Politics in Academia: A Case Study

This is the story of our effort to publish a paper that threatens academia.

Posted Nov 26, 2020

okmarian / Pixabay
Source: okmarian / Pixabay

Academic publishing is famously brutal. You might have a great manuscript that is under review then is rejected based on comments of one anonymous reviewer who thinks that you use too many exclamation points. Or a reviewer who is bitter because you didn't cite his particular work. Or a reviewer who didn't really read the manuscript and who goes on to criticize your work for neglecting some important statistical process that you, in fact, implemented plainly and correctly. 

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

I know, because I have published more than 100 academic pieces in my career to date. I've pretty much been through it all. 

From this context, I will say that the most difficult paper that my team (the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab) and I have ever tried to publish was a paper on the topic of political motivations that underlie academic values of academics. 

That paper, inspired by a visit to our campus from NYU's Jonathan Haidt, founder of the Heterodox Academy, was, a bit surprisingly to us, so controversial that it was rejected by nearly 10 different academic journals. Each rejection came with a new set of reasons. After some point, it started to seem to us that maybe academics just found this topic and our results too threatening. Maybe this paper simply was not politically correct. I cannot guarantee that this is what was going on, but I can tell you that we put a ton of time into the research and, as someone who's been around the block when it comes to publishing empirical work in the behavioral sciences, I truly believe that this research was generally well-thought-out, well-implemented, and well-presented. And it actually has something to say about the academic world that is of potential value. 

I've never had a paper that was so difficult to publish. Not even close.

A few months ago, I participated in a colloquium hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies. In our discussion, I brought this paper up to see if anyone had any ideas on a good forum for publishing it. There, renowned psychologist Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University suggested something pretty simple: How about just publish it yourself and post it on your blog?

Honestly, this suggestion seemed kind of genius to me. After all, I don't need more publications for any extrinsic reason at all. I've held tenure since 2004. Further, I know full well that my Psychology Today blog posts receive way more views than do my academic articles. And I know that, in fact, many of these views come from academics themselves. 

Consider this post exactly what Clay suggested. Here, after years of efforts from our team to publish a study of political values among academics, is, in full, that paper, titled as such: Politics and Academic Values in Higher Education: Just How Much Does Political Orientation Drive the Values of the Ivory Tower?

Ironically, this paper, now easily self-published thanks to the magic of cloud technology, officially should be cited as an unpublished manuscript. This said, the full APA citation is found in the references below and it is perfectly appropriate to cite in academic papers (the fact that it is "unpublished" clearly lets the reader know that it did not pass the process of peer review, for whatever reason; I figure people can do whatever they want with that information). 

The Story of the Paper

As alluded to above, this paper has something of a saga behind it. I provide the short version here. 

In 2016, our campus at the State University of New York, like so many campuses around the world at the time, was abuzz with issues surrounding academic freedom and free speech. Through a series of fast-moving events, in fact, we had an instance of a self-declared conservative speaker (Cliff Kincaid) become dis-invited from campus. He was then re-invited. But the whole thing was clunky and kind of uncomfortable, to put it simply. 

I was asked to head a Free Speech Task Force on campus at the time to help our community work through, in a truly collaborative fashion, some of the issues that surrounded these controversies. We were charged with organizing events. 

Our committee decided to invite Jonathan Haidt to come give a public lecture on our campus. That talk (streamed here) addressed the fundamental conflict between academic and political values, suggesting that if academia is to be an institution that seeks truth, it cannot concurrently be an institution that has a political agenda, primarily for the reason that a political agenda may come to taint efforts to arrive at truth. 

The event was standing-room only. I personally thought the talk was great and was highly thought-provoking and important. Members of my research team and the Free Speech Task Force generally seemed to agree. Interestingly, many people in our academic community were outraged by the talk. I was genuinely surprised by this fact. I felt like I learned a lot and was provided new intellectual tools for understanding the nature of academia.

Yet many people in our community reported that they felt the talk was offensive and even inappropriate. They reported that he was not being politically correct and that he promoted an anti-social-justice-based approach to higher education. Note that this talk took place less than two months before the 2016 presidential election, and it was a tense time on college campuses for sure. 

After the talk, in my capacity as chair of the Free Speech Taskforce, I was asked by multiple people to organize a follow-up event for members of our community to discuss Haidt's talk and process it together. In all my years, I'd never heard of such a request—a fact that speaks volumes about the truly controversial nature of this event. There was even some minor vandalism connected with the event that took place, as a large, high-quality poster advertising the event was (after the event was over) taken down and shoved behind a desk in the main Psychology Department office. People were genuinely angry. Again, I was surprised. I thought that most of Dr. Haidt's points made sense. It was a strange situation to be in. 

The Study

My research team meets every Friday afternoon and so, of course, the Friday after Haidt's presentation, we really couldn't focus on anything else! Being relatively proactive, our team quickly started to think about a study that could help shed light on the situation. We were interested in understanding the degree to which various factors related to political motivations might underlie academic values among academics, as Haidt had suggested in his presentation.

Haidt specifically talked about the degree to which academics differentially value knowledge advancement versus social justice as core values in the academy. We designed a study with academics in mind. In short, we surveyed nearly 200 academics from around the US and asked them to rate the degree to which they prioritize each of the five following academic values:

  • Academic rigor
  • Knowledge advancement
  • Academic freedom
  • Students' emotional well-being
  • Social Justice

We asked these professors to report on their gender, political orientation, basic personality traits, and field of academic study. And just as Haidt's presentation suggested, several of these variables were strongly and significantly related to the values that one holds as an academic.

Our full report of these findings is found in our (now published) "unpublished manuscript," here

Some highlights of the findings are as follows:

  • Relatively conservative professors valued academic rigor and knowledge advancement more than did relatively liberal professors.
  • Relatively liberal professors valued social justice and student emotional well-being more so than did relatively conservative professors.
  • Professors identifying as female also tended to place relative emphasis on social justice and emotional well-being (relative to professors who identified as male).
  • Business professors placed relative emphasis on knowledge advancement and academic rigor while Education professors placed relative emphasis on social justice and student emotional well-being. 
  • Regardless of these other factors, relatively agreeable professors tend to place higher emphasis on social justice and emotional well-being of students. 

Our Discussion focuses largely on how these data are consistent with a highly politicized portrait of academia; one in which political orientation, biological sex, personality, and field of study importantly shape the values held by professors in the modern landscape of higher education. Implications for better understanding academia are discussed.  

Of course, we see great irony in the fact that a paper about the politicization of academia might have been seen as too politically incorrect to actually publish in an academic journal!

Bottom Line

Academic publishing is famously difficult. This post was designed to shed light on the highly politicized nature of this process. In all my years within the academy, I've never had so much difficulty trying to publish an article. Hopefully, our effort to self-publish the paper here, allows our findings to reach a broad audience. And hopefully, this effort on our part helps shed important light on the nature of politics within the academy. 

As is true with any field, academia has its politics. I'd say that research designed to help understand the nature of the politics in the academy has the capacity to help us best understand higher education in our modern world. And I think that's a good thing. 

_________________________________________

Many thanks to Jonathan Haidt for inspiring this work and to the members of the SUNY New Paltz Free Speech Task Force: Lew Brownstein, Eugene Heath, Dan Lipson, Lisa Phillips, and Patricia Sullivan.

And special thanks to my brave team of co-authors of our now published "unpublished manuscript":

Olivia Jewell, Rich Holler, Julie Planke, Kian Betancourt, Amanda Baroni, Jacqueline Di Santo, Morgan Gleason, and Jacqueline Eisenberg

References