American universities have leaned left for a long time. That is not a serious problem; as long as there are some non-leftists in every field and every department, we can assume that eventually, someone will challenge claims that reflect ideology more than evidence.
But things began changing in the 1990s as the Greatest Generation (which had a fair number of Republicans) retired and were replaced by the Baby Boom generation (which did not). As the graph below shows, in the 15 years between 1995 and 2010 the academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left. (The 12% in the red line for 2014 is mostly made up of professors in schools of engineering and other professional schools; the percent conservative for the major humanities and social science departments is closer to 5%).
HeterodoxAcademy.org was founded to call attention to this trend and the problems it is causing for scholarship, particularly in the social sciences and related fields (such as law and public policy).
1. What drives this? Is there much actual discrimination against conservatives in hiring and tenure decisions at universities? Or is the relative absence of conservatives in humanities and social science departments almost entirely driven by self-selection — is it instead the case that people who go into Ph.D. programs are majority liberal, and that people who graduate with Ph.D.s and who choose to go into faculty positions are (nearly) exclusively liberal?
2. Let’s say it’s driven by selection. Then why are progressives so much more likely than conservatives to get Ph.D.s? What is it about being a professor and doing research and teaching that are more attractive to liberals than conservatives? What is it about the university environment?
3. Is overwhelming liberalism among humanities and social science faculty actually a significant problem? Does it affect research and teaching in the social sciences and the humanities in a non-trivial way?
4. Are most faculty even aware that this situation exists?
5. What are the dynamic effects of this trend, if any? If we lose the conservative perspective in some disciplines, then do we lose important insights over a longer time horizon than a few academic years?
6. Dr. Krugman picked up the graph above when I put on Twitter and offered some thoughts of his own: “Overall, the evidence looks a lot more consistent with a story that has academics rejecting a conservative party that has moved sharply right than it does with a story in which academics have moved left.” To his point, I would argue that even if — if — professors haven’t moved left, it is still a problem that self-described conservatives are so thinly represented among university faculty. (In addition, “conservative” and “Republican” aren’t the same thing.) (My pal Tim Carney has other thoughts on his post.)
So I agree with HeterodoxAcademy.org that the lack of conservatives among humanities and social science faculty is problematic. It surely affects the research topics that are chosen by faculty, the research papers that are chosen for publication by the editors of academic journals, and — perhaps most importantly — the instruction of undergraduates. To be fair, university faculty engage in a lot of research that is an inch wide and twenty miles deep, and that doesn’t have a first-order political dimension. But that’s certainly not true of all social science and humanities research. And, in a broader sense, universities are supposed to be places of open debate, where all questions are fair game. How can you have that debate with nearly an entire social sciences and humanities professoriate that (essentially) doesn’t contain conservatives?
Yes, this is a problem. The extent to which this is a problem is a harder question. I would guess that the lack of conservatives has much more of an impact in the humanities than it does in the social sciences, and that it has much more of an impact in the other social science disciplines than it does in economics (the academic discipline that I know by far the best.) But economics surely is affected to some degree. And my sense is that this is a pretty big problem in some academic disciplines.
Diagnosing the problem is much easier than coming up with a solution. Affirmative action for conservatives in faculty hiring and promotion to tenure? I suspect that cure would be worse than the disease. I can confidently say that affirmative action for conservatives is a bad idea in economics departments. But what, then?
I suppose a good first step would be for more people — undergraduates, parents of undergraduates, faculties, deans, members of the intellectual class — to be aware of and concerned about the current state of affairs. Bravo, then, to Jonathan Haidt, Lee Jussim, Chris Martin, and the others at HeterodoxAcademy.org for raising the flag.