Over the past 50 years, American higher education has been “transformed” in a rightward direction by an influx of philanthropic efforts by conservative billionaires and foundations — or so claims a newly released report by David Austin Walsh for the Urban Institute.
The transformation claimed by the Urban Institute report is multifaceted, allegedly bringing an influx of “ideologically conservative, pro–free market institutions hostile to state regulation in American colleges and universities.” In the course of his study, Walsh credits one such effort centering around University of Chicago economist George Stigler with the “transformation of economics programs throughout American higher education” in an “antistatist” and deregulatory direction. It alludes to the “strategic transformation of university cultures” in a rightward direction — “particularly at elite universities,” which then “trickle down” to shape other institutions. In summary, Walsh contends that conservative funding has “normalized right-wing politics in the academy to an extent conservatives could have barely imagined in the 1960s.”
The report itself reflects an unusual hybrid of research styles, containing a somewhat useful bibliographic survey of five philanthropic sources on the political right that have invested to varying levels in faculty research and other college programming. By contrast, its interpretive thesis — that these efforts have collectively resulted in a rightward transformation of the higher-ed landscape — appears to be without evidence. In fact, available data overwhelmingly point to a shift in the opposite direction.
Measuring Ideological Trends on Campus
Walsh’s study, relying on anecdote, strongly implies that a philanthropy-induced rightward shift in the academy has occurred since the mid-20th century. He makes no effort however to measure or test this crucial claim, and offers no empirical control (such as the parallel rise of left-leaning philanthropy on campus) to determine whether his contended phenomenon is unique to the political Right.
Oddly, Walsh is either unaware of or ignores a vast empirical literature on the subject of political ideology in the academy dating back to Everett Ladd and Seymour Martin Lipset’s seminal investigations of faculty ideological self-identification in the 1970s. The first two decades of this literature produced a vibrant debate over whether Ladd and Lipset had correctly identified a pronounced leftward skew among university professors with implications for political content in their research and teaching, or whether their data simply captured a stable snapshot of a left-leaning plurality among a professoriate that nonetheless remained ideologically diverse. That question has been conclusively answered in the past 20 years, and the data are moving in the exact opposite direction of Walsh’s thesis.
As I have documented previously, survey data point to a sharp and overwhelming leftward shift in faculty political self-identification starting around the year 2000 and persisting to the present day. While self-identified liberals comprised a relatively stable plurality of about 40 percent at the time of Ladd and Lipset’s studies, that number grew to a clear 60 percent majority in the last two decades. Conservative faculty, by contrast, dwindled away from one-third of the faculty as recently as 1984 to just 12 percent today.
Furthermore, as the charts below illustrate, the recent shift does not come from gradual ideological drift toward mainstream left-of-center politics. Its primary driver is an explosion in the number of faculty who identify on the far left — a category that includes Marxists, socialists, and adherents of derivative ideological positions such as critical theory.
Sources: UCLA Higher Education Research Institute Faculty Survey (1989-present) and Carnegie Survey of Higher Education (1969-84)
Other survey measures of political ideology reveal that this leftward shift is acute among college professors. As political scientist Samuel Abrams has shown, the long-term ratio between liberals and conservatives is stable when the same questions about ideological self-identification are presented to both incoming college students and to the general American public. Only the professoriate has moved leftward in this same period.
Nor can these patterns be explained by changing definitions of liberalism and conservatism. The Pew Charitable Trust maintains an issue-based index of both partisan and ideological concentrations over time among the American public. Their findings do show widening partisan (Republican/Democrat) and ideological (Left/Right) divides among the general public starting in the 1990s, but the movement between these two poles has played out comparably in both directions. The political Left has moved further left and the Right has moved further right over the same period, with the leftward shift being the slightly more pronounced of the two.
The sharp leftward ideological skew of the professoriate appears in other metrics as well. Although partisan affiliation (Democrat/Republican) is an incomplete proxy for the full range of political attitudes (libertarians, for example, do not fit comfortably in either party), it strongly confirms the survey-data findings on ideological identification.
Mitchell Langbert’s recent study of voter-registration patterns among over 8,000 faculty at elite liberal arts colleges reveals an overwhelming Democratic skew within the professoriate. This pattern affects all disciplines, including non-political STEM fields, but becomes substantially more pronounced in the social sciences and humanities. The leftward skew of elite institutions is also apparent in conservative/liberal self-identification. Using a well-respected survey instrument from UCLA, Samuel Abrams found that the leftward faculty ideological skew becomes more pronounced in the regions where elite institutions are geographically concentrated — the northeastern United States, and a smaller pocket on the West Coast.
