The Magazine

Forbidden City

The left-wing stranglehold on academia.

Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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Neil Gross is a sociologist at the University of British Columbia who previously held posts at the University of Southern California and Harvard, has a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, and received undergraduate training at Berkeley. He edits Sociological Theory and has written a book on the liberal philosopher Richard Rorty. 

Noam Chomsky releases doves, Cabramatta High School, near Sydney, Australia

Noam Chomsky releases doves, Cabramatta High School, near Sydney, Australia (2011).

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He has all the markers of an academic on the left, and Gross confesses in his introduction to this study of faculty politics that he has “very liberal social attitudes” and that his views on the economy and law are center-left. Nevertheless, he registers clearly the overwhelming ideological slant of higher education. Reviewing survey and voter registration data, he concludes that “the professoriate either contains the highest proportion of liberals of any occupation in the United States for the period 1996-2010 or is right behind another famously liberal occupational group, authors and journalists.” 

It’s a galling situation for people on the right, and the response by people on the left only makes it worse. If the underrepresented group were a favored one, liberal observers would invoke disparate-impact theory, which holds that any situation that is demographically disproportionate signifies bias at work and needs public intervention. But in this case, the excluded group is conservatives, which makes the imbalance the conservatives’ own fault. 

In interviews of professors conducted by Gross and his colleagues, the most common explanation for the dearth of conservatives on the faculty was that conservatives lack the “open-mindedness” necessary for academic work (41 percent of interviewees stated this), while the second most popular reason was that conservatives care too much about making money to become academics (30 percent noted this). Prejudice or greed, take your pick—but don’t overlook the self-congratulation in each judgment (“we are here because we’re broad-minded and we care more about people than about dollars”).

We’ve heard this before, both the charge and the defenses. Gross recounts the same debate as it occurred in the 1950s, citing William F. Buckley’s and Russell Kirk’s columns in National Review, and a few liberal adversaries such as Richard Hofstadter, who anticipated nearly exactly the exchanges between David Horowitz and the National Association of Scholars (NAS) on the right and the Modern Language Association (MLA) and Association of American University Presses (AAUP) on the left. That liberal bias on campus has been such a longstanding issue in American life and has undergone so little change in spite of bestselling books such as The Closing of the American Mind, columns in national periodicals, and cable television denunciations indicates to Gross that the customary explanations are shortsighted and misleading. 

Hence the purpose of this book: to examine standard rationales for an occupation that pledges diversity and tolerance but has ended up so dominated by the left half of the ideological spectrum. Gross combines existing data with his own Politics of the American Professoriate project, which queried 1,416 professors in different disciplines and types of institutions for, among other things, their political self--conception. The results provide an empirical base on which he evaluates theories about the conservative mindset, discrimination in hiring, indoctrination in the classroom, and just how liberal the faculty really are.

One interviewee tells Gross that academe isn’t liberal at all. Most are Democrats, yes, but “the Democratic Party is quite conservative,” he insists.  Many economists, engineers, and business profs are right-wing, too, and “I bet that if you check out [academic] administrators a lot of them are voting Republican.” It’s a common reply, Gross notes; but survey research puts the faculty at half Democrat (51 percent), one-third independent (who lean Democrat by more than two to one), and only 14 percent Republican.

Other myths Gross refutes: Liberal professors claim to enter academia out of egalitarian motives while conservatives favor the competitive, hierarchical world of business. In academia, liberals can produce a more just and equal society, a goal that turns conservatives away. Gross replies that, while academics profess to dislike hierarchy, academia itself is altogether hierarchical, with set “power differentials between professors of different ranks .  .  . and with equally well-established status hierarchies among professors in different types of institutions.”