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Personality and preferences in the ivory tower
A recent article from NBC News reports a recent trend in U.S. colleges, stating that “A little-understood backlash against higher education is driving an unprecedented decline in enrollment…From 2015 to 2019, Americans’ faith in higher education dropped more than their confidence in any other institution.”
Confidence in higher education has fallen among both Democrats and Republicans.
2015 was the year I entered college. A month into my first semester, I learned that Jonathan Haidt was visiting Yale to deliver a talk (which you can watch here). At this point, I’d recently read his book The Righteous Mind about moral psychology. I figured Haidt’s talk would be related to his book.
But instead, he spoke at length about the purpose of a university. And whether the aims of higher education should be to protect students or equip them with the ability to seek truth.
I thought this was a very strange talk.
I was so new to this rarified environment that I just didn’t have the context for it. Only later would I learn that there was an ongoing dispute about the very nature of higher education.
Four weeks later the campus erupted into mass protests as students demanded a couple of professors be fired. Then I got it.
In a 2020 paper titled “Politics and Academic Values in Higher Education: Just How Much Does Political Orientation Drive the Values of the Ivory Tower?,” a team of psychologists reported results from a series of studies. They were inspired by Haidt’s discussions about the aims of higher education.
The researchers wanted to test whether academic values were related to political orientation, gender, and personality, among other variables. They recruited 177 academic faculty members for their studies.
First, these academics completed a “budget allocation task.” Each person was given 100 points. They were told to distribute the points across five academic values:
Emotional well-being of students
For instance, if I valued only social justice, I would allocate all 100 of my points to that item and 0 for the others. If I believed all five values were equally worthy, then I’d allocate 20 points for each one.
Next, participants completed a questionnaire about their political orientation. This measured whether they were relatively more left-leaning or right-leaning.
Then they completed a personality scale, which assessed their Big Five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism).
The researchers looked at whether there were differences in academic values based on gender. There were no significant differences between men and women regarding preferences for academic rigor, academic freedom, and advancing knowledge. However, women valued the emotional well-being of students and social justice significantly more than men.
For political orientation, political conservatism was positively correlated with how much value academics assigned to:
And political conservatism was negatively correlated with how much value academics placed on:
Emotional well-being of students
This means that relative to those who were politically liberal, academics who were more politically conservative placed greater importance on academic rigor and advancing knowledge. And they assigned less importance to social justice and the emotional well-being of students. There were no political differences regarding how much value participants placed on academic freedom.
For personality traits, researchers found that agreeableness positively correlated with:
Student emotional well-being
And agreeableness negatively correlated with:
This means that academics who were more agreeable place more value on social justice and student emotional well-being than academic rigor and advancing knowledge. Conversely, academics who were relatively disagreeable assigned more value on rigor and knowledge, and less value on social justice and student emotional well-being.
Researchers also found that conscientiousness was negatively correlated with how much academics valued social justice, suggesting that academics who were lower in conscientiousness placed greater value on social justice.
There were no correlations between any of the academic values and the personality traits of openness, extraversion, and neuroticism.
The lead author of the study wrote about his experiences trying to get this paper published:
“I have published more than 100 academic pieces in my career to date. I've pretty much been through it all...I've never had a paper that was so difficult to publish. Not even close.”
The paper was rejected by 10 journals. The researchers subsequently decided to just self-publish the paper, concluding:
“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!”
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