Politics in the Universities

There has been a lot of play in the media recently about the so-called liberal tilt of university faculty. Let’s see what the actual numbers are. As far as I can tell, the most comprehensive and authoritative data comes from HERI (Higher Education Research Institute) based in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, which has been studying trends in higher education for a long time.

HERI’s 2001-2002 report on national norms for college teachers, finds that “34 percent of college and university faculty identify as “middle-of-the road” politically (down from 40 percent in 1989). Although the percentage of faculty identifying as “conservative” or “far right” (18 percent) has changed very little, the percentage identifying as either “liberal” or “far left” has grown from 42 percent to 48 percent”, compared to a previous survey in 1989.

It turns out that women faculty are more liberal than men. The report finds that “54 percent of women, compared to only 44 percent of men, identify as politically “liberal” or “far left.” In 2001, 21 percent of male professors and 14 percent of female professors defined their political views as either “conservative” or “far right.””

The report continues:

The latest survey involved 55,521 faculty and administrators at 416 colleges and universities nationwide. Of those, questionnaires from 32,840 full-time undergraduate teaching faculty at 358 institutions were used to compute the national norms. The numbers were adjusted statistically to represent the nation’s total population of approximately 442,000 college and university faculty.

So those are the numbers. What are we to make of them? Is this imbalance in political leanings a sign of blatant political discrimination in the hiring of university faculty?

(At this point I have to reiterate my own belief that the terms ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘Republican’, ‘Democrat’ have ceased to have much meaning in terms of defining coherent political philosophies, but since this discussion and the data are framed in those terms, I have little choice but to use them for this post.)

That conclusion of hiring discrimination does not follow automatically. For one thing, the word ‘liberal’ in university circles does not have the same meaning it has outside. A ‘liberal education’ is what universities strive to provide for their students. It is used in contrast to ‘vocational education’. To call someone a ‘liberally educated person’ is not to describe his or her political beliefs but to describe a person with breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding, as opposed to someone who has acquired a fairly specific set of knowledge and skills in order to perform a trade or profession. So the word ‘liberal’ has a fairly well-defined and valued meaning in universities, and one would expect people to want to identify with it.

Another point is that while it is true that universities have intense political struggles, they are based on parochial academic politics, and those divisions do not parallel national political splits. In academic departments the biggest battles over a new hire are likely to be based on field of study (in physics, it might be whether the department wants to grow the condensed matter field or the astrophysics field, or whether it should be a theoretician or an experimentalist) or rank (whether they want to hire a promising newcomer or an established star), and so forth. Similar battles occur in other departments.

These battles can be quite hard-fought, but leave little room for other considerations based on party affiliation and the like. Those are not considered important. The prestige of a physics department depends on the physics knowledge it produces, not on the ideological spectrum its faculty encompasses. No department is likely to hire an incompetent researcher to a rare and potentially lifetime appointment just on the basis of that person’s party political affiliation.

But if national political considerations are not the cause of this difference in political leanings in universities, what could be the cause? I am not aware of any studies that have looked carefully at this causal question. But people have been willing to speculate.

Jennifer Lindholm, associate director of the Higher Education Research Institute’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program and lead author of the faculty survey said: “The disproportionately greater shift we see toward liberal political views among women faculty may be attributable to their dissatisfaction with the Republican Party’s current position on issues that often impact women’s lives more directly such as abortion, welfare and equal rights.”

Writing in the New York Times on April 5, columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman points out that registered Republicans are almost as rare in the hard sciences and in engineering (where clues as to ones political affiliation are hard to discern) as in the social sciences, suggesting that the reasons lie with more subtle causes..

Krugman postulates that “One answer is self-selection – the same sort of self-selection that leads Republicans to outnumber Democrats four to one in the military. The sort of person who prefers an academic career to the private sector is likely to be somewhat more liberal than average, even in engineering.”

But the more serious charge that he levels is that the Republican party (and by association the conservative movement) are making themselves unappealing to academics by taking stands on issues that ignore evidence and that are anti-research. He pointed to a recent April Fools’ Day issue spoof editorial by Scientific American entitled O.K., We Give Up in which the magazine “apologized for endorsing the theory of evolution just because it’s “the unifying concept for all of biology and one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time,” saying that “as editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence.” And it conceded that it had succumbed “to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do.””

Krugman continues:

Scientific American may think that evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, but President Bush declares that “the jury is still out.” Senator James Inhofe dismisses the vast body of research supporting the scientific consensus on climate change as a “gigantic hoax.” And conservative pundits like George Will write approvingly about Michael Crichton’s anti-environmentalist fantasies.

Think of the message this sends: today’s Republican Party – increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be determined by revelation, not research – doesn’t respect science, or scholarship in general. It shouldn’t be surprising that scholars have returned the favor by losing respect for the Republican Party.

Krugman argues that such an anti-research message is unappealing to any academic (whatever their political stripe), and so it should be no surprise that academics are distancing themselves from it. When Dennis Baxley, a state legislator from Florida who has introduced in that state a bill similar to Ohio’s Senate Bill 24, cites professors who teach that evolution is a fact as a prime example of “academic totalitarianism”, he should not be surprised that serious academics start giving him a wide berth.

As I said in an earlier post, universities are ultimately reality-based communities, which depend on evidence as an essential part of their knowledge structure. Academics in any field respect that scholars in other fields also use evidence in reaching their conclusions. They may not know that field in any detail but they tend to respect the way scholars go about reaching their conclusions and know that they can back it up with evidence if called upon to do so. The fact that their conclusions are evidence-based does not make them infallible, of course, just that they are grounded in reality.

Academics also suspect that the people who are upset about biology professors teaching that evolution is a fact are closely aligned with those who think that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that Adam and Eve are historical figures. They suspect that the current attack on biology teaching is just the precursor to similar attacks on geology, physics, anthropology, archeology, and everything else that challenges a particular religious revelatory interpretation of the world.

Krugman argues that it should not be surprising that overtly linking such a world-view to a political movement should result in that movement losing ground in universities, even though it might be politically advantageous.

As I said, I don’t know of any studies that have examined the causal reasons for this seeming ideological imbalance, but Krugman makes a point that is worth considering seriously.

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