It is no secret that professors at American colleges and universities are much more liberal on average than the American people as a whole. A recent paper by two sociology professors contains a useful history of scholarship on the issue and, more important, reports the results of the most careful survey yet conducted of the ideology of American academics. See Neal Gross and Solon Simmons, ‚ÄúThe Social and Political Views of American Professors,‚Äù Sept. 24, 2007, available at http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~ngross/lounsbery_9-25.pdf (visited Dec. 29. 2007); and for a useful summary, with comments, including some by Larry Summers, see ‚ÄúThe Liberal (and Moderating) Professoriate,‚Äù Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 8, 2007, available at www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/10/08/politics (visited Dec. 29. 2007).) More than 1,400 full-time professors at a wide variety of institutions of higher education, including community colleges, responded to the survey, representing a 51 percent response rate; and analysis of non-responders indicates that the responders were not a biased sample of the professors surveyed.
In the sample as a whole, 44 percent of professors are liberal, 46 percent moderate or centrist, and only 9 percent conservative. (These are self-descriptions.) The corresponding figures for the American population as a whole, according to public opinion polls, are 18 percent, 49 percent, and 33 percent, suggesting that professors are on average more than twice as liberal, and only half as conservative, as the average American. There are interesting differences within the professoriat, however. The most liberal disciplines are the humanities and the social sciences; only 6 percent of the social-science professors and 15 percent of the humanities professors in the survey voted for Bush in 2004. In contrast, business, medicine and other health sciences, and engineering are much less liberal, and the natural sciences somewhat less so, but they are still more liberal than the nation as a whole; only 32 percent of the business professors voted for Bush--though 52 percent of the health-sciences professors did. In the entire sample, 78 percent voted for Kerry and only 20 percent for Bush.
Liberal-arts colleges and elite universities are even more liberal than other types of institution of higher education. In liberal-arts colleges, the percentages liberal, conservative, and moderate are 62 percent, 4 percent, and 35 percent, respectively; and in elite universities the figures are 44 percent, 4 percent, and 52 percent. Professors in the 26 to 35 year-old age range are less liberal and more moderate (though not more conservative) than older professors, which I attribute to those youngsters' having reached maturity after the collapse of communism. It is thus no surprise that only 1 percent of the young professors describe themselves as "left radicals" or "left activists," compared to 17 percent of those aged 50 or older.
The summary in the Gross-Simmons paper of the previous literature on professorial political leanings finds that, at least since the 1950s, American college and university faculties have been more liberal than the nation as a whole, but that the liberal skew is more extreme today than it was in the 1950s. This is my experience. Between 1955 and 1962 I was a student at Yale College in the humanities and then at the Harvard Law School, and neither the humanities faculty at Yale nor the Harvard Law School faculty was noticeably liberal (the former was actually rather conservative), and I mean by the standards of that era, not by today‚Äôs standards. Today both institutions are notably liberal, though the present dean of the Harvard Law School has been attempting with considerable success to make her faculty politically more diverse. The Gross-Simmons study notes that the liberal skew is not limited to the United States, but is found in Canada, Britain, and much of Continental Europe, as well.
The survey results raise two questions: What is the explanation for the results? And what are the consequences? I address only the first question.
There is nothing mysterious about the fact that the members of a particular occupational group should have a different political profile from that of the population as a whole. A 1999 survey of U.S. military officers found that 64 percent were Republican, 8 percent Democratic, and 17 percent independent. In contrast, a 2002 study found that 40 percent of journalists are liberal and 25 percent conservative--a breakdown similar to but much less extreme than that of professors.
The conservatism of military officers is easy to understand--conservatives are much more favorable to the use of military force, and to the values of honor, personal courage, discipline, hardiness, and obedience, which are highly prized by the military, than liberals are. And the liberalism of journalists probably reflects the tastes of their readers; in my 2001 book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, I found that the liberal-conservative split among public intellectuals (roughly 2 to 1) corresponded to the ratio of the circulation of liberal newspapers and magazines to the circulation of conservative ones.
