Samuel J. Abrams
How the lack of ideological diversity on college campuses slows progress and threatens the ideals of liberal education.
The attack on Charles Murray and another professor by student protestors at Middlebury College has prompted a lot of soul searching at American colleges and universities about the state of our students, especially their capacity to engage in a civil and well-reasoned discourse. This is certainly necessary, but there is perhaps an even greater need to take a critical look at our nation’s professors.
Though I am a professor myself, I do not say this for reasons of vanity or self-interest. Rather, we need to look more carefully at the ideas and ways in which our faculty are shaping the Millennial and Homeland generations of students around the country, for the simple reason that faculty ideology is dramatically out of step with the values and beliefs of the rest of the nation.
The incident at Middlebury isn’t isolated—far from it. Last year, it seemed that barely a day would go by without a progressive student protest or incident on some college or university making the news for all the wrong reasons. The aftermath of Donald Trump’s election has unleashed even more anxieties and fears on campuses, as well as ideas like the sanctuary movement. All of this is now coming on top of regular student protests and violence aimed at forcing universities to take stands on questions of social justice, microaggressions, safe spaces, Black Lives Matter, political correctness, and freedom of speech
Liberal students and ideas typically take center stage in media accounts of these episodes; faculties, aside from a few one-off cases, are an afterthought in the narrative. This is a huge mistake. College professors are tasked not only with shaping the minds of their students but also setting the tone for the intellectual climate and cultivating a fully contextualized, long-term outlook when it comes to current issues. In many cases, professors have influenced or even directed student responses to controversies like the election of Donald Trump. (All of these trends, furthermore, are even more pronounced in our nation’s liberal arts colleges.)
So why should this set off alarm bells? It should do so because our nation’s professors have moved ideologically so far to the left over the past few decades that they have fundamentally broken with the broader American polity, and even incoming freshman that they hope to guide and influence.
Figure 1. The Ideology of the American Professoriate: 1969–2014. Source: HERI, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Gallup Organization.
This trend is vividly illustrated in Figure 1, which presents 45 years of data on the political ideologies of college faculty, freshman students, and the American people as a whole. In the figure, I present left/right ratios measuring the proportion of liberals compared to conservatives in each group.
The data in Figure 1 reveal that college first-years were indeed more radical and progressive in the late 1960s and early 1970s than were their parents and professors. A tectonic shift occurred in the midst of the Reagan era, however, when faculty began to move ideologically to the left, and this shift has not slowed down. In 2014, 60 percent of faculty identity as liberal compared to just 32 percent of freshman and 24 percent of Americans.
A surprising fact revealed in this figure is that, contrary to what we hear in the press, the ideological leanings of the nation as a whole have remained remarkably consistent over the past five decades, leaning generally somewhat to the right. College first-years bounced around before 1987 but have largely been stable and slightly left-leaning over the past three decades. So it is the case that college students are more liberal than Americans at large, but this gap has neither narrowed nor widened much in 27 years.
But by far the most surprising revelation from this data is the massive leftward shift of our nation’s professors, beginning in 1987 and continuing at a fast clip up to the present. Over the past three decades, the professoriate’s left/right ratio jumped from a low point of 1.17:1 in 1984 to a high point of 5.27:1 in 2011. While there was a slight decline in 2014 to 4.67, this three-decade jump represents an approximate increase of 350 percent. In 2014, the average American left/right ratio was 0.63:1, and the nation’s college freshman leaned left at 1.51:1. This means that college freshman are two-and-a-half times more liberal than the nation as a whole and faculty are seven-and-a-half times more liberal and rising. These facts are simply nowhere to be found in most of the coverage of campus unrest.
Figure 2. Liberal Faculty by Field: 1989 – 2014. Source: HERI
Finally, I should also note that the faculty shift to the left over the past few decades has not been uniform. As Figure 2 makes clear, the percentage of liberal-identifying faculty did increase across all fields of study but at notably different rates. The arts, social sciences, and humanities are far more liberal than the more technical and pre-professional fields. While close to 70 percent of humanities and arts professors are liberal, the numbers are less than half that for those in engineering, health, and business fields—all of which have all seen significant increases in student enrollment at the expense of the humanities and liberal arts. The variance in fields shows that, although faculty who work in shrinking fields of study are far more liberal than those in the more professional, growing fields, they seem to have outsized influence on campus politics.
The point of noting these facts is not to assert that professors cannot hold or express strong political or ideological positions. Faculty should have academic freedom and the ability to pursue their research and teaching anchored by their own beliefs. However, the problem is that institutions which bill themselves as “sacred marketplaces of ideas” should not be dominated by an ideological monoculture. Viewpoint diversity is a critical need, and these data reveal that our nation’s “engines of ideas” are failing on this score.
The problem here is actually quite simple: When almost everyone in a field or department shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, errors can go unchallenged, and these orthodoxies inhibit scholarly inquiry. Groups of scholars whose worldviews are in broad agreement are more prone to confirmation bias and less likely to challenge scholarship that comports with their views.
This ideological narrowing is dangerous not just for the creation of new knowledge and research, but also because it does a disservice to the very people we professors are trying to educate and lift upward. Ideological homophily all but assures that students will go out into the world less able to see the world as it really is, and poorly equipped to defend their worldview. As teachers, we fail in teaching students how to think. When students are shielded to divergent view points and counter-arguments on the issues that are more salient to them, the students understandably become confused and angered by others who see the world differently. This diminishes our national discourse and frays our civic bonds.
Moreover, if academia is ideologically far removed from the people as a whole, this can weaken or sever the institutional bonds of trust that exist between it and the broader society. The 2016 election cycle was a strong reminder of these problems nationally, as well as the recent violent protests at UC-Berkeley and Middlebury. Those who promote orthodoxies and limit dissenting views often create environments that are intolerant of competing ideas, seal off campuses from the actual politics of the real world, directly limit free speech, and create environments where challenging an idea can be viewed as offensive and harmful rather than an attempt to make sense of the world. Thinking about comparative politics, Seymour Martin Lipset famously opened his classes by claiming that, “a person who knows only one country knows no countries,” because it is the process of understanding the other that is key to social and intellectual advancement. Lipset’s idea guides much of my own thinking and is certainly applicable here; it is essential that a diverse array of ideas and viewpoints are given real attention and space to be explored, discussed, and debated.
In short, given that ideology anchors so much academic thought, and given that the free exchange of a multiplicity of ideas is precisely what drives progress, it is a mistake to ignore this imbalance at our nation’s centers of learning and innovation. Please, pay attention to the professors.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.