Are liberal professors ruining higher education?

Nicholas Kristof writing in the New York Times called out liberal professors in higher education over their intolerance of conservative and religious ideologies. Kristof’s missive is the latest in a long line of criticisms of the liberal nature of professors and asking the question: Are liberal professors ruining higher education? As with much of our national politics, there is even disagreement over basic facts such as the partisan affiliation of faculty. In today’s post, I will discuss what we know about the ideology of professors, the source of faculty ideology, and how this impacts higher education.

I grew up in North Carolina with conservative Senator Jesse Helms repeatedly railing on the liberal bastion in Chapel Hill.

Debates regarding the liberal nature of higher education are certainly not new. 

Extensive research from disciplines such as sociology and political science have examined the issue of faculty political ideology since the 1950s.

These studies have consistently found that American professors are more liberal than the general population of the country.

However, conservative pundits often exaggerate liberalism within higher education.

For example, Kristof cites studies that put Republican humanities professors between 6 and 11 percent and calling conservative faculty in many social science fields as “virtually an endangered species.”

Neil Gross, a sociology professor who has conducted some of the best research on the political ideology of professors, found that professors are 62% liberal, 18% middle of the road, and 20% conservative.

This contrasts with the general population which is 29% liberal, 32% middle of the road, and 39% conservative.

Political party affiliation looks similar with professors affiliated 51% Democrat, 35% independent, and 14% Republican.

The broader population is 31% Democrat, 41% Independent, and 28% Republican.

Yes, professors are more liberal.

However, suggesting that conservatives make up less than 10% of American professors is simply wrong.

To be fair, Kristof is referencing fields that are more liberal than the rest of higher education (the humanities and social sciences). Political ideology does vary by discipline with the humanities and social sciences generally more liberal than natural sciences, business, and engineering.

In many ways, this makes intuitive sense given the scientific and intellectual movements behind the respective disciplines.

Why aren’t there more conservatives?

Kristof and many conservative critics argue that discrimination is at least in part the cause of an abundance of liberal professors.

I suggest this is an important question because it directly impacts what remedy, if any, should be used to balance professors’ political ideologies.

Here again, Professor Gross’ research proves instructive.  He and his co-author, Ethan Fosse, identify and test six hypotheses for why there is so much liberalism in higher education:

1.  Sociodemographic characteristics

2.  High levels of educational attainment

3.  High levels of intellectualism

4.  Religious characteristics

5.  Social class

6.  Distinctive “job values”

Using multivariate data, Gross and Fosse sought to explain the “gap” between professors and the general population of the country.

Ultimately, they found that they could explain much of the difference due to the following characteristics:  advanced educational credentials, disparity between levels of education and income, religious profile, and tolerance for controversial ideas.

Compellingly, they suggest that the six hypotheses fail to fully explain what is happening and instead suggest an additional conceptual explanation.

They argue that self-selection based on occupational reputation is more responsible for the overrepresentation of liberals in the ranks of faculty.

Specifically, this theory contends that the professoriate has been “politically typed” as best for liberals and a poor fit for conservatives.

As a result, the reputation of the role of professors leads more liberal students than conservatives to pursue a faculty career.

Where did higher education’s reputation for liberalism come from?

Dating back to the rise of the research university, higher education went through a series of public controversies and engagements regarding the declining role of religion and the growth of academic freedom.

The increased secularization of higher education and the religion of intellectualism facilitated higher education’s role in the social debates of the 1960s and 1970s. This period only cemented the notion of higher education’s liberal leanings.

The research university valued new knowledge over political or religious considerations.

Moreover, the institutionalization of academic freedom proved pivotal in enabling faculty to engage as public intellectuals and, in some cases, public radicals.

The well documented rise of intellectualism and emphasis on knowledge production along with the decline of religion provide the foundation for the rise of liberalism on campus.

Why should we care?

I love the title of Gross’ book on faculty politics:  Why are professors liberal and why do conservatives care?

The title perfectly captures the issue at hand.

For me, it isn’t enough to say that having too many liberal professors is a bad thing.

Why should we care?

Most conservatives believe that liberal professors are trying to indoctrinate students.

This is a concern, if true, that should be addressed.  I would expand this argument to include if research is being overtly impacted by political ideology.

Unfortunately, we simply don’t have empirical data on how professors actually behave, but we do have qualitative data on how professors say their personal politics influences their academic work.

For the sake of expediency, I also want to set aside the notion of objectivity which many researchers suggest is an illusion and that all research has inherent personal and political bias (I’d tend to put myself in that camp in the interest of full disclosure).

When Gross interviewed faculty, there were faculty that suggested their political ideology influences their choice of topics and maybe even their approach, but not the rigor of their work. Conversely, there were faculty that suggested ideology played no part in their research.

Interestingly, the answers on teaching were somewhat different.

The smallest group of faculty engaged in “critical pedagogy” with the expressed goal of influencing students’ politics. This could reasonably be called the indoctrination that conservative critics fear. However, this was a very small number.

The second group believed politics wasn’t a factor due to the nature of the classes that they teach. In other words, the viewed their classes as politically neutral.

The third group acknowledged that politics is an aspect of their courses and also believed it was acceptable to share their views with students. However, they stressed the importance of not portraying their views as truth and being open to dissenting opinion.

Of the 57 faculty interviewed in the study, only 2 were proponents of critical pedagogy and fit the concerns of critics.  So while the concern has some validity, the concerns that faculty are widely indoctrinating students is without empirical basis.

Rather, most faculty—even those teaching controversial topics— let their own beliefs remain relatively indefinable.

Liberal professors in the era of Donald Trump and the Tea Party

Criticisms of faculty often accompany broader attacks on higher education.  I anticipate the issue of liberal professors and “elite” higher education may become a campaign issue in the 2016 presidential race.

The conservative movement of today relies extensively on populism as does Trump’s campaign.

Hillary Clinton will undoubtedly talk about higher education issues such as student debt as part of an effort to recapture President Obama’s coalition of young voters.

I suspect Trump will be unable to resist attacking higher education as the real cause of the student debt problem. As part of this critique, I can’t imagine he won’t insult liberal professors— an idea that makes sense to most voters.

In addition, Trump does well with voters that didn’t attend college (subject of another post to be sure). I have heard many liberals cite some of the same the hypotheses as Gross noted for why college educated voters are “too educated” to vote for Trump. I can’t imagine Trump will be able to not take a swipe at “liberal educated elites” as part of his poll numbers among college educated voters.

As noted here, the reality is that American professors are more liberal.

The question to be addressed is the one we started with, “Are liberal professors ruining higher education?”

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence conservatives would use to answer that question positively. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough good strong empirical data to answer more definitively.

However, one has to think that no matter the answer, the political and partisan division in our nation generally is also impacting our colleges and universities.

This division is no better for higher education than our public policy more generally.