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Tilting Left

by Robert VerBruggen

Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, by Neil Gross (Harvard, 400 pp., $35)

The question is not whether college professors are liberal. That much is certain, as one can ascertain by asking any college graduate — or consulting reams of survey data. The gap between professors’ political views and those of the general population is especially dramatic in the fields in which one would expect it to be, such as the social sciences.

The much more interesting question is why college professors are liberal, and sociologist Neil Gross has studied it for years. His results are worth considering, even if the book in which he presents them will grate on right-leaning readers from time to time.

The leading theories as to why professors lean left are not satisfactory. For example, many conservatives allege that there is discrimination at various points along the pipeline — but Gross presents many reasons to doubt this explanation. The undergraduates who say they want to enter academia are just as liberal as graduate students and young professors, indicating that there’s no significant winnowing taking place. And in surveys, the conservatives who have entered academia rarely report experiencing employment discrimination.

To further test the discrimination theory, Gross performed an audit test — a fairly common sociological experiment in which researchers pose as people seeking jobs or other favors. The “candidates” are matched in all their attributes except the ones being studied, such as race or (in this case) political affiliation. Gross sent e-mails to the directors of graduate study in the top 75 doctoral programs in sociology, economics, political science, history, and literature, posing as potential graduate students who had worked for either the McCain or the Obama campaign. The school officials were only slightly more likely to respond to the Obama volunteers, and were only slightly friendlier when they did — in fact, the differences were so small as to be statistically insignificant. (An interesting side point: While academics have used these tests to demonstrate racial bias in everything from car-sales techniques to hiring, with nary an ethical concern raised, many of Gross’s subjects did not appreciate having their own biases probed. One subject threatened to sue, and Gross removed him from the data.)

Meanwhile, the most common liberal theory — that professors are liberal because smart people in general are liberal (duh!) — doesn’t hold water, either. There is a statistical connection between high intelligence and self-identification as “liberal,” but Gross’s research shows that it’s not nearly strong enough to explain the strong leftward tilt of the professoriate. And though Gross doesn’t mention it, I found a strange fact lurking in recent General Social Survey data: Americans who score very well on a vocabulary test aren’t much less likely to call themselves conservative than the general population — they’re just more likely to identify as liberal and less likely to identify as moderate. So even if intelligence can help to explain the strong presence of liberals in academia, it can’t explain the absence of conservatives.

A related (and similarly self-serving) theory some liberals present is that personality is to blame: Liberals are more scientific, more open-minded, more willing to sacrifice riches to pursue the life of the mind, and so on. Some of these stereotypes are true, but only some, and only to a limited degree. Conservatives are more distrustful of science than liberals and less open to new experiences, but they’re not much more likely to value moneymaking (and it’s moderates who value moneymaking the most). At any rate, the differences are not dramatic enough to explain more than a fraction of professors’ liberalism.

A more likely explanation, in Gross’s view, is that academia has become politically “typed”: The general population has developed a notion that professors are liberal, largely thanks to long-ago historical developments — in particular the secularization of the academy in the late 19th century followed by the high-profile roles academics took in the Progressive movement. Once academic work was seen as a liberal thing to do, conservatives opted not to do it, and the status quo perpetuated itself, even when the conditions that had created it disappeared. This theory is plausible enough — the academy really did shift leftward decades ago, people really did notice, and to this day there really is a stereotype that professors are liberal — though of course it’s difficult to test.

But it’s not merely a case of a self-perpetuating stereotype. Many academics have assiduously worked to maintain the liberal “imprint” on their profession, openly presenting themselves as left-wing to students. In Gross’s surveys, few academics admitted practicing “critical pedagogy” (jargon for aggressive Marxist indoctrination), and some said their fields were inherently apolitical (say, engineering); but professors in many fields said they were at least open about their own politics: 86 percent of sociologists, 79 percent of literature professors, and 63 percent of economists.

These are similar to the survey results reported in Closed Minds?, a 2008 book that sought to disprove the notion that colleges indoctrinate students: Forty-five percent of professors (in all fields) said their students could “probably guess who I voted for in 2004”; 57 percent said they did not “try to keep students guessing about my opinions about most issues.” Further, as Gross writes, a fair amount of material in the humanities and social sciences is openly left-wing. (A class called “Feminism and Sociological Theory” is unlikely to attract conservative students.) Putting aside the question of whether this style of teaching is appropriate, it certainly does not send a signal that conservatives are welcome in academia.

Unfortunately, as empirically oriented as Gross is, he often cannot resist the subtle jab at conservatives, especially once he wraps up his discussion of why professors are liberal and moves on to the question of why conservatives care. One could fill an entire review with examples — conservative English professor Mary Grabar did just that in her write-up for the Selous Foundation (a right-leaning think tank). But this one is enough to convey the undercurrent of hostility here: “While [civil-rights efforts in the 1960s] placed academic activists on the right side of history, to conservatives who opposed the civil-rights movement they represented an abomination.”

Of course, the question of why conservatives care isn’t even mildly interesting. Academia is a powerful liberal force, and 60 percent of high-school graduates at least enter a four-year college; conservatives would be insane not to care. Gross does provide an overview of the conservative critique of academia, but between the lack of insight and the occasional barbs thrown rightward, it’s not a worthwhile investment of reading time.

Gross is at his best when he’s explaining his surveys and experiments and using them to evaluate competing theories of professors’ liberalism — and fortunately, he spends a lot of time doing that. Readers will gain a nuanced understanding of the subject, and conservative readers in particular will find many interesting nuggets here. The condescension is unfortunate, but a price worth paying.

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