"Why Professors Are Liberal": Explanation or Apologia?

Steve Balch

Attitudinal studies of the professoriate have a recurring preoccupation. Given the fact that academic opinion tilts heavily to the left, is there something sinister going on? Does the tilt mean that students are being subject to deliberate indoctrination? Is there a bias against conservative students in grading? Do conservative scholars suffer discrimination in hiring, promotion, and tenure? Or is the situation just one that any fair-minded observer would expect, a simple reflection of where the life-of-the-mind naturally leads?

There is something a bit odd about the centrality these questions have assumed. They’re not, of course, at all insignificant, but one might well think an even more important concern would be the purely educational consequences of the skewed spectrum. What is the value of the ideas that are getting slighted in the curriculum? What is lost in the rigor and depth with which all ideas are examined because so many serious ones never really get into the mix? How well are future generations being prepared to deal with complex problem-solving when they often get exposed to only one side of many contestable issues?

That these questions don’t generally come first and foremost says as much about the sensibilities of academe’s leaders as do their party loyalties or views on social policy. More than anything else, it reveals the extent to which their thought-world has been shaped by two historical episodes, and the moral meaning, as well as the particular defensiveness, that these have given to the academy’s concept of mission.

The first was McCarthyism with its accusation that fellow-traveling professors were using their classrooms to preach the party line. This was not just a rightwing fear. A good many on the democratic left, like activist philosopher Sidney Hook, worried that members of the Communist party could not be expected to make honest use of academic freedom. As a result, the charge of indoctrination has become one that the academy especially fears, particularly when so much teaching and scholarship has, in fact, taken on a partisan tone.

The second signature episode was the civil rights movement, which, following its momentous deliverance of equal rights to black Americans, proceeded to add to its agenda the grievances of a multiplicity of other groups, defined by ethnicity, gender, and lifestyle. In consequence, any form of discrimination, based on moral, cultural, or sometimes even intellectual considerations, be it only at the level of adverse judgment – as in “judgmentalism” – has come to carry academic risk, the word itself falling into bad odor. (A discriminating mind, once an unashamed goal of education, is no longer a virtue that can openly speak its name). Thus, charges of discrimination, even against a group like conservatives, defined by ideas that many academics think sub-par or downright discredited, retain a capacity to provoke defensive reactions from academicians for whom supreme moral virtue often appears to reside in never ever discriminating.

The upshot of all this has been a small spate of scholarship whose main purpose seems to be reassurance, in part to the general public, but in the main, I think, to the academy itself, that neither of these sins is being much committed. One of its leading practitioners is sociologist Neil Gross, formerly at Harvard, but now relocated to the University of British Columbia. In a 2007 working paper co-authored with George Mason Professor Solon Simmons, Gross attempted to argue, among other things, that there were many more ideological moderates within the academy than conservative critics had allowed, leaving their fears exaggerated. Last year, in another paper, Gross contended that despite their often intensely held political views, most professors took seriously the idea that they should neither reward nor punish students for their political opinions. (My observations on these earlier efforts can be read here and here.) His two most recent papers, one released in January and  the other in April, launch a whole new theory about why the professoriate has come to be dominated by the liberal/left. No, happily, not through discrimination, but via vocational “typing,” that is to say, by having acquired a reputation for being a professional community of which liberals should want to be a part, but conservatives not.

Patricia Cohen, covering the release of the first study for the New York Times, clearly knew which way to carry the interpretive ball. On the parallel between female typing in the nursing profession, and political typing in academe, she quotes Gross as saying that “Discrimination against male candidates may be a factor, but the primary reason for the disparity is that most people consider nursing to be a women’s career.” Developing this line further Gross floats the notion that conservatives may have largely themselves to blame for their lack of academic presence. Noting how William F. Buckley and other founders of modern American conservatism denounced academe’s liberal bias, Gross observes that “conservatives weren’t just expressing outrage…they were also trying to build a conservative identity” in opposition to the liberal establishment. “The irony,” Gross concludes, “is that the more conservatives complain about academia’s liberalism…the more it’s going to remain a bastion of liberalism.” Touché!

