Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A Kibbutz Hooked up to an ATM

I should have my head examined for getting into this discussion, but I suppose New York Times columnists are supposed to be provocative. In his column yesterday, Paul Krugman discusses why "registered Republicans and self-proclaimed conservatives make up only a small minority of professors at elite universities."

I am a self-proclaimed conservative and I think Dartmouth qualifes under a description of "elite university," so I figure I should chime in here. I'll start by stating as clearly as I can why I chose this profession. First, I enjoy doing research. I have quite a lot of autonomy in what I work on. My work is evaluated by a profession of competent and thoughtful people. And I get to discover new things. Second, I love to teach. From the time I was tutoring my classmates in secondary school, I felt that I had a calling to be a teacher. (See this early post for more.) I presume that these two reasons, or similar ones, explain why most of my colleagues chose this profession, be they liberal or conservative. For the record, I made this decision when I was 18 years old.

I am friends with many liberal professors. At least in the economics department at Dartmouth, I have never in 11 years heard of a single instance where any professor made his or her political viewpoints central to the classroom experience. I've talked to many of my students, liberal and conservative, about the good and bad aspects of my time in Washington during office hours. That's not politics--that's just being a mentor. Before some classes, when there is a topical news story on campus or in the world, my students and I may exchange ideas about it. None of that matters for the class per se--once the group is assembled and ready to go, it's all about the economics. I would consider it a breach of my professional duties to put my own political views into the courses I am teaching. I presume the same is true of my colleagues in the economics department, be they liberal or conservative.

I have been involved in a decade's worth of hiring and promotion decisions. Never at any time has a person's politics come into play in any deliberations. My own experience suggests no evidence of a "left-wing bias" in the way my department is constituted.

I agree with the general terms that Krugman uses to frame his explanation:

The sort of person who prefers an academic career to the private sector is likely to be somewhat more liberal than average, even in engineering.
But I do not buy into the remainder of his argument, which can be loosely paraphrased as not enough conservatives believe in the virtue of scholarship to get enough of them to be interested in the academy. Rather, I think the explanation for why liberals outnumber conservatives is that they actively like the way the academy is organized.

An elite university is like a kibbutz hooked up to an ATM. It is the closest thing we may ever find to a socialist enterprise that endures. The key element of the kibbutz--that the workers collectively decide on the activities of the entity--is hardwired into the university via faculty governance. (The departure from the ideal--that some workers are "more equal" than others--is also evident, in that it is faculty, not employee, governance.) The notion that this is a sensible way to organize one's professional life is bound to resonate more with people who have a soft spot for socialist, utopian ideals. In my opinion, that you find more liberals than conservatives in the modern elite university is largely (though not exclusively) a reflection of liberals rather than conservatives feeling at home in such an environment.

Under normal circumstances, we would expect such an enterprise to implode, because some members of the collective are more productive than others, and they eventually get tired of subsidizing the lifestyles of the less productive members of the collective. So what keeps the elite university alive?

It's the ATM--alumni generosity. With outside money, even those who cross-subsidize the rest can feel like they are being adequately rewarded. A place like Dartmouth survives because in good times and in bad, alumni and other benefactors provide it with external resources to make the numbers add up. The federal government provides an assist by making those contributions tax-deductible. At public universities, it is the generosity of the state taxpayers via the state legislature. Take away that ATM, and I wager that a lot of the perks that make the quasi-socialist utopian enterprise so interesting to those who are left-of-center would disappear. Universities would have to conduct their daily operations more overtly like a business, and we would find a more balanced mix of people trying to get jobs there.

I think that there has been too much emphasis in this debate on pernicious explanations. Krugman makes thinly veiled accusations from the left that conservatives have no respect for scholarship, and the David Horowitz crowd makes equally absurd accusations from the right of a left-wing conspiracy. Have I proven that both are wrong? No. I have just offered a much more benign explanation. I don't claim that it is the only explanation. I do believe it is an order of magnitude more relevant than these two extreme arguments.

So perhaps the last question to ask is: would universities be better off by operating more like a conventional business and less like the kibbutz hooked up to an ATM? I think the answer is "no" (or not really), precisely because the money flowing from the ATM is voluntary and not coerced. The benefactors of universities seem to believe in the mission, the personnel, and the institutions to continue to support them, despite their flaws. And there is a tremendous amount of goodwill on both sides of that relationship.

Other blogs commenting on this post


Fat Man said...

I don't know if your sociology is correct or not. I do know that the whole system is not delivering good value. But I would be willing to run an experiment. Pull the plug on the ATM. Repeal the tax exemptions. Stop the subsidies. See what happens. It couldn't be worse.

Chandra said...

The following para from the post seems to suggest that in academia pay
and other benefits are not correlated with productivity. Is this really
true? In most elite places, better known professors make more money and
get more perks like chaired positions etc. Also, in engineering and
sciences, people can make lot more money in industry and yet many stick
to academia for a variety of reasons. There is an implicit understanding
that research can be risky and people trade off the ability to take
those risks for lesser pay. Universities are far from perfect of course
but the following, seems to me, is not really a well reasoned statement
about the merits of one system over the other nor does it seem to be justified by clear evidence.

