When Professors Get Their Politics

April 5, 2010

Theories abound about why academics are more liberal than are average citizens. Some blame bias, arguing that conservative scholars are denied positions. Others see self-selection at work, with academe attracting more liberal individuals, while conservatives are more likely to opt for other careers. Still others see some sort of socialization going on in graduate programs or early faculty careers, such that the young academic emerges on the left. And there are numerous other theories.

One of the leading scholars on the issue has just finished a series of in-depth interviews designed as a preliminary test of the self-selection theory -- and the resulting research finds that academics tend to form their political views early in life, backing some theories (including self-selection) but not others.

The research, by Neil Gross, associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, and Catherine Cheng, a graduate student there, will appear next year in Diversity in American Higher Education: Toward a More Comprehensive Approach, a collection edited by Lisa Stulberg and Sharon Weinberg and being published by Routledge.

Gross was the co-author (with Ethan Fosse, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Harvard University) of a much-discussed study released in January that argued in new ways for the self-selection theory to explain faculty politics.

In that study, Gross and Fosse noted that some demographic and personal characteristics of professors explain why they are more likely than others to be liberal. For example, professors are more likely than others to have high levels of educational attainment, to experience a disparity between their levels of educational attainment and income, to be either Jewish, non-religious, or members of a faith that is not theologically conservative Protestant, and to have a high tolerance for controversial ideas. While these trends may explain some of the differences politically between academics and others, Gross and Fosse also argued that faculty work may now be "politically typed" in a way that attracts more faculty members from the left than the right -- and that this typing may explain the rest of the gap.

In their January paper, they acknowledged that more work would be needed on their theory, and the latest study is a step in that direction -- focused on whether there are common patterns concerning when academics develop a firm political philosophy. The thinking is that a finding that professors tend to develop their politics when they go on the job market, or after tenure, or early in life would point to different explanations for the political make-up of professors.

For the new study, Gross and Cheng analyzed in-depth interviews with 66 professors -- in the fields of biology, business, economics, engineering, English and sociology -- about the development of their political identities. The prompt for the interviews was: "Could you please tell me the story of how you came to form your political views?” While the authors acknowledge potential problems with "retrospective" analysis by research subjects, they note that the patterns were strong, and that they view their study as a starting point for further research.

In all, they found that 71 percent of the interviewees (and 81 percent of liberals) formed their political views early in life -- in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood (by 25). Only in engineering and economics -- notably disciplines that tend not to have as large a liberal share as others -- were less than half of respondents not reporting an "early political socialization."

While the professors varied in whether they gained their views as children or undergraduates, there was a clear finding, Gross and Cheng write: "Most professors, especially liberal ones, claim that their politics were formed in the main before they became professors."

Such a finding, they write, is "in tension with the class politics and professional socialization" theories of explaining professorial politics, they add. "If the liberal politics of professors were a direct function of the disjuncture between their high levels of cultural capital and modest levels of economic capital, we would expect most to have fairly typical American political views growing up and in college, and begin veering significantly left only after they were well into their academic careers, at which point it might become apparent that they were members of a dominated group and that their economic interests favored redistributionism and cultural distancing from the business classes."

Similarly, they write, the "professional socialization" explanation would require "political views to take shape primarily during graduate school as promising students move toward becoming professors."

While the finding of early political socialization could bolster the theory of self-selection, Gross and Cheng acknowledge that -- by itself -- it could also support the theory of bias. After all, if faculty search committees or graduate advisers are thought to favor liberals over conservatives, people would have to be liberal or conservative at the point of initial hire or in graduate school.

Gross and Cheng write that their research alone does not disprove that theory, but they cite other studies and facts that lead them to favor self-selection as the explanation. "First, relative to the U.S. population, liberals are vastly overrepresented in the ranks not just of social scientists and humanists, but of physical and biological scientists as well," they note. "For most natural science fields -- though not all -- it is hard to understand how applicants could be judged on the basis of their politics, since their work products are typically devoid of what most people would regard as political content, and since natural scientists report that politics rarely come up informally during job interviews."

Second, they note that earlier, broad surveys of faculty members have found that overwhelming majorities do not believe politics should be considered in hiring decisions. "That certainly does not mean there is no discrimination against conservatives in academia, but it raises the question of whether there could realistically be enough to explain the extreme patterns of political lopsidedness one finds there," Gross and Cheng write.

If follow-up studies confirm their view that faculty members align politically early in life and that self-selection explains the political leanings of faculty members, the finding could challenge the tactics of those who are bothered by the political imbalance in some departments, and particularly the tactics of trying to regulate change through requirements of "balance" in the curriculum or through lots of academe-bashing.

In an interview, Gross said that conservatives who want to see more conservative professors may need to engage in the same kinds of activities that female and minority scholars have used with success to diversify the professoriate in terms of race and gender.

"I think the clear implication of this line of thinking is that for folks really concerned about closing that [political] gaps, the effort should be on mentoring young conservatives, encouraging them to enter academia, and no longer demonizing academia," he said. When conservative activists write constantly that academe is hostile to conservatives, he said, the potential academic whose political views are already formed (to the right) may self-select another career, adding to the lopsidedness that so bothers some on the right.

What conservatives should consider, he said, is the "same thing" that has been tried to get more women into math and science. "Part of it is making sure that this isn't overt discrimination, but part of it is mentoring and changing cultural attitudes."

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