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.
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.”
Defenders of academia claim that while professors are liberal, few of them bring their politics into the classroom in a heavy-handed way. Gross challenges that assertion by examining courses offered during the fall 2011 semester at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin department of sociology. While some appeared neutral—“Marriage and the Family,” “Criminology”—-others had an obviously leftist perspective: “Feminism and Sociological Theory,” “Intercultural Dialogues,” “Environmental Stewardship and Social Justice,” “Class, State, and Ideology: An Introduction to Marxist Sociology.” The same themes and angles prevail in anthropology, history, literature, communications, education, geography, and “in nearly all programs in ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, cultural studies, and social work.”
Another liberal theory holds that conservatives attack academia out of “status anxiety,” that is, the feeling on the part of a heretofore-dominant group that its power is fading. Here, we have white male Protestants upset that women and minorities and secular visions have taken over. But in his work, Gross found that, for example, “more than two-thirds of evangelicals think that colleges do welcome the faithful,” and so “there would appear to be no widespread perception among them that higher education per se represents a threat to Christian values or their way of life.” Gross also had an assistant comb through the interviews to check whether “any interviewees expressed—even in a veiled fashion—frustration with their life situation or a sense that contemporary society was leaving them in the dust. None did.”
Yet another account of the campaign against academia asserts that its spokesmen serve as tools for the power elite, getting paid to issue broadsides against professors who expose the underhanded dealings of capitalists and corporations. But when Gross investigates those leading figures, he uncovers a different account. Buckley didn’t begin his academic critique as a mouthpiece hired by wealthy conservatives, but as an undergraduate at Yale appalled at the stigmatization taking place in his courses. Stephen Balch started the NAS not at the behest of a benefactor, but because he realized that his colleagues at John Jay College were fostering radical proletarianism in students. These tales, Gross says, gainsay the idea that conservative critics are “ideological mercenaries in the employ of the power elite.”
Why is academia liberal, then? Gross’s data indicate that it isn’t because liberals and conservatives have different values or mental habits, or that liberals discriminate against right-leaning graduate students and job candidates. Rather, it is because academia has a reputation for liberalism, and conservative undergraduates decide on their own not to continue in the field.
The key moment, Gross maintains, is the decision whether or not to go to graduate school. Young conservatives may not know all that much about academia at the faculty level, but popular stereotypes and a few off-putting experiences in class can sufficiently discourage them from pursuing academia as a site for success. A freshman orientation session that divides white males from everyone else, incessant talk about diversity, multiculturalist reading assignments, and so on may not bother them that much (and they can always find safe spaces such as College Republicans), but such things do convince young conservatives that staying on campus as a career move is foolish. An English major who reveres Great Books needs only one occasion of a teaching assistant ridiculing him for a dead-white-male fixation to decide, “I don’t need this.”
Gross’s thesis sounds plausible, and the data support it. It leaves conservative critics with a disarming irony, though: The more critics expose liberal indoctrination and intolerance, the more they reinforce the image of academia that makes young conservatives shun it. As Gross puts it, “Decades of antiprofessorial rhetoric have made academia seem an even less desirable home for young conservatives than it would otherwise be.” When Bill O’Reilly and John Stossel discussed affirmative action for conservative professors, as they did this past December, did they believe that it would inspire more 22-year-olds on the right to apply for graduate study in Princeton’s English department, which tells prospective students that “we offer a wide range of theoretical specializations in fields such as feminist theory, gender studies, psychoanalysis, Marxism, New Historicism, environmental studies, political and social theory, and cultural studies”?
Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University, is the author, most recently, of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.