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The Liberal (and Moderating) Professoriate

The Liberal (and Moderating) Professoriate
October 8, 2007

Faculty members identify as liberals and vote Democratic in far greater proportions than found in the American public at large. That finding by itself won't shock many, but the national study released Saturday at a Harvard University symposium may be notable both for its methodology and other, more surprising findings.

The 72-page study -- "The Social and Political Views of American Professors" -- was produced with the goal of moving analysis of the political views of faculty members out of the culture wars and back to social science. The study offers at times harsh criticism of many of the analyses of these issues in recent years (both from those hoping to tag the professoriate as foolishly radical and those seeking to rebut those charges). The study included community college professors along with four-year institutions, and featured analysis of non-responders to the survey (two features missing from many recent reports).

The results of the study find a professoriate that may be less liberal than is widely assumed, even if conservatives are correctly assumed to be in a distinct minority. The authors present evidence that there are more faculty members who identify as moderates than as liberals. The authors of the study also found evidence of a significant decline by age group in faculty radicalism, with younger faculty members less likely than their older counterparts to identify as radical or activist. And while the study found that faculty members generally hold what are thought to be liberal positions on social issues, professors are divided on affirmative action in college admissions.

In a day-long meeting, the findings were presented by the authors, Neil Gross, an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard, and Solon Simmons, an assistant professor of conflict analysis and sociology at George Mason University. While Gross and Simmons saw their findings on faculty moderation as particularly significant, they were challenged during the day on that conclusion. Lawrence H. Summers, the economist and former Harvard president, did his own cut on their numbers and said that his analysis pointed to a problematic liberal domination at elite research universities. Several other speakers also said that they were troubled by the extent of ideological lopsidedness that they saw in the analysis, and brainstormed about reasons for that imbalance.

While some questioned the analysis Gross and Simmons provided, there was widespread praise for the way the survey was conducted, with Summers and others predicting that their data may become the definitive source for understanding professors' political views. The work was supported by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, which generally focuses on math and science education and the history of science. The survey results come from 1,417 full-time professors last year, and includes full timers at various stages of the tenure-track (and off it). A separate analysis of part timers is not yet done.

On political orientation, the survey asked professors to identify themselves in one of seven categories, from extremely liberal to extremely conservative and the results leaned decidedly to the left.

Political Orientation of Faculty Members -- 7 Categories

Extremely liberal 9.4%
Liberal 34.7%
Slightly liberal 18.1%
Middle of the road 18.0%
Slightly conservative 10.5%
Conservative 8.0%
Very conservative 1.2%

While that breakdown would at first glance back the claim that academe is run by "tenured radicals," Gross and Simmons say that is too simplistic. They analyzed the responses to a series of questions on social and political views of the two "slightly" categories and found significant differences between the "slightly" and "extremely" answers for both liberals and conservatives. They also found significant commonalities among the two "slightly" categories and the middle category.

Based on that view, they argue that there are in fact three identifiable political groupings in academe, and liberalism does not come out on top -- the moderate group does.

Political Orientation of Faculty Members -- 3 Categories

Liberal 44.1%
Moderate 46.1%
Conservative 9.2%

When this analysis is then applied to institutional sectors of higher education, and to disciplinary groups, the results point to strong liberal tilts in the humanities and social sciences, and at liberal arts colleges, but much less left domination in many other parts of higher education.

By disciplinary groupings, health sciences were found to be the most balanced ideologically -- with identical 20.5 percent liberal and conservative, and the rest in the middle. Business is also relatively even in views, with a slight tilt to the right, with conservatives having 24.5 percent of professors and liberals 21.3 percent. Moderates were more prevalent than liberals in computer sciences and engineering (by a wide margin), and in the physical and biological sciences (by a narrow margin).

The sector breakdowns demonstrate the importance of including community colleges, whose faculty members are more likely than any other sectors to identify as conservative. While some previous studies on faculty politics have suggested elite research universities as the places with the most ideological uniformity, liberals appear to be most dominant at liberal arts colleges.

Political Orientation of Faculty Members, by Sector

Sector Liberal Moderate Conservative
Community colleges 37.1% 43.9% 19.0%
Bachelor's, non-liberal arts 38.8% 48.5% 12.7%
Liberal arts colleges 61.0% 35.1% 3.9%
Ph.D.-granting, non-elite 44.3% 51.9% 3.8%
Ph.D.-granting, elite 56.6% 33.1% 10.2%

For those wanting to look at changes in higher education politically, the data released Saturday suggest that the left and the radical left are strongest among older faculty members and have lost considerable support among those entering the profession.

Political Orientation of Faculty Members, by Age

Age Liberal Moderate Conservative
26-35 32.5% 60.0% 7.5%
36-49 41.5% 49.9% 8.6%
50-64 49.4% 42.7% 7.9%
65+ 36.9% 52.3% 10.8%

Gross and Simmons also analyzed the prevalence of radical political identities, and tabulated the figures by age for those on the left (some conservatives of course also consider themselves radicals, but the numbers have been greater on the left in academe, and critics of higher ed focus on the radical left). Here too, the authors found that younger academics are much less likely to identify as radicals or activists of the left than are older faculty members.