It’s hard to doubt that this political typing has occurred, even if the underlying reasons aren’t as consistently innocent as Gross supposes. Without question many conservative undergraduates of intellectual bent conclude that spending a professional lifetime in the close company of folks who swear by, rather than at, Katha Pollit and Michael Moore, won’t be much fun. And four years at one of America’s universities and colleges will surely make it abundantly clear that this is the fate awaiting them should they choose to attempt careers in the humanities and social sciences. Yet it would be surprising if they did not also conclude, with good reason, that the academic environment wouldn’t just be philosophically uncongenial but actively unfriendly – that the breadth and depth of the consensus ranged against them would likely translate into hostile professional treatment. Gross apparently believes that intellectually inclined conservatives who decide not to go into academe are deterred by little more than a self-defeating prejudice. He doesn’t recognize that those on the academic left who have confused the academic and political vocations bear a very heavy responsibility for having created it. Don’t sociologists know better than to blame the victim? Guess not.

Despite the predictable spin, the January study (again with a co-author, this time Harvard Ph.D. candidate Ethan Fosse) has nothing to do with the kind of micro-analysis that might reach the issue of discrimination, or anticipated discrimination, versus mere antipathy, though they cite some other studies on this point. What it does instead is try to explore why the academy is liberal by comparing its social and economic makeup to American society as a whole. Although several types of statistical operations are undertaken, the basic approach is to assess the degree to which various factors are, ceteris paribus, associated with liberal attitudes among the general public, and then show that these qualities are disproportionately characteristic of professors. (For this purpose Gross and Fosse draw upon the General Social Survey, a vast pool of data collected between 1974 and 2008 within which a subset of 326 academics were separated out for comparison.)

Various purported explanations for academic liberalism are shot down. Since some of these draw upon sociology’s favorite sets of conceptual chestnuts their disconfirmation may comprise the study’s most provocative (for sociologists, at least) conclusions. Thus, the class background of professors, their frequent status as public employees, and their putative preference for “meaningful” over financially rewarding work, explain little of their liberalism. Family size and urban residence are implicated only to a modest extent.

The positive findings (to quote the study’s conclusion) are these: “professors are more liberal because they have advanced educational credentials, exhibit a disparity between their levels of education and income, have distinctive religious profiles, and express greater tolerance for controversial ideas.” Taken together, all four of these hypothesized predictors accounted for about 43% of the variance in political opinions between academics and non-academics.

Unfortunately, there’s more than a trace of circularity buried within these insights, probably explaining why Gross and Fosse are finally driven to the “typing theory,” the apotheosis of circularity. To be told that 19.8% (the biggest single portion) of the liberalism gap between professors and others is explained by their possessing advanced degrees, is, for all intents and purposes, to say that professors are more liberal because they have been more attracted to and influenced by… professors. I wouldn’t argue with that, but I can’t say that it leaves me feeling I’ve attained a much more profound appreciation of roots of academic liberalism.

Another 14.7% of the attitudinal spread is accounted for by religious differences, professors being more likely to have no religious affiliation, or be Jewish, or belong to a non-conservative Protestant denomination. Here at least an academically extraneous factor is being cited. Nonetheless, one wonders the extent to which it might involve another of those cases of self-selection – slightly disguised – that the authors make so much of, feedback based on what academe, for the most part, already is, and who it attracts, rather than a genuinely independent cause. A separate analysis of conservative Christian college faculties, for example, would probably invert many of these relationships, allowing one to explain their (likely) greater social conservatism on the basis of having more traditional religious believers in their midst. In this context, it’s worth recalling that for a long time universities were more, not less, religious than the ambient culture, with clerics and would-be clerics making up a large part of their faculties and student bodies. Treating the irreligion of the contemporary university as a kind of dependent variable thus seems a tad shallow, ignoring more interesting questions about its historical roots.

