It wasn’t so long ago that the infrequent charge of liberal bias on college campuses was met with mockery and disdain. The allegations go all the way back to William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) and Russell Kirk’s Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition (1955), neither of which earned the authors anything but distaste from professors. With Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and David Horowitz’ initial efforts on the Academic Bill of Rights (recounted here), the hostility level rose, but people still denied the fact of bias, for instance, citing the business school as a hive of free market ideology.
Only when inventive researchers found hard data showing the skew to the left did the general public begin to take the liberal bias charge seriously–and only then did the response from the professorate shift from denial to rationalization. One data point emerged from studies by American Enterprise Institute, economist Daniel Klein, and Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture which examined voter registration among faculty members across dozens of departments. They regularly found the liberals outnumbered conservatives by ratios of somewhere between 7-to-1 and 13-to-1.
It was an effective, compact finding. Professors might erect elaborate images of campus life against Allan Bloom’s chapters on the culture of undergraduates, but they couldn’t explain away a simple head count in polar terms (Democrat-Republican). Instead, they offered feeble explanations such as: “Conservatives are too greedy to enter a non-commercial field such as academic research and teaching” and “Conservatives don’t possess the intellectual mindset and critical thinking to assume the task of challenging conventional beliefs and values that goes with a professor’s duties.”
A few years later, groups found another numerical tally that extended into more active political behavior: campaign contributions. In 2004, for instance, the Los Angeles Times reported that “University of California employees have given more than nine times as much money to the presidential candidates this year as they did in 2000, with more than 95% of it going to Sen. John F. Kerry” (see here). In 2008, law professors were reported (see here) donating $461,000 to Obama, $26,000 to McCain, a 95% to 5% imbalance.
Just this week, the Chronicle of Higher Education issued the current figures on contributions. It’s entitled “Academics Still Shell Out for Obama, but Times Have Changed”, and it tallies higher education donations at 81 percent for Obama. Harvard stands at 87 percent for Democrats, Berkeley at 91 percent. The “Change” the reporters cite comes from the rise of for-profit institutions, which leaned heavily toward Romney, Full Sail University donating 93 percent to the Republicans candidates. Chalk that up as another reason to consider for-profit institutions a disruptive force in higher education.
But there is another difference, one not mentioned in the article. Ten years ago, when such data were published showing hard bias to the left on campus, they evoked arguments and nervousness, charge and countercharge. Today, when they appear, people yawn. Horowitz, George Will, and others including the Manhattan Institute have succeeded, overcoming the knee-jerk denial of academics and establishing liberal bias on campus as an acknowledged fact. But the fact hasn’t seemed to spark much action, only nods. Conservative critics of higher education ideology are no longer passed off as cranks, but they don’t have any more power over curriculum and personnel. Professors are more careful, yes, but no less biased. The data did their job, cancelling one particularly obnoxious tactic of the professorate, but they have reached a dead end. The next step in reform must be different.