Ideological bias within the famously left-leaning professoriate is a long-running conservative and libertarian gripe. While scholars have debated its social implications for decades, most generally agree that the ranks of college faculty lean to the political left of the American public. The real question is whether this skew matters for educational outputs, and specifically whether it discourages the representation of competing ideas in the classroom.
The classroom bias debate reemerged last week when Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor who is best known for serving as President Obama’s regulatory czar, chided his academic colleagues on the left for failing to seek a more balanced political representation in faculty hiring. Citing Mitchell Langbert’s recent findings of an overwhelming Democrat-to-Republican skew among voter registrations of elite liberal arts college faculty, Sunstein warned that such patterns may be creating a progressive intellectual echo chamber in the academy. The potential downsides include everything from bias in teaching and research to risks of hiring discrimination against conservatives, libertarians, and other non-left political identities.
Sunstein’s commentary ignited a firestorm, with several faculty and pundits on the left questioning his interpretation of the observed lack of political diversity. The ranks of academia do lean left, they concede, but this pattern has always been true. If the left is merely a stable plurality in academia, recent findings such as Langbert’s study may actually be old news and is no more cause for alarm today than in decades past.
It’s not the skew, but the recent trend that matters.
The focus on the political identity of faculty obscures a more important empirical pattern that neither Sunstein nor his critics fully explore. The main problem with bias in academia is not the leftward skew of the faculty itself. Rather, this skew has gotten dramatically worse in the past 15 years – a historically unique event that portends greater problems to come.
Sunstein’s critics have taken to citing a number of older studies that concede the obvious point of a leftward tilt, but also point to its alleged stability over time as evidence that faculty bias is not a problem so long as the left only remains a plurality viewpoint.
This line of argument actually emerged in the 1980s and 1990s in response to Everett Ladd and Marty Lipset’s pioneering use of surveys to empirically map out the political leanings of college faculty. One 1993 analysis of earlier national faculty surveys concluded that academic “leftism had been considerably exaggerated” and even suggested modest gains on the right relative to a static progressive bloc of faculty. A 2006 extension of the same surveys echoed these findings while further suggesting that faculty political affiliations were starting to shift toward the political center. Similar claims appear in a widely cited 2007 study by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, using a survey of their own design from the early parts of that decade.
There’s a problem though with this literature and the “ideological stability” thesis it advances. It relies entirely upon outdated statistics that seldom extend beyond the early 2000s.
The figure below shows the results of more recent surveys of faculty, as measured by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute and a series of predecessor surveys by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education (the same surveys that were first analyzed by Ladd and Lipset). Note that while faculty political self-identification remained fairly stable from 1969 until around 2000, a sharp break occurred after the date that all of the aforementioned studies conclude their measurements.
In only 15 years, the percentage of faculty who identify as “liberal” (used here in the conventional left-progressive sense) jumped from a stable plurality of about 45% to an astounding 60% of American college faculty. Conservatives, who had already seen some decline in the 1980s, dropped to only 13% of the professoriate according to the most recent figures.
The most alarming shift is that left-leaning faculty growth has also come at the direct expense of political moderates. For most of the 1990s, self-identified liberals and moderates sat at near parity to one another. In the last 15 years though, moderates have been in the retreat while faculty on the left are approaching a historically unprecedented supermajority of the academy.
What happened after 2000?
It’s clear from the data above that something changed in academia around 2000. After three decades of relative stability, faculty political self-identification took a sharp leftward turn. This shift occurred even as the political views of the general American public did not. While these more recent data conclusively refute the “ideological stability” thesis, the reasons for the shift remain underexamined.
One possible explanation to consider is the growth of the more ideologically biased disciplines. As political scientist Sam Abrams recently illustrated, certain academic disciplines skew more strongly to the left than others. Self-identified “liberals” make up over 80% of the faculty in fields like English.
Other humanities and social sciences such as history, political science, fine arts, and sociology follow closely with similar skews. Less overtly political fields such as the STEM disciplines, by contrast, show a closer ideological balance between faculty on the left and right. Curiously, the most balanced fields are the ones where political topics are less likely to appear in the classroom.
The disproportionate leftward skew in the humanities and social sciences matters a great deal, because faculty hiring in these areas has also consistently outpaced the natural sciences and engineering. Despite their reputations for notoriously glutted job markets, the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts all show clear faculty employment growth over the last decade according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Business faculty employment grew only slightly in the same period, and both the natural sciences and engineering actually lost ground relative to other disciplines.
A second reason for the shift may have something to do with an uglier pattern that Sunstein hinted at, but that his critics vigorously dispute: ideological hiring discrimination in academia.
The critics’ retort on this point attributes ideological skew to conservative (or libertarian) self-selection effects, rather than hiring biases. Non-progressives, they contend, choose other career paths and thus create a smaller applicant pool to draw from – particularly in the humanities and social sciences where progressive faculty representation is the strongest.
While career self-selection may explain some of the political right’s faculty deficit, it does not explain the sharp drops from previous levels of conservative representation over the past 15 years. A critic might respond that conservative and libertarian students today are less interested in studying history, political science, literature, and similar fields than they were in 1970 or 1980 when they enjoyed a larger share of faculty positions. That claim seems implausible though, and is belied by statistics from the General Social Survey that show a greater range of political diversity among undergraduate majors in most disciplines than we find in their faculty ranks.
Non-left students may also perceive that the decks are stacked against them on the academic career path, and unfortunately there’s emerging evidence of this problem. According to a 2012 survey of 900 psychology faculty, over a third of the respondents openly admitted that they would discriminate against job applicants on the political right. An even greater percentage suspected that their colleagues would similarly discriminate.
Another recently released study of law school faculty hired between 2001 and 2010 found strong empirical evidence that conservative and libertarian professors tend to place at lower-ranked institutions than their left-leaning peers, despite having similar credentials and publication records.
Research of this type remains in its infancy. Yet if these patterns extend to other fields of study, it is not difficult to see why a conservative or libertarian undergraduate would choose a different career path. Coupled with the sharp leftward shift among faculty in the past 15 years, we may also reasonably expect ideological hiring biases in the academy to intensify for the foreseeable future.