It is tempting to conclude that the liberal bias of journalists and professors (especially in the humanities and social sciences) is the same phenomenon--the liberalism of the "intelligentsia," usefully defined by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as "intellectuals who form an artistic, social, or political vanguard or elite." But that just pushes the question back one step: why should an intelligentsia be liberal? Because intellectuals are naturally critical of their society, which in the case of the United States is rather conservative, or at least not "liberal" as academic liberals understand the word? That is not a satisfactory explanation, because a society can be attacked from the Right just as easily as from the Left. Some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the twentieth century attacked social, cultural, political, or economic features of their societies from the Right--think of Martin Heidegger, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. Today, in fields such as law, political theory, and economics, there is a vibrant conservative movment--the puzzle is why it is so distinctly a minority movement in the university world. Moreover, our college and university professors, especially those whose interests and background overlap most closely with those of the majority of journalists, appear to be markedly more liberal than journalists, the other major division of the intelligentsia.
One explanatory factor may be that colleges and universities select for people who are comfortable in a quasi-socialistic working environment. Virtually all colleges and universities in the United States are either public or nonprofit, there is usually salary compression within fields, tenure shields professors from the rigors of labor-market competition, and professorial compensation substitutes fringe benefits (such as tenure), leisure, and other nonpecuniary income for high salaries. The ablest academics generally have the highest opportunity costs--the brilliant chemist could get a high-paying job in the private sector, the brilliant law professor could make a lot of money as a practicing lawyer, and so forth--which suggests that the ablest academics attach especially great value to nonpecuniary relative to pecuniary income and hence are likely to feel especially alienated from a capitalist economy.
This may be one reason why elite universities are more liberal than nonelite ones. (The greater liberalism of liberal-arts colleges may just reflect the fact that such colleges employ fewer scientists and engineers, who are less liberal on average than professors in the humanities and the social sciences.) In addition, there is the curious but well-documented fact that Jews are far more liberal than their socio-economic standing would predict; they are also disproportionately found in the faculties of elite colleges and universities. Furthermore, conservatism is associated in many people‚Äôs minds with religiosity, and faculty in nontechnical fields in elite universities are rarely religious. Catholics and evangelical Christians are underrepresented in such universities. Professors who are conservative in matters of economics, crime control, and national security but liberal with regard to social issues such as abortion rights, homosexual marriage, and separation of church and state would hesitate to describe themselves as conservatives, and many would not vote Republican.
Another factor that may explain the liberal skew in the academy is political discrimination. Academics pick their colleagues, so once a department or school is dominated by liberals, it may discriminate against conservatives and thus increase the percentage of liberals. There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence of such discrimination, but the best test (though hard to "grade" in soft fields) would be whether conservative academics are abler on average than liberal ones. If conservatives are disfavored, they need to be better than liberals to be hired. Political discrimination is less likely to be prevalent in fields in which there are objective performance criteria, which may be why there is a smaller preponderance of liberals in scientific and technical fields.
Related to discrimination is herd behavior, or conformism. Despite their formal commitment to open debate, academics, like other people, do not like to be criticized or otherwise challenged. The sciences, well aware of this tendency, have institutionalized practices, such as peer review, insistence that findings be replicated, and high standards of logical and empirical rigor, that are designed to foster healthy disagreement. These practices are much less common in the humanities and the soft social sciences.
One response to discrimination or herd behavior favoring liberals in academic has been the formation of conservative think tanks; if their professional staffs were added to college and university faculties, the liberal skew would be less extreme, though the difference would not be great.
A further point also related to both discrimination and conformity bias is that once a field acquires a political cast, it will tend henceforth to attract as graduate students and thus as future professors students who share its politics, as otherwise (as Louis Menand pointed out in a comment on the Gross-Simmons study) the students may have difficulty surviving graduate school, obtaining a good starting job, and finally obtaining tenure.
My last point is what might be called the institutionalization of liberal skew by virtue of affirmative action in college admissions. Affirmative action brings in its train political correctness, sensitivity training, multiculturalism, and other attitudes or practices that make a college an uncongenial environment for many conservatives.
For all these reasons, although the weakening of left extremism in college and university faculties can be expected to continue, the liberal skew is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future.