The Economist Tries to Mislead about Liberal Bias in Academia

Sumantra Maitra

Is there liberal bias in academia? According to The Economist, the planet’s preeminent and senior liberal publicationthe answer is no: “There is scant evidence to suggest that academic elites push a left-wing agenda onto their impressionable young pupils.” That definitive tweet links to an article that contains Harvard academic Shom Mazumder’s raw and unpublished data. From now on, willfully credulous journalists will cite The Economist’s article as an authoritative source which proves beyond doubt that there’s no liberal bias in academia.

The Economist’s article is misleading at best, and its specious claims need to be debunked.

The article begins with the figure that 64% of non-college-educated whites supported Donald Trump, as compared with 38% of whites with a university degree. It then links to a 2015 Pew survey that reveals that 24% of Americans with a university degree are very liberal, up from 5% two decades ago. So far so good. But then the article’s interpretation of the data gets dodgy:

Between 2010 and 2014, survey respondents were asked every year which political party they identified with. The share identifying as Democrats did not shift significantly between freshman year and graduation. Similarly, when asked about their political viewpoints, the share of students identifying as conservative changed little during their time at university. The same pattern held for questions about climate change, health care and immigration (see chart). This suggests that colleges simply attract students with pre-existing left-wing dispositions, rather than changing their ideologies once they arrive.

Now, this might prove that left-wing bias is ineffective, but it doesn’t prove that it doesn’t exist. Jenna Robinson, President of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, notes that,

This evidence doesn’t show that professors leave their politics and their opinions at the classroom door. It simply shows that students aren’t buying it. Recent student surveys show that a sizable number of students are afraid to speak up in class because they are in the political minority and afraid of their grades being affected by their politics. This shows that ideology does make it into the classroom. I’m glad that students are making up their own minds about political issues but I would rather the classroom not be political at all.

But even the argument that left-wing bias has no effect is unpersuasive. Consider that academics in higher-education are 44% liberal and 9% conservative—a substantial skew to the left compared with Americans as a whole, whose political alignment is 24% liberal, 35% moderate, and 37% conservative. This academic echo-chamber has disseminated a Star Chamber mentality into professions such as journalism, teaching, and law, which in turn has dug a gigantic ideological chasm between our professional elites and ordinary Americans. Academic left-wing bias further distorts every putatively neutral analysis of our country, as progressives facilitate infiltration of scientific disciplines by activists posing as academics, and politicized distortion of scholarships and funding, graduate student research subjects, and the broad range of research output.

Mitchell Langbert and Sean Stevens’ recent article underscores academic politicization. The ratio of Democratic to Republican registration—a sufficient proxy of academic political skew—has risen “from roughly 4.5:1 in 1999 … to 10:1 among elite liberal arts colleges and social science departments now.” And of course this skew matters. In January 2020, Yale University’s Art History Department cancelled its Western Art survey, despite high demand from students:

Decades old and once taught by famous Yale professors like Vincent Scully, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” was once touted to be one of Yale College’s quintessential classes. But this change is the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealized Western “canon” — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists.

Is there liberal bias in academia? We can test this hypothesis empirically—although I fear Harvard researchers and The Economist prefer misleading data and soothing tweets that tell us, Don’t believe your lying eyes. Identify the top two hundred colleges in Britain and America, and then subject their social sciences and humanities departments to an in-depth ethnographical analysis. This analysis should catalogue each professor’s research and syllabi, and include interviews with students about how the professors teach their subjects, and what the students say they have learned from these courses. Such a study will provide real evidence about the extent and the effect of our universities’ left-wing politicization.

Until we have such a study, trust your eyes rather than the siren tweets that tell us all is well.


Sumantra Maitra (@MrMaitra) is a Doctoral scholar, at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a senior contributor to The Federalist.

Image: Public Domain

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