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Liberals, arts, colleges

I happened to see a New York Times article about two recent studies of the Liberal Professoriate (working paper versions are available of the two, How Politically Diverse Are the Social Sciences and Humanities? Survey Evidence from Six Fields and How Many Democrats per Republican at UC-Berkeley and Stanford? Voter Registration Data Across 23 Academic Departments) shortly after seeing a Language Log piece called The "liberal professoriate"—not so fast. The Language Log article, by the way, is discussing different studies than the Times article; the criticisms of the one can only be applied to the other hypothetically. And I haven’t read the two articles, or examined the stats; it should be assumed, as always, that I’m talking through my hat.

Anyway, I think the whole question is interesting. I am convinced, more or less, that the professoriate (to the extent that it’s remotely appropriate to use such a word) is more ‘liberal’ than the population at large, and it seems from Prof. Klein’s work that faculties may be contain more Democrats by weight even than the surrounding area; even in Berkeley, I don’t think registration is 10 to one Dems over Republicans. I do think that a large portion of the situation is demographic. Colleges and Universities tend to be in urban centers; urban centers tend to be disproportionately liberal. People working as faculty tend to have advanced degrees; the group of people with advanced degrees is disproportionately liberal. Faculty members tend to think of themselves as working for non-profit organizations; such workers are disproportionately liberal. I suspect that many instructors feel that with their skills and talents they could be making more money if they chose to do something else, and that people who feel that way tend to be disproportionately liberal. I suspect that people who wind up in higher education view education as tremendously important; such people tend to be disproportionately liberal. So, profs as a group tend to be urban, post-baccalaureate, non-profit workers who have chosen to do something socially important rather than maximize income and who place a very high value on education; I suspect that any such group would be far more liberal than the general populace. Whether such a group would be eight or nine to one Democrats is certainly doubtful, but is a matter for speculation. At any rate, the mere existence of such a disproportion does not to me automatically imply bias in hiring and promotion. Such bias would be disturbing to me as interfering with the intellectual freedom of individuals, whereas a demographic explanation wouldn’t.

There’s another question, though, which is whether anybody should really be concerned. That is, whether the situation is organic or whether bias is involved, is it a bad situation when the range of political opinion amongst colleagues is so lopsided? Is that bad for collegiality, bad for students, bad for the workplace? Honestly, I don’t know. I do find it troubling, but I don’t know how much so.

As an example, I have a close friend who is a visiting assistant professor at a prestigious university. I don’t believe she has had many political conversations with the dozen or so faculty members in her department; I couldn’t say for sure how many voted Republican in the last election. I do assume that none of them did, which is bad socially, but that assumption is based more or less on the demographic explanation I outlined. More to the point, I don’t think anybody in the department would interfere with her career if it turned out she held views that were unpopular at the university but in the mainstream of the general culture (although I think someone who espoused eugenics or Red Brigade violence, say, would likely have a tough time getting recommendations). Further, although the content of her classes is necessarily affected by the same perceptions of the universe, habits of thought, and hierarchy of values that affect her political judgment, such content is constrained by academic habits. Thus, somebody who would be likely to teach with Queer Theory in mind is also likely to vote against Our Only President, but is also likely to teach about formalism, or New Criticism, or positivism, or whatnot, simply as a matter of academic integrity (which not everybody has, I know, but it seems to me pretty common). Would her department be better if it had more Republicans? Would it be better for students? For her?

My gut instinct is that it would be better, but not enough better to do anything about it. There are far worse things affecting collegiality, groupthink, deliberation, and other aspects of the far-from-ideal faculty; I think party politics is pretty far down the line. But I do understand the concern, and honestly if you ask me next year I may well have a different answer.

Oh, and I do think it’s important, in any story about higher education and party politics, to make it clear that for a generation the Republican party has wanted to decrease federal funding for higher education (and at least recently state funding as well) while the Democratic party has wanted to increase it. If the current conversation is what the Democrats are doing wrong in not persuading more people to vote for their candidate, then perhaps in discussing the political monoculture at universities, part of the conversation should be what the Republicans are doing so terribly wrong there.

Thank you,
-Vardibidian.