of academic credentialing and publishing in history would grind to a halt. The key justification for history’s existence as a Ph.D.-level discipline is that historians can produce new knowledge and revise existing knowledge. But new or revised knowledge in history, like new or revised knowledge in other fields, is supposed to be at least plausible to other scholars, and reasonably consistent with existing knowledge in general, in order to count toward hiring and promotion.

But remember: Sunstein says he does not want departments to hire professors for the sake of their conservatism …

It is far too simple, of course, to say that professors of history, political science, philosophy, and the like should ‘look like America’ in political terms. What matters is that they are experts in their fields, able to convey what they know. In faculty hiring, affirmative action for those with conservative political positions is not likely to serve anyone well.

… even while saying he wants departments to hire professors for the sake of their conservatism (or their ability to “represent” conservatism, whatever that means):

[T]hose who run departments lacking ideological diversity have an obligation to find people who will represent competing views – visiting speakers, visiting professors and new hires. Faculties need not be expected to mirror their societies, but students and teachers ought not live in information cocoons.

So apparently, in order to follow Sunstein’s advice if you’re a liberal running a history department, you should hire history professors who you think are right about the New Deal, unless too many people in your department are currently right about the New Deal, in which case you should hire somebody who you think is wrong about the New Deal (or who can “represent” being wrong about the New Deal), but not because you think they’re wrong about the New Deal.

This is the incoherence that happens when we treat “viewpoints” and “ideologies” as immutable personal characteristics in a profession that’s all about reaching conclusions.

Sunstein is right about one key idea: College students need to hear and examine a variety of political (and other) claims from a variety of worldviews in order to develop into well-educated people. But counting party registrations among their faculty members, to judge by Sunstein’s own argument, does not tell us whether that is happening.


* Sunstein is unclear on this: The reader cannot tell whether he thinks the preponderance of Democrats is evidence that hiring discrimination has already happened or a reason to think it will happen in the future.

Image: Cass Sunstein, as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, “ask[ing] for feedback from the business community for suggestions for ways the Obama administration can continue to streamline and eliminate regulations,” July 2012. White House video. Public domain.

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