Percentage of Faculty Members, by Age, Identifying as Left Radicals or Activists

Age Left Radicals Left Activists
26-35 3.8% 1.3%
36-49 9.9% 11.5%
50-64 14.3% 17.2%

Marxist identity was also low, but with less identifiable shift by age group (the range was 3.9 to 4.7 percent) and with the strongest disciplinary support in the social sciences (17.6 percent) and humanities (5.0 percent), with negligible support elsewhere. Gross and Simmons cautioned, however, that in fields like sociology and literature, scholars who identify as Marxist are in many cases talking about specific approaches to their research and analysis, and not necessarily about a political ideology they wish to see in operation.

While the analysis based on political orientation points to a growing centrism in the professoriate, there are of course choices -- such as presidential votes -- that more clearly divide the house. Asked about their choices in the last presidential election, more than three-fourths of professors backed John Kerry. Only in the health sciences did Bush carry academe (and he did so narrowly there). In the social sciences, Ralph Nader and other candidates won the same share of the vote as did President Bush, while Kerry had support from 87.6 percent of academics.

Presidential Preferences of Professors in 2004 Elections, by Discipline

Discipline Kerry Bush Nader Other
Physical and biological sciences 77.4% 20.8% 0.9% 0.9%
Social sciences 87.6% 6.2% 1.8% 4.4%
Humanities 83.7% 15.0% 0.0% 1.3%
Computer science and engineering 61.9% 33.3% 0.0% 4.8%
Health sciences 48.1% 51.9% 0.0% 0.0%
Business 65.4% 32.1% 2.6% 0.0%
Other 81.6% 17.5% 0.3% 0.6%
Total 77.6% 20.4% 0.5% 1.5%

The survey also asked professors for their views on a range of social and policy issues, some of them directly involving higher education. Among the highlights:

  • Strong support for abortion rights: 74.7 percent believe it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain an abortion for any reason.
  • Strong support for gay rights: Only 17.2 percent believe that it is always wrong for two adults of the same sex to have sexual relations, while 68.7 percent believe it is not wrong at all.
  • Doubts on bias against women in science: Asked what accounts for the relative scarcity of female professors in math, science and engineering, 24.5 percent said that the issue was mainly because of discrimination while 74.5 percent said it was mainly because of differences in the interests of men and women.
  • Split on affirmative action: A slim majority of professors backed affirmative action in college admissions, with 11 percent favoring it strongly, 39.7 percent favoring it, 31.9 percent opposing it, and 17.4 percent opposing it strongly.
  • Doubts about Iraq: Strong majorities believe that the number of troops in Iraq should be cut and that President Bush misled the nation in the build-up to the war.
  • Avoiding sides in Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Asked if they sympathized more with the Israelis or Palestinians, 20.9 percent said Israelis and 10.7 percent said Palestinians. But 51.3 percent said they sympathized with both and 17.1 percent said that they sympathized with neither.
  • Tenure's value: Strong majorities see tenure as a good thing but also see it as sometimes protecting incompetent faculty members.
  • Political splits in satisfaction with campus environment: Liberal professors are more likely than conservative professors to feel good about their jobs and the nature of academic discourse on campus. In addition, more than 68 percent of faculty members agreed that one goal of campus diversity should be to foster diversity of political views among faculty members.

Larry Summers Analyzes the Numbers and Academe

Gross and Simmons plan a series of additional analyses of their data. At Saturday's symposium, scholars offered a range of takes on why professors split as they do on political matters, and whether the split matters.

Summers, the former Harvard president, was the first to discuss these topics, and he did so only weeks after the latest political incident involving him -- an invitation to address the University of California Board of Regents that was rescinded because of faculty opposition.

Noting that he had served in the Clinton administration, Summers said he identified strongly as a liberal and a Democrat, but that while in Washington he viewed himself as being on "the right half of the left," in Cambridge, he landed "on the right half of the right."

In advance of the symposium, Summers ran some numbers from the study. He focused on elite graduate universities and on what he defined as core disciplines for undergraduate education (excluding health professions, for example). When conducting such an analysis, Summers said, he found "even less ideological diversity" than he thought he would, and that in the humanities and social sciences, Republicans are "the third group," after Democrats and Nader and other left-wing third parties.

To date, Summers said, he has largely viewed the political imbalance as one of "able people making choices." He said that if you are a smart individual, and you like the market, profits, and "striving for profits," you have "a wide range of choices in life," of which an academic career is but one. If you are a smart person who doesn't like the world of markets and profits, "you have a much narrower range of choices," he said, and academic careers may be quite desirable. In this way of thinking, he said, it's not surprising to find more liberals than conservatives on college faculties.

