Professors and Politics (Again)

Research coming out today finds (surprise) that faculty members lean to the left -- and charges that "groupthink" limits hiring and other decisions.
November 14, 2007

A month after the release of a study hailed by many as a definitive examination of faculty members' political views, a slew of new research on the topic -- some of it updated versions of previous research -- will be released today finding (not surprisingly) that professors lean to the left.

Today's research will be released as part of a day-long conference, "Reforming the Politically Correct University," being held at the American Enterprise Institute. Two of the papers were released in advance and (judging from paper titles) they appear consistent with the theme of the conference that ideological diversity is in short supply in academe. The papers argue that the political imbalance in humanities and social sciences departments is large, growing and inappropriate. And one paper charges that "groupthink" is at work in ways that limit the opportunities for those who don't share the leftist views of many other professors.

In finding that Democrats outnumber Republicans or that liberals outnumber conservatives, the new studies don't break new ground. There is general agreement, even among the many academics who question the value of these studies of political inclinations, that the professoriate is more liberal than the public at large.

The data and analysis released last month at Harvard University found that while professors are liberal, they may be less liberal than is widely assumed, even if conservatives are correctly assumed to be in a distinct minority. The study also found evidence of a growing centrist wing in academe that appears to be becoming larger than the liberal wing, and the study 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. At the same time, the study found that on certain issues (and which presidential candidates were backed) academe marches to its own tune -- and it may not be a tune that the rest of the country hears.

That study was praised (including by some who see ideological imbalance as a problem in academe) for including community colleges (whose faculty members are significantly less liberal than are those at four-year institutions) and for a generally nuanced approach. At least some of the data being released today is just about four-year universities and emphasis is on the dangers posed by imbalance in political perspectives.

The press materials promoting the conference, for example, say that another study (which AEI declined to release) will show "how the field of linguistics has departed from its original mission -- a nonpartisan investigation of how languages and dialects differ among groups-to become dominated by a leftist-driven advocacy for the downtrodden, as the controversy over Ebonics, or 'Black English,' shows."

While that paper was not released, the conclusions announced surprised Stephen R. Anderson, who is chair of linguistics and professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, and who is president of the Linguistic Society of America.

Stressing that he was speaking for himself and not the society, he said that Ebonics "is a non-issue as far as virtually all linguistics departments I know are concerned." He said that some linguistics professors spoke on the issue when it was in the news in the 1990s. Generally, he said, linguists believe that "non-standard varieties of language," such as Ebonics, should "be regarded as interesting and consistent systems in their own right, rather than merely as incorrect approximations to the standard language."

And as a result of this view, many linguists believe that teachers may want to "understand enough of that system to know what their kids are saying, not just to condemn the way they say it." But he added that "no one doubts that kids have to learn to speak and understand the standard, too, to function well in the larger society." Since the issue captured attention a decade ago, Anderson said, there has been "little or no general involvement in these matters on the part of linguists."

Anderson said he didn't know why linguists would be seen as pushing "advocacy for the downtrodden," except perhaps that they are worried about languages dying out. But he said he didn't think there was anything "visibly leftist" about that. He speculated that the view of linguists as leftists may come from association with prominent scholars like Noam Chomsky. But he said that linguists' views of Chomsky's work in the discipline are largely "independent" of their views of his politics. Efforts to connect Chomsky's linguistic and political work, he said, "have been recurrent failures."

One paper that was released -- by Daniel B. Klein of George Mason University and Charlotta Stern of the Swedish Institute for Social Research -- looked at many of the studies on faculty members' political leanings and found remarkable and left-leaning consistency. "Survey evidence and voter registration studies support the view that Democratic voters greatly outnumber Republican voters in academe. The estimate of 7 or 8:1 in the humanities and social sciences continues to hold up," they write.

Klein and Stern write that they find encouraging data that suggest that the younger a professor is, the less likely he is to support government intervention. And they express hope that "a growing pragmatism" in academe will produce "better discourse about public policy" and more academics "who favor individual liberty." Currently, however, they find that "very few" conservatives or libertarians in the humanities or social sciences -- with the exception of economics, where they find those numbers to "small but non-miniscule."

