This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Neil Gross’s Plantation Model of the Academic Labor Market
Publication information is as follows:
Langbert, M. "Neil Gross's Plantation Theory of the Academic Labor Market." Academic
Questions, 29:1, Spring 2016.
Mitchell Langbert is associate professor of business management at Brooklyn College,
Brooklyn, NY 11210; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Neil Gross claims that the shortage of conservative professors on the American campus is
not due to political bias but to conservatives’ self-selection out of and social democrats’ selfselection into the academic labor pool.1 Thus, Gross and his sometime co-author Ethan Fosse
argue that professors are “social democratic” because a higher percentage “possess advanced
educational credentials, exhibit a disparity between their levels of education and income, identify
as Jewish, non-religious, or non-theologically conservative Protestant, and express greater
tolerance for controversial ideas.”2 Using this line of reasoning, Gross concludes: “While there
may well be cases in which conservative scholars have been passed over for hiring or promotion
Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse, “Why Are Professors Liberal?” Theory and Society 41, no. 2
(2012): 127–68. Neil Gross, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?
(Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).
Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse, “Why Are Professors Liberal?” Theory and Society 41, no. 2, p.
because of their politics…bias and discrimination could play a major causal role only if liberals
and conservatives were applying in anything like equal numbers to academic jobs.”3
The quote is typical of Gross’s work, and perhaps it should be called the Gross-Fitzhugh
Theory of the Academic Labor Market. George Fitzhugh (1806–1881) was a Southern
antebellum political theorist who justified slavery with the claim that the slaves preferred slavery
to freedom because it was appropriate to their level of mental development.4 Gross argues that
conservatives, libertarians, and others who disagree with social democratic ideology prefer to
avoid academia because of their lack of interest and their mental image of the academic
profession. Evidence of harassment in graduate programs and complaints of exclusion from
research university jobs can be discounted because conservatives and libertarians don’t want to
be academics anyway. As Gerald Russello points out in his review of Why Are Professors
Liberal? in the Summer 2014 Academic Questions: “If you were to replace ‘women’ or
‘minorities’ for ‘conservatives’ in Gross’s claims, you would find that the American legal system
is full of cases in which judges have found bias in exactly those circumstances where there are
few applicants from those groups.”5 Indeed, the principle of disparate impact, which dominates
discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, is based on the very kind of
Gross, Why Are Professors Liberal? 172.
George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All! Or, Slaves without Masters, ed. C. Vann Woodward (1857;
Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960).
Gerald Russello, “Acquittal,” review of Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives
Care? by Neil Gross, Academic Questions 27, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 242.
statistical underrepresentation that Gross finds with respect to conservatives in universities but
says does not matter.
Just as Fitzhugh attempted to deflect abolitionist concern about the immorality of slavery,
so, too, Gross and Fosse attempt to deflect critical concern about intolerance in universities. In
the 1990s, Dinesh D’Souza and Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate complained that
because of groupthink universities had become illiberal.6 In 2005, the work of Stanley Rothman,
S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte sought to provide evidence that groupthink had led to the
exclusion of alternative viewpoints.7 In 2009 Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern outlined the
structures and processes by which groupthink contributes to academic personnel decisions. These
include the academy’s hierarchical structure and majoritarian decision rules.8 Gross and Gross
and Fosse provide evidence from the academic labor market that is meant to explain away the
predominance of Democrats that Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte and others have found. In doing
so, they not only miss Rothman and colleagues’ main point but fail in their aim to depict
academic labor markets with accuracy. Moreover, their work is riddled with statistical misstep
and historical misinterpretation.
Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Free
Press, 1991). Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, The Shadow University: The
Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (New York: Free Press, 1998).
Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, “Politics and Professional Advancement
among College Faculty,” Forum 3, no. 1 (2005): 1–16, available at
Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern, “Groupthink in Academia: Majoritarian Departmental Politics and the
Professorial Pyramid.” In Robert Maranto, Richard E. Reddings, and Frederick M. Hess, editors, The Politically
Correct University: Problems, Scope, and Reforms. Washington, DC: The AEI Press, 2009.
