Liberal US academics keep their politics to themselves

Research reveals conservative fears of left-wing influence are unfounded

May 9, 2013

A sociologist has warned of “real dangers for the future of American higher education” in the widespread conservative perception that universities are “not just full of liberals, but promoting a liberal agenda”.

Neil Gross, professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, first became interested in “the way that politics and academic life are interlaced” in 2005 when he was working at Harvard University at the time that Lawrence Summers, then president, stirred up intense controversy for reportedly suggesting that men outperformed women in science because of biological differences.

“I remember walking into a faculty meeting past throngs of reporters,” he tells Times Higher Education, “and thinking it fairly remarkable that the outside world could be so interested in what, on some takes, were just academic matters.”

Equally striking was “the campaign by conservative activist David Horowitz for…an ‘academic bill of rights’ designed, in his view, to protect students from indoctrination”.

These two episodes were among the main spurs that led Professor Gross to embark on the research leading to his new book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? Although he concedes in the text that conservatives are “basically correct” in claiming that US universities are “a bastion of liberalism” in the sense that academics are “overwhelmingly Democrat”, there are also “many fewer radicals in the academic ranks than some conservatives charge”.

In investigating why the academy is left-leaning, Professor Gross made use of what is known as an “audit study”, sending out fake emails to directors of graduate studies from potential students that mentioned that they had worked on either the Obama or McCain 2008 presidential election campaigns.

Although the deception caused considerable irritation when it was revealed, the results showed little signs of bias and instead, he writes, offer “reasonably strong evidence that most social scientists and humanists in leading departments work hard to keep their political feelings and opinions from interfering with their evaluation of academic personnel”.

Far more plausible, in Professor Gross’ view, is the notion that specific historical factors encouraged the academy to tilt to the Left and that this has become self-perpetuating, with few conservatives applying for jobs in what they fear will not be a congenial environment.

But if there is little reason to believe in the academy’s left-wing bias, why has this idea become such a staple of conservative rhetoric?

In reality, as Professor Gross’ book makes clear, only one strand of US conservatism takes this line. While some right-wingers claim to believe that leading universities are now run by “liberal terrorists”, far more are queueing up to send their children to them.

“Criticism of the liberal professoriat emerged as a repeated line of attack,” explains Professor Gross, “because of its important rhetorical purpose of finding an elite to criticise.

“Although the majority of academics are on the Left,” he says, “most are also professionals and don’t try to browbeat their students with their politics, aiming simply to do good research and teach their field. I think we in American higher education could do a better job of conveying that to the public, reaffirming the professionalism of the professoriat at a time of budget stress.”

Neil Gross’ Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? is published by Harvard University Press.

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