In an earlier study of faculty voter registration across different institution types, Daniel B. Klein and Chris Cardiff found that the humanities and social science faculty at elite institutions are essentially a “one party system” almost exclusively favoring registered Democrats. Although faculty at almost every type of college or university skew Democratic, Klein and Cardiff show that this skew only lessens at non-elite institutions and particularly those with Protestant religious affiliations.
Both patterns belie Walsh’s claim of a “trickle down” effect arising from conservative higher-ed philanthropy targeting elite colleges and universities. While conservative and libertarian donations to faculty, students, and research centers at elite programs certainly exist, their measurable effect on the ideological disposition of these institutions appears to be negligible. In every existing metric, the actual patterns play out exactly opposite of Walsh’s theory.
There are no doubt individual conservative and libertarian beneficiaries of targeted philanthropic donations within the American professoriate. Even so, their relative position to other faculty is weakening and their overall numbers are actually shrinking. If conservatives currently comprise 12 percent of the approximately 813,000 full-time college professors in the United States, their actual number across all disciplines is likely fewer than 100,000 individuals — a decline of about 35,000 faculty since 1975, even though the total number of people employed as college professors essentially doubled in this same period.
Although the Urban Institute report does not consider the foregoing literature or any other standard metric of ideological presence on campus, these data present a substantial complication for the existence of a rightward “transformation” in higher education since the mid-20th century. During the same period of conservative philanthropic giving that Walsh examines in his report, the faculty as a whole moved in exactly the opposite direction that one would expect from his descriptions. Far from inducing the rightward transformation of academia that Walsh posits, conservative philanthropic giving has either failed at this supposed objective or — more likely — only slightly slowed a sharp leftward shift of a far-greater magnitude.
Ideological Attitudes Within Specific Disciplines
The data discussed in the foregoing section reflect general ideological trends on campus across all disciplines. But what do they say about the specific areas of philanthropic investment that the Urban Institute report considers?
Walsh singles out two academic disciplines for consideration in his report, economics and law, correctly noting that both (as well as the intersection between them) have been strategic areas of conservative and libertarian philanthropic investment. In a series of case studies, Walsh considers philanthropic investment in the economics department at the University of Chicago by the Walgreen Foundation in the mid-20th century, similar investments by Charles and David Koch at George Mason University in the present day, and an assortment of related funding initiatives for the law-and-economics subfield involving the Kochs, the John M. Olin Foundation, and others.
Without endeavoring to measure any of these initiatives or compare them against other empirical controls, Walsh repeatedly declares them “on-campus successes” and credits them with initiating a broader rightward “transformation” of both economics and legal academia. In Walsh’s telling, each of the associated departments and research centers is responsible for the cultivation of a conservative presence on campus with tangible academy-wide effects. Among the many descriptions, he contends that the recipients of these donations “promote free market and free enterprise principles,” serve as “incubators for probusiness and antiregulation conservatives” among university faculty, have sweeping public policy influence, and form the foundation of a “scholarly network and a financial infrastructure with which to promote their pro–free market ideas.”
While Walsh likely disapproves of these objectives on account of his own political beliefs, it would be inconsistent to describe them as intrinsically objectionable simply because they advance a disliked political perspective.
Academia is awash with left-leaning faculty, research centers, and even entire degree programs dedicated to overtly political and activist causes — to the advancement of “social justice,” to critiques of “capitalism” arising from humanities professors with little to no economic training, to labor-union organizing, to an assortment of environmentalist political causes. Many of these institutions enjoy generous philanthropic contributions by billionaire donors and foundations on the political left that match or exceed similar conservative giving. Many academics on the political left even valorize and champion their own political activism, portraying it as a necessary complement to their scholarly research and even insisting that it should count toward promotion and tenure.
Walsh apparently shares this perspective as well — he touts a description of himself as a “general socialist troublemaker” on his public profile, and frequently writes political-advocacy editorials in left-leaning publications. It would be intellectually inconsistent to maintain that such activities are commendable when they support openly progressive initiatives while objecting to them as a corrupting intrusion when the impetus is coming from the right.
Fostering an internal contradiction of this sort does not appear to be Walsh’s purpose, but his approach carries a high interpretive risk of veering in that direction so long as it remains divorced from empirical measures of the patterns he purports to describe, including suitable comparisons across the ideological spectrum to use as a baseline.
So how, then, does Walsh’s narrower claim about discipline-specific transformations in economics and law hold up against the applicable data? Not very well, it turns out.
Langbert, Klein, and an additional coauthor, Anthony J. Quain, investigated this question in a further study of Democrat-to-Republican voter-registration ratios among selected disciplines at elite universities, including economics departments and law schools. In economics, they found a D-to-R ratio of 4.5 to 1. In law, this ratio increases to 8.6 to 1. Even though this skew is pronounced when compared to the general public or even incoming students, it places economics on the center left of academia. Law schools are comfortably among the disciplines that fall well to the left of center, although they fall short of the extreme “one party system” skews that these authors discovered in the humanities.