Interdisciplinary work like Gross’s and Gross and Fosse’s is difficult to do well, so most
social scientists avoid it. Standards in the sociological journals in which Gross and Fosse publish
may not equal those in labor economics journals, and the statistical problems known as
“endogeneity” and “heterogeneity” (i.e., embeddedness and unobserved factors’ undermining the
observability of relationships) may not receive the attention in sociological journals they receive
in labor economics journals. Nevertheless, such threats to validity are of concern to labor
economists and to industrial relations scholars who specialize in studying labor markets and
should concern sociologists as well, for Gross and Fosse aim to characterize the academic labor
To their statistical work Gross and Fosse and Gross add a series of speculations—not
based on their data—that professors are social democratic because of the history of the
university, in which they claim that academia is exceptionally left-wing because of an image that
the public has of academics. They claim that this image goes back to the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries, but Gross and Fosse misunderstand the history, which actually shows
that most colleges retained their associations with Christian denominations into the early
twentieth century and that the trends in higher education during the Progressive era were in the
direction of positivism and business control of universities. Their explanation ignores the
possibility that political correctness drove conservatives from the universities in the 1930s and
1940s rather than earlier and that this departure has always involved intolerance and pressure to
conform. For example, in the late nineteenth century one of the most important early social
democrats, Richard T. Ely, exhibited intolerance toward the free market-oriented sociologist
William Graham Sumner by attempting to exclude him from the American Economic
Association, but Ely was removed as the AEA’s secretary in part because of his intolerance
In seeking to deflect the observations made by Rothman, Lichter and Nevitte and
Maranto, Redding, and Hess10 that an ideological bias exists in the hiring and promotion of
professors, Gross and Gross and Fosse do not provide much evidence about academic hiring and
promotion. The evidence they do offer—an experiment involving sending dummied e-mail
applications to admissions officers—is not even a caricature of academic selection, which
typically takes ten to fifteen years from admission into a Ph.D. program until tenure. Behavioral
experimentation has an important place in research about labor markets, institutions, and human
resource management, but, like econometric research, behavioral experiments are riddled with
threats to their validity. Can an e-mail to admission officers that says that the applicant is a
McCain supporter substitute for a ten-to-fifteen-year acculturation, particularly when critics
assert that academic acculturation involves indoctrination?
Gross’s book and the Gross and Fosse paper present statistical evidence that is circular,
so it is not clear whether professors are social democratic because they are Jewish, welleducated, and non-Christian, or whether social democratic professors have these demographic
characteristics and have been selected on the basis of ideology. There is no proof of causation in
See Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 117;
Mary O. Furner, Advocacy & Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science 1865-1905.
Lexington, Kentucky, University of Kentucky Press, 1975, 68-70, 76-80, 88-91, 115-24.
Robert Maranto, Richard E. Redding, and Fredrick M. Hess, eds., The Politically Correct University: Problem,
Scope and Reforms (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2009).
their model—no statistical model ever proves causation—although Gross repeatedly and
incorrectly uses the term. Moreover, the Gross and Fosse statistical method does not correct for
embeddedness of cause and effect, a common problem in econometrics. Association does not
imply causation, and the variables that Gross and Fosse claim to be causal may instead be jointly
caused by variables that they have omitted. As well, the direction of causality may be the
opposite of what Gross and Fosse claim.
Supply and demand equations can depict any labor market. Demand specifications for
academic labor include the university’s requirements for research and teaching. If a firm or
university discriminates, it will add extraneous, discriminatory factors, such as white, male, or
social democratic, to its demand specifications.
Gross makes the claim that universities’ demand equations cannot involve discrimination
because he has identified supply factors that correlate with professors’ social democratic political
orientation. Gross’s claim is a non sequitur. Discrimination is a characteristic of demand, not
supply. The complaints that conservatives and libertarians have made have concerned demand.
The critics of political correctness have not cared whether social democrats tend to want to be
professors. The complaints have revolved around university intolerance. They involve concerns
about organizational groupthink, which results in harassment, speech codes, attacks on
conservatives, denial of tenure, the refusal of academic journals to publish articles with free
market viewpoints, and the presentation of ideologically motivated research as balanced,
objective, and refereed.
