Political Shocker: Faculty Moderates

New analysis suggests that the biggest trend in professorial politics is a shift to the center in many disciplines.
September 19, 2006

To read the reports that have appeared for a few years now, it's easier to find an ivory-billed woodpecker than a Republican on a college campus. Studies have compared party registrations of various college faculties, views of members of various disciplines, and political leanings generally. Conservative pundits and David Horowitz have had a field day with these studies, saying that they show a major problem with ideological imbalance in higher education.

But what if they don't?

The journal Public Opinion Quarterly has just published an analysis of professorial politics that offers a dramatically different picture. To be sure, this study does say that there are more liberals than conservatives on college faculties, although the propoportions (while still significant) aren't as large as those found in some other reports. But most significant, the new study suggests that the most dramatic trend among the professoriate in recent years has been a shift toward the middle of the road. And the trend is particularly pronounced in some of the disciplines that enroll the greatest numbers of students.

"There are disciplines where conservatives are in the majority, and there is a healthy middle overall," said John F. Zipp, chair of sociology at the University of Akron, and the author of the study, with Rudy Fenwick, associate professor of sociology at Akron.

Zipp and Fenwick based their analysis on two broad studies of the American professoriate by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The studies -- in 1989 and 1997 -- found a shift toward the middle, while conservative professors -- a distinct minority -- did not lose ground.

Political Ideology of Professors

Ideology 1989 1997
Liberal 24.6% 23.3%
Moderately liberal 31.0% 32.6%
Middle of the road 16.5% 19.6%
Moderately conservative 21.2% 17.7%
Conservative 6.7% 6.7%

Then the authors looked at changes within disciplines. As they expected, humanities faculty members are liberal and don't show signs of changing. From 1989 to 1997, the percentage of humanities faculty members who classify themselves as liberal increased to 40.9 percent, from 40.3 percent.

But many other disciplines -- including those that attract some of the largest enrollments these days -- showed decreases in the percentages identifying themselves as liberal and increases in the percentages identifying themselves as middle of the road:

  • Allied health: The liberal percentage fell from 22.6 percent to 8.4 percent, while the centrist percentage increased from 14.3 percent to 26.0 percent.
  • Biological sciences: A liberal drop from 24.3 percent to 17.9 percent and a centrist gain from 17.0 to 20.9 percent.
  • Business: A liberal drop from 13.7 percent to 8.7 percent and a centrist gain from 17.8 percent to 19.6. (Business and technical/vocational fields ended up with larger conservative shares -- 48.7 percent and 49.6 percent, respectively -- than any other disciplines.)
  • Computer science: A liberal drop from 13.3 percent to 8.7 percent and a centrist gain from 24.4 percent to 44.6 percent.
  • Psychology: A liberal drop from 28.2 percent to 25.6 percent and a centrist gain from 15.4 percent to 26.7 percent.

Zipp -- who describes himself as liberal -- said he wasn't trying to deny that more faculty members are liberal than conservative, and that some disciplines are quite lopsided. But he said that when one looks at the disciplines, it becomes impossible to accept the conservative critique of higher education as one that is dominated by some sort of fringe left.

"If one says, 'look at all those liberal humanities professors,' well that's inevitable. It's been that way for a long time," he said. "But look at the relative position of the humanities in the university over the last 20 or 30 years." The departments into which resources are flowing, he said, are ideologically diverse. And anyone taking a range of courses in a range of departments is going to be exposed to diverse views -- however liberal one department or area may be, he said.

Zipp said that he hoped his analysis would prompt people to recognize the current attack on alleged liberal bias as part of a historic pattern. As his paper says, "hunting for subversives in the academy has been a favorite sport of conservatives for at least a century."

Some of the scholars who have noted ideological imbalance in the academy said that they were not impressed with the new study.

Daniel Klein, a professor of economics at George Mason University, has studied ideological leanings in the social sciences, and published his research in Critical Review. His research was not based on asking people if they are liberal or conservative, but about party registration and stands on a variety of issues. He was critical of the Carnegie surveys for relying on general descriptions that people selected. Terms like "middle of the road" and "liberal" can "mean very different things to different people," he said.

In contrast, his questions about party registration yielded clear evidence about lopsided ratios and the questions he asked about various policy questions identified "generally statist views" in many disciplines.

Klein identifies himself as "a small-l libertarian," and said that he opposes the Academic Bill of Rights and other efforts to apply outside force to changing the make-up of faculties. He'd like to see change from within. The new study, he said, "leaves unchallenged" the evidence he and others have produced about imbalance in humanities and social science departments.

Anne Colby, a senior scholar at the Carnegie foundation (who didn't work on the analysis published in Public Opinion Quarterly), is currently working on a book about political engagement in higher education. She said the new article had much more perspective -- about disciplines as a whole, about the disciplines where students are taking the most courses, and about trends over time -- than the studies that have alleged liberal bias. "I think this article is very much on target and the earlier ones were not," she said.

"If you look at the number of students who go to different institutional types, and their majors, the great majority of students are going to the most conservative kinds of institutions and the more conservative majors," she said. Further, she said that more research is finding that peer influence more than professorial influence results in shifts in students' political views, making the emphasis on professorial politics misplaced.

Colby said she hoped the new analysis would get people off the issue of ideological bias. "I hope this gets a lot of attention," she said. "I think this changes the picture."


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