Monday, October 08, 2007

Politics in the academy, part MLCCCXVII of a continuing series

From the Chronicle.

Conservatives are a small minority within the American professoriate, according to a major study whose results were released on Saturday. The study -- which is arguably the best-designed survey of American faculty beliefs since the early 1970s -- found that only 9.2 percent of college instructors are conservatives, and that only 20.4 percent voted for George W. Bush in 2004.

But at a symposium on Saturday at Harvard University, the study's authors cast doubt on certain claims made by conservative critics of academe. They emphasized that American faculty members are not uniformly left-wing. On most issues, they said, college instructors' views are better characterized as "centrist" or "center-left." And there is evidence of a convergence toward moderation: Faculty members who are 35 or younger are less likely than their elders to be left-wing (and also less likely to be conservative).

"The claim of extreme leftism is not well supported," said Solon J. Simmons, an assistant professor of sociology at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. "But the number of conservatives -- 9.2 percent -- is lower than what one might have found in the past. If there is any change in the data over time, conservatives seem to be falling away from the academy and being replaced by, perhaps, moderates." Mr. Simmons conducted the study with Neil Gross, an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard.

Among the study's findings:

* Faculty members lean sharply to the left on issues of gender, sexuality, and foreign policy. [...]
* On issues of race and economic policy, the leftward tilt is much less pronounced. [...]

* Liberal-arts colleges have the highest concentrations of left-of-center faculty members. Only 3.9 percent of instructors at liberal-arts colleges are conservatives. Community colleges have the smallest proportion of liberals (37.1 percent) and the highest proportion of conservatives (19 percent). "Elite, Ph.D.-granting institutions" fall in the middle, with 10.2 percent of faculty members identifying themselves as conservative. That pattern contrasts with the well-known studies conducted in the early 1970s by Everett Carll Ladd Jr. and Seymour Martin Lipset, who found that conservatives were rarest at the most elite institutions.

Conservatives are rarest in the humanities (3.6 percent) and social sciences (4.9 percent), and most common in the health sciences (20.5 percent) and business (24.5 percent). Only 7.8 percent of instructors in the physical and biological sciences are conservatives, which is a sharp decline from the level found by Mr. Ladd and Mr. Lipset in the 1970s.

* Faculty members broadly support the idea of political openness on campus. When asked whether "the goal of diversity should include fostering diversity of political views among faculty members," 68.8 percent agreed. (That figure struck one participant in the symposium as disturbingly low. "Where are the other 31 percent?" asked Jonathan L. Zimmerman, a professor of the history of education at New York University. "What are they thinking?") When asked whether "professors are as curious and open-minded today as they have ever been," 79.9 percent of the total sample said yes -- but 46.3 percent of the conservative respondents disagreed.

The scholars at Saturday's meeting offered a wide variety of arguments about what those numbers might mean, and whether they are a problem for academe. Harvard's former president, Lawrence H. Summers, praised the sophistication of Mr. Gross and Mr. Simmons's study but said that he views the results more pessimistically than they do.

"The data in this paper surprised me in the opposite direction that it surprised the authors," said Mr. Summers, who is now a university professor at Harvard. "It made me think that there is even less ideological diversity in the American university than I had imagined."

In his remarks, Mr. Summers concentrated on a subset of the data concerning elite, Ph.D.-granting universities. In humanities and social-science departments at those institutions, Mr. Summers pointed out, not a single instructor reported voting for President Bush in 2004.

Regardless of the salience of that last metric, I think Summers is right that the headline numbers mask some very important variation. If that whopping 9.2% conservative figure is that high because of community colleges and business departments; if those figures of 3.6% humanities and 4.9% social sciences are right, then in the areas where the charge of political bias in the academy are most prevalent and most important, things are more uniform than I would have thought.

I've been reading stories about this kind of thing for years, and I was still startled by those figures.

Inside Higher Ed has a non-gated story along with a more detailed breakdown of figures.