Omitted Demand Variable: Groupthink
In forecasting supply and demand, it is often not possible to predict the direction of bias
resulting from (a) the simultaneous determination of the dependent variable, in this case social
democratic political orientation, by both supply and demand factors, and (b) the omission of
important explanatory variables. There are techniques, such as two-stage least squares, which
can be used to correct for some of these problems, but Gross and Gross and Fosse do not apply
such techniques. In order to do so there needs to be clarity about what the independent factors are
with respect to both supply and demand. Since Gross and Gross and Fosse only specify a supply
equation, their results are impossible to interpret.
Put another way, Gross and Fosse are faced with a set of facts: Professors are social
democratic; professors are well-educated and poorly paid; professors are often Jewish; professors
tend not to be Christian believers. Can the latter several demographic factors be said to “cause”
the first, that is, professors’ being social democratic? Hardly, because there are millions of
people who are well-educated, Jewish, and not Christian believers who are not professors. Gross
and Fosse’s supposedly causal factors are but correlates that have unknown independent
predictive power and seem to be predictive only because the authors already know who the
As Gross notes at various points, organizational processes and conformity pressure play a
role in universities. This concern should be central to his modeling because if there is
discrimination, the discrimination is likely to result from group processes. There are many
possible ways to get at how group processes influence discrimination. For example, Daniel B.
Klein and Charlotta Stern contrast the managerial concept of conformity pressure involving
small group cohesion and homogeneity with conformity in universities, where majoritarian
One study that might help would look at whether conservatives who are well-educated, poorly paid, and not
Christian do as well in the academic labor market as social democrats who are well-educated, poorly paid, and not
decision making and peer review lead to conformity.12 Measures of such processes are readily
available. William A. McEachern compares the campaign contributions that American Economic
Association (AEA) members have made with the campaign contributions that AEA editors,
authors, and officers have made.13 While AEA members are five times more likely than the
average American to give to Democrats, published authors are nine times more likely. The
higher multiple reflects a process of group dynamics that has been observed since William F.
Whyte’s Street Corner Society and George C. Homans’s Human Group: leadership roles are
attained through legitimacy conferred by conformity to group or institutional norms.14 If
ideology has become part of their normative systems, universities can no longer be said to house
value-free scientific research or to educate rather than indoctrinate.
In order to deflect the arguments of D’Souza, Kors and Silverglate, Rothman and
colleagues, and Klein and Stern, Gross and Fosse need to show that academic selection is not
biased. Beyond the one e-mail experiment, they do not attempt to do so. Serious research efforts
reveal that academic selection does discriminate. Indeed, Klein writes that he found that Ph.D.
graduates who are Republicans are almost twice as likely as Ph.D. graduates who are Democrats
to end up with a career outside academia.15 Klein notes: “Somehow the smoking-gun evidence
has been consistently overlooked by scholars like Gross and Fosse, the New York Times, and the
Chronicle of Higher Education.” 16
Daniel B. Klein and Charlotta Stern, “Groupthink in Academia: Majoritarian Departmental Politics and the
Professional Pyramid,” in Maranto, Redding and Hess, Politically Correct University, 79.
William A. McEachern, “AEA Ideology: Campaign Contributions of American Economic Association Members,
Committee Members, Officers, Editors, Referees, Authors, and Acknowledgees,” Econ Journal Watch 3, no. 1
(January 2006): 148–79, http://econjwatch.org/articles/aea-ideology-campaign-contributions-of-american-economicassociation-members-committee-members-officers-editors-referees-authors-and-acknowledgees.
William Foote Whyte, Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1993). George C. Homans, The Human Group (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950).
Daniel B. Klein, “Commentary: Embarrassed as a Non-Left Professor.” Society, 47:377-78, 2010.
As mentioned above, Gross and Fosse’s historical narrative is inaccurate. Basing their
thesis on the work of Nancy Cohen (The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865–1914)
and Thomas L. Haskell (“Justifying the Rights of Academic Freedom in the Era of
‘Power/Knowledge,”),17 Gross and Fosse claim that colleges were transformed into research
institutions in the nineteenth century and that clashes between academics and business interests
led to demands for academic freedom. Although Cohen’s excellent work might lead to such an
impression, it is inapplicable to the broad run of colleges.