A second paper by Klein and Stern -- "Groupthink in Academia: Majoratarian Departmental Politics and the Professional Pyramid" -- looks at how departmental dynamics may influence hiring and other decisions. They apply social science research on "groupthink" to show how its characteristics may overlap with the way departments are set up. In particular, the authors write that in academe, "beliefs are deep-seated sensibilities, matters of selfhood and identity." This results in departments associating "high personal stakes" in the outcome of a decision. As a result, departments with a slight majority with shared views will hire more with those shared views and eventually be dominated by those views, the authors write.

Klein and Stern note that some believe that there is an option for those who don't share the dominant and leftist views of others in the humanities: keep quiet until tenure. But they reject this as unrealistic. "Imagine building a career through graduate school and pre-tenure employment (about 11 years) just to be able to be yourself. You find you are no longer yourself -- not that your ideological views change much, but that any ideological motivation has likely receded," they write. "You 'go native,' as they say.... [E]ven after tenure, you depend on department colleagues for pay raises, resources, teaching assignments, scheduling, promotions, recognition, and consideration."

What do these findings mean? Craig Smith, of Free Exchange on Campus, said that the studies struck him as "more of the same." Free Exchange is a coalition of academic and civil liberties groups that has been sharply critical of many of the studies of political bias (including Klein's previous work on the subject). Smith said that in addition to problems with methodology, there is "faulty logic" in assuming that the imbalance "says anything about what goes on in the classroom." While such studies "play well with the general public," Smith said that they prove next to nothing.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he agreed with one of the points made by Klein and Stern (that many departments do have considerable political uniformity), but he said that they overstated the way this plays out in higher education. "It's a mistake to generalize from disciplinarity to the campus as a whole, because campus positions are the result of the conflict among disciplines," he said. "Whatever kind of conformity there is in English or history or business or veterinary medicine, those conformities come into conflict with one another."

And even if there are departments that overwhelmingly lean left, he said that Klein and Stern overstate the idea that all of their professors then think alike. He said he's visited way too many English departments -- departments where professors are presumably based on the research voting the same way on Election Day -- where professors are bitterly divided over whom to hire, what the curriculum should look like and so forth. "The idea of lockstep conformity seems rather amusing."

As to why humanities departments have so few Republicans, Nelson said it's not weeding out, but appears to be self-selection. He said that he is unusually public about sharing his political views with colleagues and students, but that most professors don't do so. In hiring, he said, it may be true that some sub-fields of English -- like feminist theory or work to broaden the canon of literature -- may be seen as "progressive." But he said he wouldn't know the politics of a candidate in 18th century literature and that so many dissertations these days are so specialized that it would be impossible to predict politics.

Maybe the reason Republicans don't enter the field, he said, is "the low salaries of humanities professors."

Nelson said that the reason some scholars focus attention on the political leanings of humanities professors is in fact political. "It's about the future. It's about our students. It's about the kind of country that higher education can help shape. It's about the desire to establish the 1,000 year Republican reich," he said. "It's an effort to create in the public mind the notion that one should properly ask a candidate for a professorship: Are you now or have you ever been a registered Democrat?"

Others, however, say that these studies serve a valuable purpose. Peter W. Wood, executive director of the National Association of Scholars and one of the speakers at today's meeting, said he would never favor an ideological test or conservative affirmative action in faculty hiring. But Wood said that he hopes the studies prompt "a shiver of self-recognition" in academics who somehow manage to keep hiring people who think like themselves.

Wood said that he has seen too many talented, conservative academics who have been left in the "depths of despair" after they applied for job after job, only to be "denied at every turn." He said he knows dozens of such scholars and feels that there is an informal blacklist on them, and on others. In his own career, Wood said, he believes that he has been passed over because he worked for and admired John Silber, the former president of Boston University who had many a political clash in his career there. And Wood cited recent reports about accomplished scholars who are passed over in ways that raise questions to him and others about fairness.

"There's something real there," Wood said of the studies showing political imbalance.


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