Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Professors And Politics: What The Research Says

Following up on my previous posts (links below):  Inside Higher Ed, Professors and Politics: What the Research Says:

When Betsy DeVos on Thursday accused liberal faculty members of trying to force their views on students, the new education secretary infuriated many professors — and won praise from some conservatives. Most faculty members who weighed in on social media denied the indoctrination and unfairness charges. While not disputing her assertion that they are more likely than others to be liberal, they said it was unfair to say that this meant they were indoctrinating anyone. Many conservatives who applauded DeVos said their personal experiences (or those of their children, nieces, nephews, etc.) showed she was correct.

For all the back-and-forth of traded anecdotes, there is research on these subjects — in peer-reviewed articles, books published by scholarly presses and so forth. And most of these studies reach a consensus.

Yes, professors lean left (although with some caveats). But much of the research says conservative students and faculty members are not only surviving but thriving in academe — free of indoctrination if not the periodic frustrations. Further, the research casts doubt on the idea that the ideological tilt of faculty members is because of discrimination. Notably, some of this research has been produced by conservative scholars.

Are Professors More Liberal Than the Public at Large?
The most complete study of the politics of professors is 10 years old.  ... The study was called "The Social and Political Views of American Professors" and it was based on a survey of 1,417 full-time faculty members. Among the key findings:

  • Faculty members were more likely to categorize themselves as moderate (46.1 percent) than liberal (44.1 percent). Conservatives trailed at 9.2 percent. ...
  • The professors approaching their emeritus years were significantly to the left of those coming into academe. Among those aged 50-64, 17.2 percent identified themselves as left activists, while only 1.3 percent of those aged 26-35 did so. ...

What Have Other Studies Found?
Research since the 2007 study largely confirms the idea that faculty members at four-year colleges and universities (the focus of these studies) lean left. But here, too, studies find differences when looking at different groups. A 2016 study published in Econ Journal Watch considered voter registration of faculty members in selected social science disciplines (and history) at 40 leading American universities. The study found a ration of 11.5 Democrats for every Republican in these departments, but with wide variation. In economics, the ratio was 4.5 to one, while in history the ratio was 33.5 to one.

Another 2016 analysis of faculty members at four-year colleges and universities found that political leanings of faculty members are lopsided, but far more lopsided in New England. The analysis, based on 2014 data, found that nationally, colleges and universities had a six to one ratio of liberal to conservative professors. In New England, the figure was 28 to one. ...

Does the Academy Shut Out Conservatives?
So if academe is lopsidedly liberal, does this demonstrate that search committees must be discriminating against candidates they perceive as conservative?

There are some anecdotes that suggest cases of discrimination. In her book Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping (Harvard University Press 2016), Julie R. Posselt, assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, was able to watch elite graduate program deliberations on admissions. In one case she describes in the book, an applicant to a top linguistics Ph.D. program was a student at a small religious college unknown to some committee members but whose values were questioned by others. “Right-wing religious fundamentalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “supported by the Koch brothers.” The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant's GRE scores and background -- high GRE scores, homeschooled -- than it did with some other candidates. The chair of the committee said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and, to laughter from committee members, asked, “You don't think she's a nutcase?” At the end of this discussion, the committee moved the applicant ahead to the next round but rejected her there. ...

Does Political Imbalance Make Life Difficult for Conservative Students?
DeVos and others suggest that the liberal dominance must make life difficult for students who have other political views of the world. Again, the evidence suggests a much more nuanced reality, and one in which many conservative students thrive. ...

Can Professors on the Right Succeed?
A recent book based on interviews with conservative professors and a national survey both suggest that faculty members who are Republicans are succeeding and finding happiness in academic careers [Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University (Oxford University Press 2016)]. ...

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I'm recently retired from an elite public administration program at a major university. I was on the faculty for over four decades and I would be hard-pressed to identify the political affiliation of many more than one-third of my colleagues.

Posted by: mike | Feb 28, 2017 7:03:14 AM