Although there were cases of attacks on social democratic and Progressive academics in
the nineteenth century, which Cohen describes, colleges did not finally change into secular or
research-oriented institutions until well into the twentieth century. That is, although the first
American research university, Johns Hopkins, was founded in 1876, it took five decades for the
run of American colleges to secularize. As Clyde Barrow and David Horowitz, each writing from
a Marxist perspective, show, the secular transformation of colleges occurred in response to
financial incentives that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT) and
the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board (GEB) offered in the first third of the twentieth
Nancy Cohen, The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865–1914 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, 2002). Thomas L. Haskell, “Justifying the Rights of Academic Freedom in the Era of ‘Power/Knowledge,’” in
The Future of Academic Freedom, ed. Louis Menand (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 43–88.
Clyde Barrow, Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of American
Higher Education, 1894–1928 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1983); David Horowitz, The
Universities and the Ruling Class: How Wealth Puts Knowledge in Its Pocket (San Francisco: Bay Area Radical
Education Project, 1969).
During that period business influence on colleges increased, and it’s not clear that the
high-profile clashes during the Gilded Age, which Cohen describes, are relevant to the later
involvement of business trustees or to the way colleges restructured in response to CFAT and
GEB. The clashes only sometimes involved ideologies that parallel today’s social democratic
perspective. For example, Edwin Ross, who was famously fired from Stanford University for
opposing the hiring of Chinese labor by Jane L. Stanford’s railroad interests, was a eugenicist.
The dispute concerned his racist advocacy of eugenics. University of Wisconsin professor John
R. Commons, a key transmitter of social democratic ideology, was a racist who believed that
African Americans were incapable of economic advancement.19 The claim that historical factors
rooted in the late nineteenth century have led to today’s predominance of social democrats needs
to account for the illiberality of a number of the late Mugwump and Progressive social
democratic intellectuals such as Ross and Commons. Moreover, the Progressive era was
characterized by increased discrimination against Jews in leading universities, yet Gross is
untroubled by his claim that historical factors associated with the development of universities led
to Jews’ pursuing academic careers. If historical factors are crucial, why did not discrimination
Although there was an initial, late-Gilded Age tendency to transmit the Christian
economics of the German historical school into sociology and economics, both fields rejected
these tendencies in favor of positivism during the 1890s and early 1900s. Thus, Richard T. Ely
ceased to lead the AEA, which he was instrumental in founding, in part because he was
intolerant of conservatives but also because of his Social Gospel orientation. The use of
Thomas C. Leonard, “‘More Merciful and Not Less Effective’: Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era,”
History of Political Economy 35, no. 4 (2003): 687–710, available at
universities as reform institutions was explicitly rejected in the early twentieth century in such
fields as sociology and economics, as Mary O. Furner and Dorothy Ross detail in Advocacy and
Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Sciences 1865–1905 and The
Origins of American Social Science, respectively.20 There was no clear victory for social
democratic ideologues in that era that paralleled today’s social democratic domination of
academia and the media.
Moreover, as Ellen Condliffe Lagemann shows in her history of the Carnegie Foundation,
much of the transformation of American colleges into research institutions occurred in response
to CFAT’s offer of pension monies.21 CFAT indeed reflected a Progressive orientation, but it
was not social democratic. It was business oriented, and it was directed toward positivism rather
than toward the infusion of ideology. An example is that of Abraham Flexner, who worked for
CFAT in writing his famous report on medical schools, Bulletin Number Four, in 1910.22
Bulletin Number Four reinvented medical schools along modern lines.23 This transformation had
little to do with social democratic ideology; rather, it was positivist and tended to reject ideology.
Flexner later joined the GEB and continued to influence education policy.
CFAT’s emphasis was not simply positivistic with respect to science and social science;
it also aimed to rationalize university administration. Barrow shows that universities increasingly
came under the trusteeship of businessmen during the Progressive era and that business values
Mary O. Furner, Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Sciences 1865–
1905 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1975); Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science
(Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Private Power for the Public Good: A History of the Carnegie Foundation for the
Advancement of Teaching (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1983). See also, Barrow, Universities and
the Capitalist State.
