The State of the Faculty – A Liberal View

The study of professors’ views by Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons confirms much of what we already knew: there are more liberals than conservatives working in academia, and the ratio increases in the humanities and social sciences, as well as at more elite universities. However, the survey does show an important fact, that a substantial number of professors are moderates and independents, and no simple stereotype of college faculty exists. Certainly, conservatives like David Horowitz are dead wrong when they claim, “Our faculties are 90 percent to 95 percent people of the left.”

One common conservative refrain is that “tenured radicals” have taken over universities and hired only leftists. As Gross and Simmons point out, there hasn’t been a radical left-wing shift among faculty. In reality, the liberal tendencies of university faculty have a long history; William F. Buckley contended that the Yale political science faculty in 1948 supported Truman over Dewey by 23-0. Robert Bork was called by a Yale journalist in 1964 who could find only one other Goldwater supporter on a faculty of 1,000 professors. An analysis in Public Opinion Quarterly of the 1989 and 1997 Carnegie surveys of faculty even concluded that “the replacement of older, more liberal cohorts by younger, less liberal ones has helped to produce a less liberal faculty.”

The most interesting finding of the Gross and Simmons is the dramatic decline in younger faculty identifying themselves as “left activists”: from 17.2% among those 50-64 to 11.5% among those 36-49 and only 1.3% among those 26-35. This may be the best evidence yet of the success of the conservative crusade in recent years against leftist faculty. It’s difficult to believe that there’s actually been a tenfold drop in “left activists” among the values of young professors. This isn’t necessarily evidence of a political purge, although that’s quite possible in many cases. It could also reflect increasing academic standards for professors in hiring and tenure, which mean that younger professors must spend much more time doing research and have less time for activism. The decline for self-identified “left radicals” (a term which reflects value systems more than actions) is much less dramatic, from 14.3% to 9.9% to 3.8%.

We do need to worry about the lack of conservatives going into academia, particularly in the low-paying fields of the humanities and social sciences. However, we should also worry if left-wing professors are disappearing rapidly or feeling constrained in their political activism. The best way to protect all groups and encourage this complete diversity is to assure full academic freedom for everyone on campus, and to promote more equity in faculty salaries.

But why should we care if there is not a random distribution of political ideology in professions (as happens in K-12 teaching, college teaching, journalism, business, and many other fields)? A survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year discovered that there are more Republicans than Democrats among college trustees. But so long as the selection of trustees is not based upon politics, and the trustees fulfill their duties, their party affiliation doesn’t matter.
Trustees tend to be people who make a lot of money, and those people tend to be Republicans. Professors, by contrast, tend to be people who sacrifice much more lucrative careers in order to seek out a life of the mind, and so they tend to be Democrats. It’s true that some senior faculty at elite colleges make lovely six-figure salaries. But it’s also true that a highly qualified candidate is much more likely to make a lot of money with less education if you go to law school.
The solution to the problem of too few conservatives in academia, then, is simple: Pay them more money, and provide better jobs. This could mean offering fellowships to conservatives. Or, better yet, it would mean working to increase the proportion of tenure-track jobs and the salaries paid to professors.

Ultimately, the Gross and Simmons study, like all previous studies, doesn’t answer the key question: Are conservatives discriminated against, on average, in the faculty hiring process? Anecdotes don’t resolve the issue, since everyone on the left and the right can describe many examples, as I do in my forthcoming book, “Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies.” And political disparities also prove nothing; after all, the underrepresentation of Hispanics on college faculty, which is greater than the underrepresentation of Republicans, doesn’t prove any racial discrimination against Latinos. In fact, it’s quite possible that conservatives (who clearly get preferences at some religious colleges) are, on average, the beneficiaries of political hiring rather than the victims.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to survey political discrimination. The best approach would be to survey the views of graduate students receiving a Ph.D. and compare them with the views of newly hired professors. This wouldn’t be a definitive resolution to the issue, but at least it would help prevent the common error of thinking that lack of representation is the same as discrimination.

John Wilson

John K. Wilson is the founder of the Institute for College Freedom ( and the author of Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies (Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

One thought on “The State of the Faculty – A Liberal View”

  1. this article confirms what a group of us at the comparative literature dept of CUNY have been trying to address, the growing conservatism of faculty and student body of our department and of the field in general. we are as students and aspiring phds deeply concerned with this cultural shift of the institution and the increasing disengagement with politics in the student body. while we don’t want to see this necessarily as a conservative agenda, it does show a trend that matches the global political climate. it would be extremely useful to have a comparison of views from hired professors and phd candidates, as proposed in the final paragraph of the article, to give us some proof of what we are seeing happening, not only in our dept, but in many others across the country.

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