Imaginary Moderates: An Academic Report Boomerangs

Steve Balch

Back in the fifties, Mad Magazine did a memorable cartoon spoof of "B" Westerns. Embattled cowpokes huddle behind wagons while blazing away at attacking Indians. Suddenly, what seems a bugle sounds faintly and the clatter of hoofs is heard from afar. "It's the cavalry", shouts one joyous defender. Cut to final frame: A trampled man, riddled with arrows, is gasping out glumly, "no, just more Indians".

The Social and Political Views of American Professors, a working paper released last week at a Harvard symposium by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, is being vigorously spun by its authors as a new, sophisticated take on the intellectual alignments of American academe, undercutting exaggerated claims by conservatives of liberal/left hegemony. But if defenders of the academic status-quo expect Gross and Simmons's discoveries to rescue them from the Indians, they're in for a crushing disappointment. The report shows that just as the critics have been saying -- higher education is overwhelmingly dominated by the left. Although Gross and Simmons's central finding is the purported presence of a large group of moderate professors who -- presumably -- dampen the influence of campus "liberals" (a label the authors consistently prefer over "radicals" and leftists", on one occasion going so far as to refer to a subgroup as "liberal radicals"), in point of fact, their data largely replicate the patterns of philosophical and partisan asymmetry found by previous "conservative" researchers. Gross and Simmons attempt to interpret all this away by some fancy conceptual shuffling, but they still come up with the same cards.

Perhaps Gross and Simmons were counting on people listening to their patter rather than looking at their data. Numbers put a lot of folks to sleep, but if you keep one eye open, these numbers tell a remarkable tale.

Take, for example, their claim that there is a "moderate" bloc comprising 46.6% of the sample, which is bigger than the 44.1% they classify as "liberal", and the 9.2% they call "conservative". Examined more closely, it turns out that this claim depends on a methodological sleight-of-hand. Gross and Simmons produce their "moderates" by taking seven survey-elicited ideological self-designations, "extremely liberal", "liberal", "slightly liberal", "middle-of-the-road", "slightly conservative", "conservative", and "very conservative", and lumping the two "slightlys" with the "middle-of-the-roaders". But is this composite category actually made up of "moderates"? When Gross and Simmons report how the seven original categories distribute themselves according to a multi-issue policy scale, it turns out that all but the self-designated "conservatives" and "very conservatives", fall to the left of the scale's center. Worse yet, the "slightly liberal", are actually closer on the scale to the "liberals" and "extreme liberals" than they are to the "middle-of-the-roaders" with whom Gross and Simmons lump them. (On the 1 to 5 scale, the score for the "liberal/extremely liberal" group is 1.4, that of the "slightly liberals" 1.7, that of the "middle of the roaders" 2.2, and that of the "slightly conservative" 2.8. Only the "conservatives and very conservatives" actually fall to the right of the scale's midpoint at 3.7.)

Something similar to this data gerrymandering also occurs in the analysis of professorial partisanship and voting behavior. The authors report the existence of a sizeable "Independent" bloc representing 35.8% of their sample, with the Democrats constituting 50.3% and the Republicans, 13.9%. But when Gross and Simmons report on the 2004 presidential vote, it becomes evident that whoever these "independent" professors may be, they don't divide their support with anything like partisan evenhandedness -- Kerry's share of the overall vote standing at 77.6%, with Bush's at 20.4%.

In both cases, Gross and Simmons proceed as if self-labeling among professors takes place in the same way that it would amid the general public. But that's far-fetched. A professor only a tad left of center, given the environment in which he moves, might well think himself "slightly conservative", but it is misleading for a researcher to assume him so in any more global sense. Likewise, a radical academic plaguing both parties' houses might still define himself as an "independent".

Like their "conservative" predecessors, Gross and Simmons find the attitudinal and partisan asymmetries to be substantially greater in the humanities and social sciences (especially the latter) than elsewhere in the university. With respect to institutional type, they find the faculties at liberal arts colleges and elite Ph.D. granting institutions to be more liberal than those at less prestigious establishments. What they again fail to draw out is the proper significance of these facts. Yes, the health sciences, computer science, and engineering are less liberal than the social sciences and humanities, but it is in the latter, not the former, that the transmission of political and cultural attitudes mainly occurs. Yes, community college faculties have more conservatives than do those of liberal arts colleges and elite universities, but it is in the latter, not the former, that "respectable opinion" gets formed.

Gross and Simmons do report interesting answers to some hitherto unasked survey questions, but far from dispelling illusions about the left's ideological hegemony, these only add extra dimensions to our understanding of its strength. For example, professors supporting Kerry participated more actively in the 2004 presidential campaign and were generally more demonstrative about their allegiances than were Bush supporters. Thus, 42.7% of non-Bush partisans sported a campaign button or bumper sticker, as opposed to only 11.8% of the Bushites, and though 9.3% of the non-Bush voters admitted to advertising their presidential preference to their classes, only 2.7% of the Bush voters did the same. Moreover, a full 26.2% of humanities professors and 20.6% of those in the social sciences considered themselves "activists", while 19% of humanities professors and 24% of social science professors thought themselves "radical". Among humanities professors 5%, and among social science professors 17.6% (!), were designated by the authors as "Marxists". (The authors profess to be unimpressed by this Marxist presence, dismissing Marxists as "rare in academe today". But this "rarity" -- the figure for the entire sample is 3% -- depends upon according equal significance to Marxism among computer science/engineering faculties, where it's 0.7%, and among sociology faculties, where it's 25.5%.) Finally, a whopping 59.5% of the sample thought that anti-war professors should be allowed to express their views in class. (David Horowitz please call your office!)

These figures clearly demonstrate that the ideological asymmetry of academe is not just a matter of numbers but of intensity as well. Conservatives are generally passive, while liberals and leftists are mobilized, committed, and vocal. A large numerical advantage is thus further magnified by leftist energy and lack of self-restraint.

There are also a few softening tidbits. Only the barest majority of the sample supports affirmative action in admissions (generally supporting the findings of several earlier NAS sponsored studies that were received with great skepticism), and 68.8% agreed with the statement that "the goal of campus diversity should include fostering diversity of political views among the faculty". The authors also make much of the fact that the youngest cohort of academics is more moderate -- although not more conservative -- than are the baby-boomers. (The respective figures are 60% versus 42.7%, and 7.5% versus 7.9%.) This is believable, but what was said earlier about how the study defines "moderate" should be kept in mind. There are also some interesting breakdowns of professorial attitudes according to sex and class origins.

Gross and Simmons regard themselves as bringing scholarly dispassion and methodological rigor to a field sullied by the polemical, sloppy, or incomplete studies of tendentious conservatives. It is therefore strange that except for the inventive relabeling of categories, their findings differ so little from the research they criticize. What's new in the study, particularly the data touching professorial activism, will only fortify the "conservative" case. And what the study reaffirms now has an unimpeachably non-conservative provenance. Because of this and despite the spin, the paper is only likely to strengthen the hand of those striving for more intellectual pluralism in academe. If this is the cavalry, it's being led by General Custer.

Stephen H. Balch
National Association of Scholars

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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