Leaning to the Left

A new study says that the vast majority of faculty members are liberal, but does that prove they're biased?
March 30, 2005

American professors are overwhelmingly liberal, according to a new report on faculty political attitudes.

Previous surveys have reached similar conclusions, but this one suggests that the ideological divide on campuses may be greater than has previously been thought. And the authors of this survey say that their evidence suggests say that conservatives, practicing Christians and women are less likely than others to get faculty jobs at top colleges.

The research, published in The Forum, is being praised as path-breaking by some scholars and as garbage by others. But since the study is being released at a time of heightened debate over charges of classroom bias, the report is likely to be closely examined and critiqued.

The findings are based on a survey of 1,643 faculty members at 183 four-year colleges and universities, and the results were analyzed by three political scientists: Stanley Rothman of Smith College, S. Robert Lichter of George Mason University and Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto. In the abstract to their report, they say that the research "suggests that complaints of ideologically based discrimination in academic advancement deserve serious consideration and further study."

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said that the implication that liberal faculty members were keeping conservative scholars out was "rubbish," and said that anyone who has been on dozens of search committees, as she has, knows that. "It boggles my mind the degree to which this is rubbish."

The Findings

Faculty members in the study were asked to place themselves on the political spectrum, and 72 percent identified as liberal while only 15 percent identified as conservative, with the remainder in the middle. The professors were also asked about party affiliation, and here the breakdown was 50 percent Democrats, 11 percent Republicans, and the rest independent and third parties.

The study also broke down the findings by academic discipline, and found that humanities faculty members were the most likely (81 percent) to be liberal. The liberal percentage was at its highest in English literature (88 percent), followed by performing arts and psychology (both 84 percent), fine arts (83 percent), political science (81 percent).

Other fields have more balance. The liberal-conservative split is 61-29 in education, 55-39 in economics, 53-47 in nursing, 51-19 in engineering, and 49-39 in business.

Beyond general political identification, the professors were asked for views on specific issues, and here too, the authors find faculty backing for positions associated with liberal politics. Of professors, 84 percent somewhat or strongly agree that women should have the right to have abortions, and 88 percent agree that policies should favor environmental protection even if those policies result in higher prices and fewer jobs.

The report's authors say that their findings suggest a "sharp shift to the left" from earlier studies, which found more ideological balance. But in fact numerous studies have made similar findings (although in many cases less detailed) in recent years.

"The American College Teacher" is a major study by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles that features some questions on politics. The last survey, in 2001, found that 5.3 percent of faculty members were far left, 42.3 percent were liberal, 34.3 percent were middle of the road, 17.7 percent were conservative, and 0.3 percent were far right. Those figures are only marginally different from the previous survey, in 1998.

Unlike the survey released this week, the UCLA survey includes faculty members at community colleges, and those faculty members are more evenly split than their four-year counterparts, with 33.3 percent identifying as liberal, 41.1 percent as middle of the road, and 22 percent as conservative.

The new study published in The Forum also attempts to look at the impact of the ideological split on college faculties.

So the authors devised an "academic achievement index" of  faculty members by looking at such factors as books written, journal articles and service on editorial boards. Then the authors looked at certain factors, such as political views, whether someone was religious (defined as attending services "at least once or twice a month"), and gender. The authors then tracked where scholars ended up to see whether there was a relationship between various factors in their backgrounds and whether they ended up at top colleges.

The authors report that among scholars with equivalent academic achievements, liberals are more likely than conservatives to be at top colleges. The scholars also found a negative correlation for being a practicing Christian to getting positions at top colleges (but not for observant Jews) and for women.

In the conclusion to the report, the authors acknowledge that their findings on possible discrimination against conservatives, Christians and women are "preliminary." But they go on to say that "these results suggest that conservative complaints of the presence and effects of liberal homogeneity in academia deserve to be taken seriously, despite their self-interested quality and the anecdotal nature of the evidence previously presented."