While Walsh’s report is keen to emphasize how conservative philanthropy in economics, law, and the law-and-economics subfield have introduced free market content to the research and teaching of these disciplines, empirical measures strongly suggest that these positions remain minority perspectives in the academy.
In a 2015 study, economists Rosemarie Fike and James Gwartney conducted a comparative analysis of the 23 most commonly used college textbooks for U.S. economics classes. They tabulated the amount of space and attention given to “market failure theory” — a generally pro-regulatory perspective that is used to justify “corrective” interventions by government entities to alleviate harms from the unfettered market, both real and alleged. Fike and Gwartney then repeated their tabulations, looking for content in the same textbooks on either “government failure theory” or public choice theory — perspectives that call attention to the political difficulties of accurately diagnosing or correcting a market failure, and the associated harms that can arise from excessive regulation or intervention.
Of the 23 textbooks surveyed, all devoted substantial attention to the market-failure perspective. Approximately half made some mention of government failure or public choice, while the remainder gave this anti-regulatory perspective little or no coverage. In total, market-failure theory received about six times as much space and consideration in economics textbooks as public-choice or government-failure perspectives received.
A similar study by Hugo Eyzaguirre, Tawni Ferrarini, and Brian O’Roark found comparably disproportionate coverage of market-failure theory, as well as deficiencies in the attention given to the status of property rights as an institutional factor in the occurrence of claimed failures.
Recall that Walsh specifically and repeatedly charges conservative philanthropy with shifting the economics discipline away from pro-regulatory perspectives and toward government non-intervention. The empirical results from both analyses of textbooks show the exact opposite to be the case. If anything the anti-regulatory and government-failure perspectives that Walsh describes appear to be adding a small amount of balance to a field that skews heavily toward the regulatory disposition that he favors.
There do not appear to be any similar studies of textbooks or teaching practices for the legal profession. A different type of indicator, however, suggests a strong tension between the Urban Institute report and the reality faced by faculty on the political right in law schools. Noting the aforementioned evidence that conservative and libertarian faculty remain a distinct minority in the legal profession, Stanford’s James Cleith Phillips undertook an empirical investigation of hiring patterns among law faculty. Phillips tracked a decade’s worth of law school graduates who went into legal academia and identified them by ideological disposition. After controlling for comparable credentials such as publication records, he discovered a pronounced disparity in hiring patterns that seems to favor progressive or left-liberal law professors. Conservative and libertarian professors tended to find employment at law schools that rank, on average, 12 to 13 places lower than their equally credentialed left-leaning peers from the same time period. The most severe effects of this placement gap could be seen at top-ranked or elite law schools, while the pattern dissipates among lower-ranked institutions.
Yet again, empirical evidence in faculty hiring belies the expectations arising from the Urban Institute’s report. It further suggests that law school philanthropic giving from the right may be serving a purpose of countering and correcting a preexisting leftward ideological disparity among law faculty, as opposed to exerting a novel and unique rightward pressure.
Assessing Politics and Philanthropy on Campus
Walsh’s bibliographic study reflects a broader academic interest in the relationship between philanthropic giving and political objectives. Taken by itself, this line of inquiry can yield important insights into the role of money in both research and campus politics. The accompanying literature is of widely varying quality, and while Walsh gives reasonable synopses of several case studies of funding on the right, he also unfortunately indulges some of its weaker and most politicized specimens (for example, he approvingly draws upon Nancy MacLean’s error-riddled and conspiratorial Democracy in Chains in his case study of the Kochs).
More importantly though, his multiple inferences and assertions about the allegedly transformative role of conservative money display an approach to social scientific analysis that is unchained from any reasonable measure or control. Walsh may well reply that empirical tests were not his objective; only mapping out specific cases of conservative funding was. And yet each of his descriptive conclusions about the “successes” of these initiatives is a testable claim.
Data from the developed literature on political ideology in the academy, as we’ve seen, do not align with the expectations arising from the Urban Institute report’s underlying theoretical framework. Theories about a growing conservative philanthropic influence in higher ed run counter to measurable evidence of a leftward shift that has played out generally across the academy in the last 20 years, and measurable evidence of the ideological disposition of the targeted disciplines of economics and law.
While this finding does not negate the value of studying conservative philanthropy, it highlights the necessity of doing so empirically and with suitable points of comparison to other ideological perspectives. The alternative yields little more than an exercise in cherry-picking among disliked conservative funders, and reaching conclusions about their effectiveness that far exceed the available evidence.