At the same time, he added, the extent of the imbalance and some informal research he has conducted "give me pause" and has him wondering about the possibility of bias against right-leaning thinkers. He examined the scholars being asked to give Tanner Lectures (a top lecture series at leading universities) and the political leanings of economists and political figures among honorary degree recipients at a top university (which he declined to name). Liberals receive more such honors by far, he said.

It's not that there are no conservative professors, he said, but their share is so small as to raise questions that deserve more attention. Summers wondered if the situation isn't like it was in the early days of baseball's racial integration, when people trying to say equality had arrived could point to the relatively equal performance of black and white stars. "But it appeared that there were not any African-American .250 hitters," Summers said. "The only [black] players who played were stars."

Summers said it would be "extraordinarily unwise and dangerous" for government to try to force more balance in hiring. And he said it would be "a real horror" if, in the name of respecting all views, Harvard's astronomy department hired an astrologer or the biology department hired a creationist. But while there is a "tension" in calling for more diversity of views, while excluding views such as those, he said it was worthy to seek more ideological diversity.

One reason he thinks this is important, Summers said, is to help liberalism. "As someone who is a strong Democrat and is a liberal, and does not think that we have won the argument with the country over the last 40 years, rather to the contrary, it makes me wonder whether if you do not engage in intense dialogue with those whom you disagree with in substantial number whether your own arguments will be sharpened and honed to maximum effect," Summers said.

Summers described the Federalist Society, an influential conservative legal group, as an organization for which he has "no sympathy," but that he admires for regularly inviting some progressive legal thinkers to talk and debate at its gatherings. "I'm not sure that commitment is equally present in progressive communities," he said.

There is another argument for saying that more ideological balance in higher education shouldn't be a goal, Summers said, and it is one that he understands, but questions. This perspective relates to conservative success in much of American society. "From the perspective of many, they’ve got the White House, the Supreme Court, the CEO's of 85 percent of the Fortune 500. They’ve got Fox News. They’ve got an increasing share of the media, so is the right way to have diversity to change the one thing that’s progressive?"

While Summers said that this attitude creates "a problematic role for universities to put themselves in," he said that it explains the "extreme hostility" of some in academe to conservative ideas.

Other Hypotheses: Graduate School, Moving Past the '60s and 'Radical Pique'

A range of other theories were offered on the extent of ideological imbalance. Louis Menand, a professor of English at Harvard, said he was surprised and worried by the extent of ideological homogeneity and he focused on how graduate education may encourage and be hurt by this trend.

Menand said that when he was in graduate school in the '70s, people could hope for a Ph.D. in five years and felt free to propose ideas that challenged conventional wisdom in the humanities. Today, with graduate students facing a decade or more for a humanities doctorate, which Menand called an "obscene" amount of time, graduate students enroll only in programs in which they agree with their professors' take on the discipline. With that much time involved, and an iffy job market, "who would do this if they didn't share our views?" Menand asked. And the graduate students who enroll tell professors that the professors' views are just right, he added, instead of trying out new theories.

"The profession isn’t so much reproducing itself as cloning itself," Menand said. "If it was easier and cheaper to get in and out, the discipline would have a chance to get oxygenated" by people with new ideas, he added.

Several others also said that different historical perspectives were needed to analyze the issue. Julie A. Reuben, a professor of education at Harvard, noted that much of the discussion of professors and politics is based on the assumption that the '60s were responsible for the trends embraced by the left and attacked by the right. Reuben noted that William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale in 1951, charging his professors (he had just graduated) with not being sufficiently Christian, pro-American or pro-market.

Critiques of higher education, she said, need to be understood in their longer history, not just viewed through the prism of a few flash points.

Jonathan Zimmerman, director of the History of Education Program at New York University, also agreed that "it was time to stop talking about the '60s." Zimmerman noted that the percentage of academics voting for Republican presidential candidates was in the 30s through the 1980s, but then dropped. Some of that may have been the popularity of Bill Clinton, but Zimmerman said that for many academics "something really important and troubling happened in the '80s and '90s." He elaborated: “I think the experience of living amid the rise of the new right had a profound effect on the lives of the professors."

There has been "an erosion of liberal faith in citizens," Zimmerman said. He noted that in the '60s, liberal professors fought for student rights, but that when universities give students what they want today, professors deride administrators for giving in to "consumerism."

Many professors these days, Zimmerman said, have as a signature quotation on their e-mail Hermann Goering's quote about how easy it is to manipulate people into backing war. Whatever one thinks of the war in Iraq and that particular quote, Zimmerman said he found it odd that professors were using a Goering quote on their e-mail.

But it relates to the distrust of the people, Zimmerman said. Radical chic, he said, has been replaced by "radical pique." He added: "The story we need to tell is about the alienation of professors from the publics."

Gross, one of the paper's authors, said that in emphasizing the moderate group of academics they found in the survey, he was not discounting the liberal tilt. But he said that what most intrigued him was not the ideological imbalance but the way it differed from what people expected.

"For us what stood out was the disconnect between the dominant public rhetoric, which suggests that professors are not only extremely liberal, but uniformly so,” with the reality that "most of us are not as radical as has been suggested."

 

 

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