Is Academe Awash in Liberal Bias? Most People Think So. They're WrongRoundup
tags: academia, political bias
Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University.
Charlie Tyson is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard University.
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.
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!”