"Under normal circumstances, we would expect such an enterprise to implode, because some members of the collective are more productive than others, and they eventually get tired of subsidizing the lifestyles of the less productive members of the collective. So what keeps the elite university alive?"

Mark Thoma said...

There are very clear differences in pay in my Department that depend on productivity. Ostensibly, the formula is 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service, but practically it is mostly research.

Pay increases come in two varieties, across the board COLA adjustments, and a merit pay component which often exceeds the COLA amount. Here, the quantity of merit pay allocated to departments is directly linked to the department's quality with good departments getting several percentage points more than poor departments (who quite often get a zero merit component) and, importantly, to the department's willingness to discriminate among faculty. If the merit component is allocated equally to all faculty, then department won't get merit pay the next time. The Dean’s office looks for justifiable tilt in the allocation.

I can't speak for other schools, e.g. the Cal State system where faculty are paid according to fixed steps that are the same across departments, but there is no doubt that pay is linked to productivity here. Faculty of equal rank can have very wide disparities in pay, wider than it is wise to make public if it can be avoided...

Dr. Tufte said...

So ... do we think this means that leftishness is correlated with how much money the ATM has?

Digression: I'm a pretty typical for academic economist who got his Ph.D. in the last 20 years - libertarian on lot of social issues, conservative on a lot of fiscal ones, with a healthy dose of laissez-faire attitude towards much business behavior. About a 4 on the 1 to 10 conservativeness scale for economists, and about a 1.5 on the typical campus.

I've found two things. Personally, I fit in best on a campus which has a harder time raising money. Profesionally, the efficiency and level-headedness of academic decision making is better in those environments too.

When I think back to what I liked best about working at two flagship state universitiies and one major private university, it was the library and the bookstore. That doesn't say much about the people.

What I like best about working at a far less prestigious university is that both the faculty and the students have interesting things to say, but not as much of an obsession with being heard.

P.S. My blogger name links to the blog my students write. My personal blog is over at

Mark Thoma said...

I think there is some correlation between productivity and compensation across institutions, but it is lower than we would advocate as economists soley concerned with efficiency issues.

dr. tufte: Putting myself aside, if you ever come to our flagship state university, you will find great, interesting people who listen to and care about what others have to say.

JG said...

The ATM idea sounds reasonable to me -- but don't forget how much money the government feeds through the ATM, both directly and through tax breaks and subsidies for students, and note how much that has risen over time.

I'd bet that most institutions get more through the ATM from government than alumni.

The Polit Burro said...

I don't know if your sociology is correct or not. I do know that the whole system is not delivering good value. But I would be willing to run an experiment. Pull the plug on the ATM. Repeal the tax exemptions. Stop the subsidies. See what happens. It couldn't be worse.

Actually it could be much worse.

This whole debate is fueled by arguments from exception. David Horowitz and his anti-intellectual ilk take isolated incidents and try to blow them up into indicators of "liberal treachery" in academia. This succeeds in no small part because most of his audience likes being told what to think instead of using critical reasoning to arrive at their own conclusions.

On the other side, you have left-leaning folks and their ilk sneering about how conservatives are underrepresented because they all love money more than scholarship and there's no money in academia. This is an equally dumb argument, though one that is not as malicious and aggresive as Horowitz's.

My experience as an undergradate student, graduate student and staff member at public universities in Texas leads me to believe both viewpoints are wrong. The best methodologist I've ever known (I'm a political scientist) is a card-carrying, campaign-working Republican. I only know this because of our discussions outside of classes. The best classical historian I ever knew (who passed away earlier this year) was a mostly-political conservative with some very New Deal views on policy.

I have never once heard a professor say some of the things Horowitz has trotted out. For the most part, I have no clue what my professors' ideological leanings were and what their ideological leanings are. All I can attest to is that I have recieved and I am recieving an excellent education from my professors.

If you want to pull the plug on the ATM, Robert, I hope you're ready to bear the multiple financial and social burdens of at least one generation of uneducated folks. No matter how insulated you think you might be with tax relief and whatnot, you'll get to bear the burdens.

Yes, there's a lot of work to be done in improving higher education standards (I say this based on my professional and academic experiences here in Texas...I imagine the view is quite different at Dartmouth). You're not going to improve these things by allowing more market forces to act on higher education. Market forces have no interest in improving the areas that need improvement. Here's an example I see on a weekly basis: The utter inability of most undergrads to formulate ideas and to write. Students aren't going to become better writers by learning how to type faster or getting certified on Microsoft Outlook.

Turning all of academia into a DeVry model is a ridiculous idea. Not everything in life works better when it's privatized, folks. If you want to pull the plug on the ATM to see what happens, get ready for things to get worse.

This was my first visit to your blog, Professor Samwick. I've added your feed to my newsreader and look forward to reading more of your commentary.

Knemon said...

Mister Naxal - the undergraduates' inabilities are the product of failure in the educational system at a lower level (and parental failure to boot).
I don't think anyone except the nuttiest of the nutty would try to marketize parenting, but one could argue that a bit of competition in primary secondary education - esp. performanced-base compensation for teachers - might reverse the trend toward illiteracy.