What It All Means

Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, said that "the big news here is the first social science confirmation of the existence of discrimination in hiring and the personnel process." While previous studies have demonstrated the breadth of liberal support in the academy, he said, they have not made as direct a link to hiring and advancement.

Balch said there is now "very strong evidence" that there is bias in the hiring process against conservatives, whereas before this study, there was just "an enormous amount of anecdotal evidence."

College faculty members and presidents, "given their interest in diversity of all other kinds, and their professed desire to overcome discrimination, need to grapple with this."

Many academic leaders, however, say that the lopsided political identification totals are entirely predictable, and do not indicate discrimination of any kind. Feal, the MLA executive director, said that when humanities professors say that they are liberals, "the majority of us understand it to be not a narrow political ideology, but a conception of the world."

"We profess the liberal arts," she said. "That comes from freedom that we hold as a high value, from the pursuit of the truth, the pursuit of academic freedom, the belief that the learning and teaching of values will make us better citizens."

Prior to coming to the MLA, Feal was a professor and department chair  in modern languages at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and she says that searches never focused on questions of religion or politics. "These things are irrelevant in a search."

"When all was said and done, we had conservative Christians, we had liberal atheists, we had everyone," Feal said.

The study is part of a broader campaign, she said, to question the qualifications and rights of faculty members, especially in the humanities. "This is such a dangerous moment," she said. "We are facing the kind of scrutiny on politics and religion that truly signals danger."

Cary Nelson, author of Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, said that he wasn't surprised that some disciplines were largely liberal. Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that in his field, "which has devoted itself significantly to expanding the canon over the last 25 years, it's most likely that the people who are coming into the disciplines are going to have a liberal sentiment rather than a reactionary sentiment."

Nelson said, however, that even if most professors in some fields are liberal, you wouldn't know it from what goes on in classrooms, where he said most scholars are "bloody cowards about letting their politics out." Nelson said that he always tells his students that he is a liberal, and that conservative students will do well in his class as long as they speak up and challenge him.

When it comes to hiring, he says that some departments do engage in "PC hiring," which he defined as the kind of hiring "where a search committee will say, 'We need more women so we're going to give this slot to a woman' or 'We don't have enough gay people so we've got to hire a gay person.' " Nelson said this kind of hiring was wrong -- and foolish in the humanities -- where there is enough diversity in the total pool that "if you go for the very best people, you'll still end up with diversity."

In his department, he said, hiring is quality based, and even though many of his colleagues focus on issues of race and gender, "we hire people who work only on traditional authors, most of whom are dead white men." The question in hiring, he says, is are you excited by a person's work and its potential, not do you agree with it.

In the Minority

Not all scholars accept the premise that the ideological split is necessarily hurting higher education -- or at least not in a black-and-white way.

Joel Carpenter, provost of Calvin College, said that many faculty members he hires are committed Christians who welcome the opportunity to work in an environment where they will not stand out. "People are always saying that they have finally found a place where they can be true to their beliefs," he said. While some people assume that a religious college like his is "less free" than other places, many of the scholars feel "more free" to talk about faith, he said, than they would at a secular university.

Carpenter said he would worry if religious faculty members felt that "they had been defined out of the realms of what's worth considering" at secular institutions. But he said he doesn't feel that is the situation yet. "I see a lot of strong, articulate, interesting voices at those institutions -- people who don't mind being in a minority, who have the courage of their convictions."

He speaks from some experience, having earned his Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University, where he said he probably did stand out to his fellow students and to professors for his faith and views on some issues. "I think the fact that I really needed to defend my views to people who were originally skeptical helped make me stronger as a scholar," said Carpenter. But he also said that he saw "everyone have their ideas challenged -- no one got a pass."

"My own personal experience would say that yes, there is bias, but I haven't seen it to be a 'shut you down' kind of bias," he said. "I'm sure there were some who thought I was a little special, but I come from a Christian tradition that doesn't mind having a beer, so when the library closed, I went down to the grad club like everyone else."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


+ -

Expand commentsHide comments  —   Join the conversation!

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top