See Abraham Flexner, Abraham Flexner: An Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960).
Abraham Flexner, Medical Education in the United States and Canada: A Report to the Carnegie Foundation for
the Advancement of Teaching, Bulletin Number 4 (New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of
Teaching, 1910), http://archive.carnegiefoundation.org/pdfs/elibrary/Carnegie_Flexner_Report.pdf.
were better represented in universities during and after the Progressive era than they were during
the era of the Christian colleges. Also, there was resentment of CFAT’s influence in establishing
scientific management techniques in universities. None of this supports Gross’s claims of leftwing academic exceptionalism, that universities were exceptional in their association with social
democratic views or were so to a greater degree than other professions.
By 1934, John R. Commons wrote this in his autobiography:
The faculty of the University of Wisconsin has always been perhaps nine-tenths on the
conservative or reactionary side. Magazine writers, coming to write up Wisconsin, have
been surprised to discover this fact. They expected to find a radical university. I even had
to point this out to a conservative employer writing to me from Milwaukee. He had an
idea that the University was socialistic, or at least that it always promoted the labor side
against the “capitalist’s” side. He wanted the employer’s side represented on the faculty.
When I replied that the University had a great majority of its faculty in several colleges—
engineering, law, commerce, the college of liberal arts, the economics department—
mainly devoted to training students to serve the interests of business and employers, he
verified my statement and so advised me.24
Hence, for a natural evolution to the kind of university that William Buckley observed in God
and Man at Yale to have occurred by 195125 there may have been a realignment that occurred in
the short period between 1934 and 1951.26 This may have directly followed from Franklin D.
John R. Commons, Myself (1934; Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964), 110.
William Buckley, God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom (Chicago: Regnery, 1951).
In his history of higher education, Frederick Rudolph writes that the 1930s were a time of student agitation and
criticism, declining resources, and student radicalism in the midst of more general social upheaval:
Within the colleges and universities there was just as lively a quarrel with the old gods as there was outside,
for if the gold standard was gone, if businessmen themselves were so unsure of their own infallibility as to
Roosevelt’s New Deal, his use of academics as policy advisers, the Keynesian revolution in
macroeconomics, the increased sympathy for Marxism and the Soviet Union, and the Democratic
Party’s increasing emphasis on government intervention. The shift is illustrated in the career of
Ludwig von Mises, the libertarian theorist who had difficulty in obtaining a paying position in an
American university when he arrived here from Austria to escape Nazism. Conclusion
It is not surprising that social democratic university professors and journalists have rallied
to the defense of higher education in light of concerns expressed by Rothman, Lichter and
Nevitte, the National Association of Scholars, and a spectrum of other reform organizations. The
responses have ranged from shrill complaints about Rothman et al.’s research methods and
sample size27 to the endogeneity-riddled regression equations and historical misfires of the Gross
and Gross and Fosse works. In the 1940s, the Austrian economist Friedrich A. Hayek wrote a
series of essays on scientism and the abuses of reason.28 The developments we now witness go
further. That such a defense is cloaked in the garb of (badly executed) social science is
commit suicide.…if Wall Street was begging for the diplomatic recognition of Soviet Russia and sending
forth open suggestions that what America needed most as an effective but genial dictator, if all this was
true, the climate on the campuses was not likely to be altogether friendly to old idols.
The colleges and universities did not make many socialists nor were they responsible for making many
Democrats out of Republicans.
Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History (Athens: The University of Georgia Press,
1962), 466, 468.
Candace De Russy and Mitchell Langbert, “Selective Evaluation,” New York Sun, June 24, 2005,
Friedrich A. Hayek, “Scientism and the Study of Society. Part I.” Economica 9:35, pp. 267-291, 1942;
Friedrich A. Hayek, “Scientism and the Study of Society. Part II.” Economica 10:37, pp. 34-63, 1943;
Friedrich A. Hayek, “Scientism and the Study of Society. Part III.” Economica 11:41, pp. 27-39, 1944.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.