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June 13, 2005

Conservatives Don't Want to be Professors?

At Harvard this past weekend, I had the chance to ask President Summers (yet again) what he was doing at Harvard to increase faculty ideological diversity in the social sciences and humanities. Unfortunately -- and in spite of his recent abuse at the hands of Harvard's politically correct faculty -- his answer was the same as it had been the last time I asked him. Here is my attempt at a precis of his response (and apologies if I fail to give his arguments their due):

  1. He believes that there is no discrimination against conservative academics and does not think that faculty committees in the humanities and social sciences only hire people who share their ideological views. He comes to this conclusion because he believes that the ideological composition of apolitical faculties (like mathematics, for example) are similar to those in other fields. ("You don't see our mathematics faculty giving preference in hiring to, say, topologists with left-wing views over other similarly qualified topologists." [Not a verbatim quote.])

  2. He agrees that the large majority of Harvard faculty members are liberal, and probably more liberal than they have been in the past. However, he believes this is caused by conservatives, who are more interested in the world of business and making money, self-selecting out of the non-profit sector. Conversely, left-leaning intellectuals, who dislike free enterprise and the profit motive, tend to disproportionately choose careers in not-for-profit fields like academia or government. (He also observed that Harvard students, who had tended to be on the left of most faculty members during the 1970s, are now well to the right of the faculty in terms of their political views.)

  3. Finally, he agrees that it is important to have all elements of the ideological spectrum represented on the faculty and thinks that this is currently the case. For example, he cited the fact that several members of Harvard's economics department had recently been appointed to positions in the Bush administration.

The forum did not lend itself it to debate, or I would have challenged his assertion that faculty members are equally liberal across disciplines. The chart below shows the ratio of professors characterizing themselves politically as either Liberal or Moderately Liberal versus Moderately Conservative or Conservative by academic department. The data are from the 1989 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching sponsored survey of US college faculties, which used a two-stage, stratified random sample consisting of 5,450 completed surveys from 306 US campuses. (See The Condition of the Professoriate: Attitudes and Trends, 1989, which is available for purchase from CFAT. )

Ratio of Liberals to Conservatives by Department: 1989

While the data for Harvard may be different, the national data clearly show that although most university professors tend to be more liberal than the American public, there are relatively more conservative teachers in the "hard sciences" than in the humanities or social sciences.

Even if there is no overt discrimination against conservative candidates for academic positions in the humanities or social sciences (which I frankly tend to doubt), there is the larger problem of a hostile campus environment towards people who don't share the dominant leftist PC Weltanschauung. Conservative students are not encouraged to consider a teaching career. Conservative doctoral candidates have difficulty finding thesis advisers. Even at the undergraduate level, there is tremendous social pressure to conform.

Last Fall, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni commissioned a survey among students at the top 25 US universities and liberal arts colleges. The findings were disturbing, and confirm the one-sided ideological environment existing on most elite US campuses. Here is the beginning of the ACTA's December press release:

49% of the students at the top 50 colleges and universities say professors frequently inject political comments into their courses, even if they have nothing to do with the subject. Almost one-third—29%—feel they have to agree with the professor’s political views to get a good grade.

A survey commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reveals the politicization of the classroom and the intellectual intolerance of faculty.

According to the survey:

  • 48% report campus presentations on political issues that “seem totally one-sided.”

  • 46% say professors “use the classroom to present their personal political views.”

  • 42% of students fault reading assignments for presenting only one side of a controversial issue.

The survey also indicates that political comments are consistently partisan. The survey, which was conducted just before and after the American presidential election, found that 68% of the students reported negative remarks in class about Pres. George Bush while 62% said professors praised Sen. John Kerry.

If colleges and universities want to continue receiving financial support from alumni and the broader public (i.e. tax exemptions, research grants, and subsidized student loans and grants), their leaders should take seriously the issue of political and ideological diversity among their faculties. Unfortunately, most university presidents (including Larry Summers) don't recognize that they have a problem, which suggests that they may be part of said problem.

June 13, 2005 at 12:21 PM | Permalink


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