Is academe dominated by liberals? Most people think so. And why wouldn’t they? It’s what we hear all the time on social media, in newspaper and magazine articles, and even in academe itself. Conservatives routinely call out higher education’s “liberal bias,” and sometimes insist that something should be done to ensure that conservative voices are heard within the ivory tower.
Some 59 percent of Republicans now say that colleges have a negative effect on the country. Recently, this complaint went all the way to the White House, as President Trump announced his intention to re-examine universities’ nonprofit status, claiming that they are all about “Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education.” Back in the 1970s, the famous Powell memo called upon conservatives to develop think tanks to counter the liberal bias of American universities.
But is the claim true? Are conservatives underrepresented in academic life? The answer depends in part on how one defines “liberal.”
The most comprehensive study to date of American faculty politics found a much more centrist professoriate than is alleged in conservative discourse. In that 2006 study, the sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons found that some 44 percent of professors described themselves as “extremely liberal” (9 percent) or “liberal” (35 percent); 46 percent described themselves in centrist terms (18 percent as “slightly liberal,” 17 percent as “middle of the road,” and 11 percent as “slightly conservative”); 8 percent described themselves as “conservative” and 1 percent as “extremely conservative.” In other words, liberals outnumber conservatives, but the largest cohort of faculty — 46 percent — are moderates, spanning the terrain between center-left and center-right.
Political views vary by discipline. Gross and Simmons found the highest concentrations of conservative faculty in business and health sciences (25 percent and 21 percent respectively). Computer science and engineering have a high proportion of moderates (78 percent) with a symmetrical split of liberals and conservatives (11 percent each).
These disciplinary differences matter, because students are not uniformly distributed across the disciplines. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the two most popular majors are business and health sciences — the same fields with the highest concentrations of conservative faculty members.
Gross and Simmons also found that moderates outnumber liberals in every institution type except private liberal-arts colleges and elite Ph.D.-granting institutions. According to NCES data, just over 20 percent of students in the fall of 2015 were enrolled in private nonprofit colleges of any kind, including sectarian institutions. So again we find that a majority of students are being educated by a professoriate that is mostly moderate.
More recent data come from the Higher Education Research Institute, which administers an annual faculty survey that asks professors to characterize their political views on a five-point scale (far-left, liberal, middle-of-the-road, conservative, or far right). In the 2016-17 survey, 48.3 percent of faculty self-identified as liberal, and 11.6 percent identified as far left.
The HERI data are consistent with what Gross and Simmons found a decade before: About 60 percent of the professoriate are somewhere to the left of center and a minority are far left. The difference is that the Gross and Simmons study, in addition to asking detailed questions about political beliefs, used a more fine-grained seven-point scale, which allowed respondents — 18 percent of them — to identify in centrist terms as “slightly liberal.”
American faculty are certainly more liberal than the general public — even if generally less left-leaning than their counterparts in Denmark, Norway, Spain, and New Zealand. Social scientists have advanced a number of explanations for why professors, as a group, lean left. The most plausible is that professors reflect the demographic from which they come: Highly educated people with advanced degrees tend to be liberal. Sociologists have long known that higher education has a liberalizing effect on social and political views, especially on openness to racial and cultural diversity. The “educational differences between professors and other Americans,” Neil Gross observes, “go a fair way toward accounting statistically for the political gap between the two groups.”
Philanthropy is a game for winners. People for whom capitalism has failed do not generally have the money to fund institutes or to endow chairs.
The political leanings of professors are not markedly different from those of other highly educated occupational groups, such as journalists, social workers, or lawyers. In fact, professors are less left-leaning than some professionals: One recent study finds that technology workers and journalists are generally to the left of academics.
Whatever the reason for the link between liberal attitudes and advanced education, the professoriate is representative both of the pool of Ph.D.-holders from which it draws and of the population of highly educated Americans in general. For matters to be otherwise, universities would have to engage in affirmative action for conservatives. They would have to be biased against liberals.
Available data do not support claims that university professors are extremely leftist, that a majority of students are being educated by left-wing professors, or that academe is biased against conservatives. So why do so many people believe these claims? Commentary in right-wing media has hyperbolized the academy’s leftism, but a body of slapdash research on faculty politics has also misled the public. Influential conservative analysts, particularly researchers associated with think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and conservative academic centers like the Mercatus Center, have created a misleading impression of faculty political composition by producing studies rife with methodological errors.
