Why Are Most College Professors Liberal? New Studies Investigate

Ashley Thorne

This week Neil Gross and his colleagues released two new studies analyzing clues as to why the majority of professors are politically liberal. They focus on graduate school. What sort of person goes to graduate school? Does a certain political orientation boost a person's chances of getting in? Of wanting to go in the first place? Peter Wood discusses both reports in articles at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog. In one study, which Peter called "well-intentioned" but "essentially worthless," the authors sent fake letters to graduate admissions officers expressing interest in attending the programs. Some letters mentioned working in either the Obama or the McCain campaign. Gross and his co-authors wanted to see whether these letters would get responses that indicated encouragement or discouragement according to which candidate was mentioned. The other study sought to analyze the reasons people have for seeking Ph.D.s. Peter wrote:

Why is the professoriate predominantly liberal? A. Because “There is an intrinsic link between liberalism and intelligence such that the more liberal views of those with advanced degrees reflect liberals’ greater academic potential.” [The liberals-are-smarter theory] B. “Because cognitive development occurs with additional years of schooling, leading the intelligentsia to find fault with what they see as simplistic conservative ideologies.” [The more-learning-makes-profs-liberal theory] C. Because the professoriate seeks a way to differentiate itself “from both the middle class and business elites.” [The profs-turn-liberal-because-they-resent-the-middle-classtheory] D. Because the entrenched liberals who dominate “knowledge work fields…refuse to hire colleagues with dissenting opinions.” [The liberals-are-biased-against-conservativestheory] E. Because “The professoriate acquired a reputation as a liberal occupation” and liberals today “acting on the basis of this reputation and seeking careers that accord with their political identities, are more likely than conservatives to aspire to become academics.” [The self-selection theory] F. Because conservatives are dogmatic and turn away from disciplines that require open-mindedness. [The liberals-are-more-open-minded theory] G. Because professors tend more than most Americans to reside in cities and have fewer children, which favors their embracing liberal political views. [The lifestyle-liberalismtheory] H. Because professors are, on average, less religious than other Americans, which corresponds with their being more liberal. [The grad-school-appeals-to-seculariststheory] I. Because conservatives are more materialistic and are drawn to private-sector jobs; while liberals, concerned more with their “sense of meaning,” are more likely to be drawn to academic work. [The conservatives-prefer-money-to-learning theory] This catalog of explanations is to be found in the first 11 pages of a new working paper by Ethan Fosse, Jeremy Freese, and Neil Gross, released yesterday. Their answer is an emphatic E. “Self-selection” in their view is the only answer for which they can find robust empirical support. If they are right, this should change one of the longest-running and often most bitter debates in contemporary higher education.

Peter concludes that self-selection by no means rules out the possibility of bias: "The most effective way to keep out a whole class of people who are unwelcome isn’t to bar entry, but to make sure that very few in that class will want to enter."

Image: Public Domain

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