Next comes the so-called “Bourdieu status inconsistency variable,” named after French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, which derives, in a simplified form, from his hypothesis that occupations whose status is relatively high, but income relatively low – or, to put it another way, in which income is lower than prestige – should look askance upon the capitalist order. This “envy theory” cashes out, explaining almost 13% of the academy’s liberalism. The authors, however, express some skepticism as to whether this rather unflattering explanation should be taken at face value, or whether it merely reflects the possibility that many status-inconsistent jobs happen to attract liberals – yet another reciprocating interaction.

But I think that there is an even deeper difficulty. There are relatively high status/low income professionals, at least in the eyes of the public if not always those of professors, whose outlook is strongly conservative: police, for instance, and career military personnel. What’s decisive may therefore be less status differential per se than what the members of the occupation in question believe to be their due, which can significantly vary. In America police and soldiers have a service ethic that accepts a degree of functional subordination. Professors, by contrast, are more likely to regard themselves as stewards, custodians of skills, knowledge, or visions that can uplift others. The significance of the status/income tension may depend on the intervention of self-images of this kind, putting existing professional zeitgeist at the heart of the matter.

I’m not altogether convinced by the authors’ claim to have explained 10.3% of professorial liberalism on the basis of professors’ greater tolerance for “controversial ideas,” as evinced by a willingness to acknowledge the right of racists and militarists to “speak, write, or have a book in a library.” (The questions were taken from an earlier [much] tolerance scale where the toxic categories were “communists” and “homosexuals,” with the substitutions meant to prevent the professors giving answers governed more by their ideology than genuine tolerance.)

There is an obvious problem with this inference. The authors’ supposition simply doesn’t square with the current realities of campus life where the pressures on dissent are conspicuously greater than they are in the larger public square. When students protesting discrimination, like those sponsoring “affirmative action bake sales,” are denounced as racists and subject to official harassments, when “militarists” like the ROTC are run off our most prestigious campuses, it is mainstream, not just “controversial” ideas, that are falling under the ban.

Times-woman Cohen informs us that whereas previously “arguments have relied on anecdotes,” Gross and Fosse are finally providing us with “data.” So, do I believe that the “data” in this respect trump the encyclopedia of anecdotes that tell a very different tale? Hardly. What I suspect instead is that professors comprehend the need to give ideologically consistent answers, and if they understand the ACLU to think that the First Amendment requires that Nazis march through Skokie, they’re duty bound to likewise affirm the Nazis’ right to speak on campus – at least within the anonymity provided by a questionnaire. If that’s true this purported explanation of political liberalism is but one more indicator of it, not the measure of deep-seated psychological broadmindedness that Gross and Fosse believe it to be.

In his most recent paper Gross (and graduate student Catherine Cheng), report interviewing sixty-six professors, more or less equally distributed among the fields of sociology, English, biology, economics, business, and engineering, in hopes of discovering when each formed his or her political views – the typing/self-selection hypothesis predicting that these should crystallize prior to professional entry. Later crystallization, they imagine, would be more suggestive of socialization than self-selection, perhaps even an indirect indicator of conversion pressure on those with untypical views.

Their respondents’ replies, they believe, lend further support for self-selection, most having reported that their political views were formed prior to reaching twenty-five. In the more politically relevant fields, only 7.1% of the sociologists and 35.7% of the English professors confessed to their outlook still being in formation after that age. (50% of the generally more conservative economists reported their views in flux past that point.)

Of course, twenty-five is not really all that early in one’s academic career. For most aspiring scholars it is well after their entry into graduate school, the key decision point in charting their professional careers. They’ve certainly by then had a chance to receive a full dose of academic liberalism at the undergraduate level, especially in domains like sociology and literature. (The more perceptive will have begun picking up on this in high school). And the numbers of those remembering their ideologies as works-yet-in-progress between eighteen and twenty-five is not at all inconsiderable – 69.2% of those in sociology, and 88.9% of those in English. As a matter of fact, more than a third of those who ended up liberal cited their experiences as undergraduates as in some way formative, one of the sociologists putting it this way, “When I got to college and I started learning the way things are, I felt betrayed. I felt that the people who were running the country didn’t actually believe in the stated purposes of the U.S. Constitution of the government or anything. So I went into sociology.”