Most obvious is their unrepresentative focus on elite, private, northeastern universities — institutions that educate only a small minority of undergraduates. Community colleges, theological institutions and seminaries, religiously affiliated or evangelical colleges, and military institutions are characteristically omitted from the analysis. But these are institution types that together educate millions of students every year: Community colleges alone educate more than a third of America’s undergraduate population. And these institutions tend to have far fewer left-leaning faculty than, for example, the Ivy League. Now, top-ranked institutions like Harvard and Princeton certainly exert disproportionate influence on higher education. But an account of faculty politics cannot focus on a handful of institutions (and a tiny percentage of students educated) and claim to offer a fair picture of the academic landscape. Elite institutions are by definition unusual.
The second problem with this body of research is a selective focus on humanities and social–sciences departments, and on subjects that often have explicitly political and normative orientations, such as women’s studies (a field that claims a tiny percentage of undergraduate majors). A widely hailed American Enterprise Institute survey, for example, compiled voter-registration data from 21 institutions, but assured a skewed outcome with a dubiously selective sample: Twenty-eight of the 94 instructors from its University of Texas sample came from women’s studies, and Harvard’s faculty of more than 2,000 was represented by 52 faculty from political science, sociology, and economics. These sampling issues have distorting effects.
A third and overarching problem is the use of voter-registration records as a measure of ideology. One characteristic study counted the number of registered Democrats and Republicans at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley — two elite institutions not representative of national higher education. (Surprise: many more Democrats than Republicans.) Party registration is not a useless metric, but it is a crude one. Political parties in the United States are institutionally weak, locally variable (a Democrat in West Virginia, say, might have very different views on coal than a Democrat in California), and cover limited ideological terrain.
Studies that look to party registration alone as a binary metric of a person’s political orientation have effectively erased moderates — as well as some libertarians and classical liberals — from the literature on faculty politics. For as the Republican Party has tacked right, increasing numbers of conservative and moderate faculty have grown estranged from it. As the political scientists Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn Sr. observe in their book Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University (Oxford University Press, 2016), conservative professors tend to be “small-c conservatives” who support limited government and free-market principles and “look askance at the populism that has shaken up the Republican Party in recent years.” These individuals may or may not be registered Republicans. Anecdotally, we know many scientists who have shifted their affiliations from Republican to independent in recent years because of the party’s position on climate change and other scientific questions.
Methodologically robust studies that include faculty from a wide range of disciplines and institution types, have a large sample size, and ask standardly worded questions, rather than relying on the blunt metric of party registration, yield far more modest results than the studies that claim to unmask professorial leftism. Conservative think tanks churn out methodologically flawed reports that seem to be designed to paint the academy as a political monolith, which suggests that this research has not been undertaken in good faith.
In fact, there has been a long-running conservative campaign to undermine the authority and stature of the American university, in part by casting it as a bastion of radically left-wing elitists.
In 1942, the Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote a brilliant but strange book called Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, in which he suggested that intellectuals were hostile to the capitalist order because their education had rendered them “psychically unemployable.” In the decades that followed, a new generation of right-wing activists intensified Schumpeterian claims about the fecklessness of intellectuals and their isolation from the “real” economy.
In the 1950s, William F. Buckley warned that “individualism is dying at Yale” — this despite the fact that if anyone was being driven out of academe for political reasons during the McCarthy era, it was leftists, not conservatives. It is revealing that Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) — the book which, as one proponent recently put it, “marked the birth of the modern American conservative movement” — was an attack on leftism in elite higher education. In the early 1960s, when the conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans declared a conservative “revolt” on campus — decrying Keynesianism and liberal conformity within the academy — the professoriate was still dominated by white men, and favorite targets of right-wing critics, such as women’s studies and African American studies, had not yet been invented. From the mid-20th century forward, the claim that intolerant leftists rule higher education has been a central trope of American conservatives.
Galvanized by fears of liberal professors indoctrinating students, midcentury conservative media activists focused their organizational efforts on the campus. In 1956 the National Review sponsored a campus contest offering students $100 for the two best documented pieces of evidence of “classroom indoctrination” by their professors. In 1962, Clarence Manion announced that his radio program, the Manion Forum, was going to “invade” campuses in order to advance “American, anti-Communist principles.”
By distributing free copies of National Review and Human Events on campuses, by placing books published by the conservative publisher Henry Regnery in college libraries, and by promoting conservative student organizations on the Manion Forum, conservative media activists sought to counter the campus’s alleged liberal bias with an overt bias of their own. The mission statement of Human Events captures the broader movement’s attitude toward objectivity and truth: “Human Events is objective; it aims for accurate representation of the facts. But it is not impartial. It looks at events through eyes that are biased in favor of limited constitutional government, local self-government, private enterprise, and individual freedom.” While sounding the alarm about leftist orthodoxy, these right-wing activists explicitly discarded impartiality as a value.
