17 February 2010

Academia: Leftist Dominance

Stephen Kershnar
Professors: Liberals at Work
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 15, 2009

Professors are predominantly left-wing. There are roughly 1.2 million college or university instructors. As a group they are very liberal and this pattern increases with more elite colleges and universities. A 2004-2005 study of six social science and humanities fields by economist Daniel Klein and sociologist Charlotta Stern found that the ratio of Democrats to Republicans ranged from between 7:1 and 9:1. This is relevant because these are the ones most likely to be discussing politics and religion. A 1999 study by professor Stanley Rothman and others found that among faculty in all fields, the ratio was almost 5:1. This likely underestimates the lopsidedness because this same study indicated that 72% were left of center. In contrast, a 2007 Gallup poll found that among voting-age Americans the ratio was roughly 1:1 (specifically, 31% Democrat and 28% Republican). In the 2004 elections, George W. Bush won 51% of the popular vote, but only 20% of the professors’ votes.

This raises concerns because various scholars (for example, political science Professor Benjamin Highton) have found that individuals tend to form and stabilize their political views in late adolescence and young adulthood. This overlaps with their exposure to the leftist professorate and suggests that the faculty might be reshaping young people into leftists.

Conservative and religious students’ attitudes reflect the overwhelming bias. A 2009 study by Professors Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner found that conservative students were only one-half as likely to aspire to get a doctorate as liberal ones. Similarly, a series of interviews done in 2009 study by Sociologist Amy Binder found that conservative students at a major university neither regarded faculty highly nor sought to emulate them. A 2006 study by Professors Neil Gross and Catherine Cheng found that students who were conservative, Republican, or evangelical had less confidence in higher education and viewed professors as having less prestige than did other students. A 2010 article by sociologists Ethan Fosse and Neil Gross theorized that very religious students tend to avoid academia because of its reputation for secularism.

Why are professors so concentrated on the left? One explanation put forth by Klein, Stern, Rothman and others is that the liberal professors discriminate against conservatives and religious folk. There are a lot of anecdotes in support of this claim. Anyone who’s experienced the outrage with which the faculty respond to attempts to eliminate affirmative action or who’ve seen the faculty give wild applause to Hillary Clinton’s senatorial campaign have a sense of it. However, it should be remembered that the plural of anecdote is not data (sadly, not my line) and hence feelings of discrimination don’t show how often, if ever, it occurs.

A second explanation for the left’s dominance is self-selection. Fosse and Gross found that 43% of the political difference between professors and non-professors is explained by four factors: advanced educational credentials, a disparity between education and income, religious identification, and greater tolerance for controversial ideas. The religious difference is that professors are more likely to be Jewish, non-religious, or non-theologically-conservative Protestants. Gross’s analogy is that just as the perception of nursing as a woman’s career has led to many more women than men going into it, the perception of academia as liberal and secular has led to many more liberals than conservatives going into it. Fosse and Gross base their finding in part on the different aspirations of liberal and conservative students. They argue that it is unlikely that being a professor, or having professorial interests, makes professors liberal. In support of this claim, they cite a 2009 study by Gross and Cheng that 81% of liberal professors report their political views were formed well before they were professors (specifically, when growing up or in college). This explanation has some difficulties in that it does not account for more than 50% of the disparity.

There is also the possibility that third factors unrelated to discrimination or self-selection are causing some or all of the disparity. Urban location and the underrepresentation of colleges and universities in the South might contribute to it. Also, professors have lower than average rates of childbearing and are increasingly feminized (women are just under half of new faculty). These factors might also contribute to it.

The issue arises what, if anything, should be done to combat the left’s increasing political and secular dominance in academia. One solution is to just ignore it. However, to the extent that taxpayers believe in free markets, traditional families, and God and view the West’s history as exceptional, allowing state-funded professors to push and bully students away from these beliefs is distasteful. Normally, one would expect the free market to punish schools that don’t remedy their consumer-frustrating political biases in the same way that the free market punished the leftist bias in the big three networks and CNN with Fox news and Rush Limbaugh. But so much of higher education being state funded that it is largely insulated from free-market discipline.

A second solution is to have quotas or preferences for moderate and conservative professors. As in affirmative action the cost of such preferences will be a significant loss of ability. If standards are dropped for moderate and conservative professors, as professional schools do for blacks, Hispanics, and others, we can expect to see significantly reduced quality of research and teaching in many of the preferred candidates.

A third solution is to have professors disclose their political leanings. This would allow students to limit their susceptibility to the leftist professorate by choosing schools that are not too lopsided or by being prepared by family and friends for the leftist push that will occur in some classes. The problem with this solution is that it requires disclosure by professors of matters that, at least for state employees, are private. It also is far too easy to game the system by encouraging large numbers of leftist professors to identify themselves as moderate or conservative.

A fourth solution is to get professors who have to discuss political and religious topics to provide balanced coverage of the different sides and to have other professors (for example, hard sciences and English) stay out of these areas. The problem with this solution is that the goal of balanced coverage is unreasonable. What counts as equal coverage of intellectually respectable positions depends on what theories are respectable and how respectable they are. For example, in discussing affirmative action, no one thinks that Aryan-supremacy theories should get the same depth of coverage as theories that emphasize equal opportunity and merit. Even if theory respectability is objective, it is unlikely that they can be identified independent of a professor’s political and religious views. This just reintroduces the problem of leftist bias.

The first response is probably the best, because concerns about merit, rights, and unreasonable goals sink the next three. However, I am not confident with this conclusion. In any case, students and families should recognize the danger here. Forewarned is forearmed.