Gross and Cheng further observe that with respect to undergraduates more become politically engaged through activist peer networks than via the mentoring of professors. No doubt. But patterns of student activism are hardly unrelated to overall institutional climate, heavily shaped by its permanent occupants. They also wonder why, if conversion, or heaven forbid, discrimination/deterrence, were significant causes of professorial liberalism, ideological skewing is also notable in non-political fields like the natural sciences? But in fact, ideological skewing is a good deal lower in the natural sciences than in the humanities and social sciences, where we would expect politicization to be more acute. Gross’ data yield a ratio of 5.8/1 between the percentages of liberals and conservatives in the natural sciences, not too far from the 4.4/1 ratio found in Rothman, Lichter, and Nevittes’ slightly earlier data for mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and geology. The latter, however, also found ratios of 13.6/1 in the humanities (philosophy, English, and history), and 9.5/1 in the social sciences (sociology, political science, psychology, and geography – minus the outlier discipline of economics where the ration was only 1.4/1.) Explanations of professorial liberalism, including that of political typing, might thus be better applied to particular fields than to the academy as a whole, notwithstanding the presence of global effects.

The authors admit that discrimination against conservatives must sometime occur, but deploy their analytic ingenuity, and a goodly dose of rhetorical spin, against the likelihood of its being a particularly serious problem requiring particularly determined solutions – the latter becoming most evident in Professor Gross’s encounters with sympathetic members of the press. His breach of the generally sacrosanct Blame-the-Victim taboo in explaining underrepresentation is probably the most startling feature of his Grey Lady interview. But the spinning continues in the more modest journalistic setting of Inside Higher Education, where, explaining the findings in the April study, Gross opines (as paraphrased by IHE editor Scott Jaschik) “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.” And then (here a direct quote) “the clear implication of this line of thinking is that for folks really concerned about closing the [political] gaps, the efforts should be on mentoring young conservatives, encouraging them to enter academia, and no longer demonizing academia.”

One can only shake one’s head in wonder at the astounding ahistoricity of this. How much of the complaint from those concerned about the ideological monoculture of contemporary academe has exceeded in harshness the repeated denunciations of “institutional racism and sexism” that characterized campaigns for other forms of inclusion? And while mentoring was certainly available for the beneficiaries of these campaigns, there were also sit-ins, lawsuits, pressure from government watchdogs, “opportunity hires,” recruitment targets, balanced candidate pools, diversity officer oversight, memos from deans, helpful advice and veiled, and not-so-veiled warnings to search committees. All this, in most cases outside the South, without any compelling evidence of actual discrimination – indeed against a great deal of evidence of good will from faculties already imbued with the classic liberal understanding that racial and sexual discrimination were profoundly wrong. Of course the same patterns of professional reproduction, and feedback loops of expectation, could have been (and were) then cited in academe’s defense, as Gross and his collaborators do now. But the remedies advised and followed were never limited to his milquetoast.

Gross believes that direct discrimination accounts for little of the underrepresentation of conservatives in academe. Undoubtedly he’s right, though the discrimination that occurs is still important as both symptom and sign. He’d also like to show that the indirect, deterrent effects of ideological asymmetry are limited. To scotch that possibility, however, he would have to do something not yet hazarded – find out why conservatives with scholarly potential drop out of the academic supply chain. Gross recognizes this, but doesn’t have the relevant data.

In any event, the challenge facing the contemporary academe is not one of achieving a proportional representation of opinion, but of enough intellectual diversity to educate well, and keep the proponents of all academic viewpoints on their intellectual toes. That’s a threshold we’re very far from having reached. Without denying the virtues of mentoring – or the vices of the bean counting now widely insisted upon with respect to ethnic and gender diversity – it will never be reached in the absence of a renewed academic commitment to intellectually pluralistic ideals and the dedication of substantial institutional resources to fulfilling it.

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