Today, the drumbeat for donations to combat the campus left continues. The Charles Koch Foundation — to name only the most prominent right-wing organization in the educational arena — gives tens of millions a year to colleges. The bulk of that money funds economics programs, sometimes with provisions attached demanding that teachings align with libertarian principles (as in the case of gifts made to Florida State University). Just this month, the Koch Foundation and other philanthropists gave Arizona State University $12 million to “redesign and restructure higher education” in the wake of Covid-19.
None of this is to say that such efforts are necessarily wrong — wealthy liberals give grants to universities, too — but it is to say that conservative voices are strong and well-funded on many college campuses, and particularly on the campuses that most students attend. Many right-wing donors, moreover, give funds with the explicit aim of advocating particular conservative approaches in teaching and research. What’s more: Philanthropy is a game for winners. People for whom capitalism has failed do not generally have the money to fund institutes or to endow chairs.
Left-wing campus movements have certainly been known to pursue silly or misguided ends. (Why professors — rather than activist students or overzealous administrators — are so routinely blamed for these alleged excesses, however, is something of a mystery.) With respect to faculty, a lack of internal dissent can lead to conformity, self-silencing, and a flight to the extremes. Groupthink is a real thing. We agree with conservative commentators that intellectual diversity — along with economic, cultural, religious, gender, and racial diversity — is important on campus. But the conservative claim that academia, writ large, is a hotbed of leftist groupthink is simply not supported by the evidence. On the contrary, the evidence supports the position that conservatives, resentful of losing out in the marketplace of ideas, have promulgated a pile of propaganda designed to undermine American support of intellectual life.
The problem is confounded by the fact that some “conservative” ideas, while perhaps sincerely held, are not supported by the standards of evidence that the academy rightly demands.
Self-identified conservatives and registered Republicans now routinely take positions at odds with factual evidence, rejecting evolutionary theory, rejecting the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, and now, in some regions of the country, rejecting public-health guidelines on Covid-19. For decades, conservatives demanded that public schools give equal time to creationism, a position consistently rejected by U.S. courts. Now some suggest we need to give equal time to climate-change denial. But the “conservative” position on climate change is refuted by an overwhelming body of scientific evidence, and has been for more than three decades.
And things get worse: America’s conservative wing has developed not just an oppositional politics but an oppositional epistemology.
Some conservatives, including conservatives in academe, have developed a sense of themselves as an oppressed or marginalized group, akin to gays and lesbians or Black people. One conservative professor interviewed by Shields and Dunn in Passing On the Right — described as a “prominent” scholar who “has achieved great stature in his discipline” — contends: “I am the equivalent of someone who was gay in Mississippi in 1950.”
Occasionally a further claim follows: that conservatives are epistemically privileged, able to grasp truths about the world that liberals cannot, such as the “discomforting facts” about sex difference or the “potential costs” of affirmative action (both examples suggested by Shields and Dunn). “Culturally conservative intellectuals see the world differently,” Shields and Dunn reflect.
This notion of conservatives as marginalized and thus epistemically privileged adapts — and perverts — Marxist and feminist standpoint theory. Marxist standpoint theory as developed by Georg Lukács held that workers, because of their social location, can correctly see whose interests are served by the capitalist system. Feminist standpoint epistemology similarly claims that some women — because they know firsthand what it is like to experience the world as women — are positioned to supply valuable perspectives that men have missed. To take an example from science: Our knowledge of sexual behavior in other species has been enriched by female scientists who have interpreted data on mating, parental investment, and sex roles in ways running counter to lazy assumptions about femaleness (such as the assumption that in mating, females tend to be passive) that long predominated in evolutionary biology.
Conservative standpoint theory follows a different pattern. It claims that conservatives, because of their situatedness, are able to see the truth about other groups: women, or Black people, or homosexuals, or transgender people. Conservatives are epistemically advantaged because they alone are immune to the politically correct fantasies that cloud the left’s capacity for thought. While liberals are enchained to fashionable dogma, conservatives are telling plain truths about race, gender, and the family that liberals wish to deny.
As academics, it behooves us to be receptive to ideas, open to evidence, and willing to listen. But we should not succumb to stereotype threat and rush to “remedy” a problem of liberal bias that exists primarily in the anxieties of some conservative commentators. And it certainly does not behoove us, as William F. Buckley famously exhorted, to stand astride history — or, for that matter, science — yelling, “Stop!”
This essay is adapted from an article published in Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective.