Out of Sync: America’s University Faculty

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Every three years or so, the highly regarded Higher
Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA surveys large numbers of faculty at hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation.  This year’s survey of some 30,000 faculty
reminds us of how different university faculty are from ordinary Americans.

Take politics. In the latest survey, for the 2010-2011
academic year, 62.7 percent of faculty said that they were either “far left” or
“liberal,” while only 11.9 percent said they were “far right” or
“conservative.”  The notion that
universities are hot beds for left-wing politics has a solid basis in
fact.  Moreover, the left-right imbalance
is growing –a lot.  The proportion of
those on the left is rising, on the right declining. In a HERI survey three
years earlier, there were 3.51 professors on the left for each one on the
right; in the latest survey, that ratio rose sharply to 5.27, not likely
explainable solely by sample variations. Meanwhile, the middle-of-the-road
professor is becoming less common (the proportion fell from 28.4 to 25.4
percent in three years).

Contrast this with the general public. In an article
written earlier this year, Atlantic
senior editor Richard Florida concluded Americans were becoming more
conservative (opposite the trend amongst academics), with 40 percent labeling
themselves conservative, and only 21 percent liberal–one one-third the
proportion of the faculty. Also, the 36 percent of Americans who call themselves
“moderate” contrast with a much smaller proportion of faculty who are
“middle-of-the-road.”

Professors
Work Less

University professors differ dramatically from other
folks in another way — in work habits.  A
majority (56.2 percent) in the UCLA survey report they teach eight hours a week
or less — for about 30 weeks or so a year. Moreover, teaching loads are
plummeting, with the most recent campus rage being the one course obligation
(usually three hours a week). Three years ago, only seven percent taught one to
four hours weekly — now 15.8 percent do. Roughly 22 percent of faculty teach
little or not at all.

My faculty colleagues are quick to remind me that we
spend hours in class preparation, grading papers and tests, etc. Yet the HERI
survey reports over 63 percent of faculty spend 12 hours a week or less on
these functions. How about advising students? Most spend little time (one to
four hours weekly) on that.  It appears
the typical (median) professor works maybe 19 hours a week on all
student-related functions. Does that mean they are doing a lot of research? The
survey says 62.6 percent report they spend eight hours a week or less on
research activities, with the median probably being about 5.2 hours. Adding together
all these student and research activities together, you get a bit over 24 hours
a week for the typical professor. Add a few hours for minor administrative
tasks and committee meetings, you might get to 30 hours. That also,
coincidentally, is about what surveys show students work each week on academic
matters.  So the typical faculty member
truly works maybe 900 hours a year, about one-half the work load of the typical
American.

In fairness to faculty, averages and medians mask
important differences, and some work long hours and are highly devoted to
students and/or their research — but others do even less than these numbers
suggest. Moreover, universities are quasi-medieval in character, and just as
there used to be lords, knights and serfs, so today there are deans (the old
lords), tenured and tenured track faculty (the knights), and adjunct and
part-time professors and teaching assistants (the serfs).  The academic serfs often are poorly — the HERI
survey says fewer than half of them are even given a computer to use by their
university. 

Fondness
for Big Government

The bigger question is: why are faculty so different?
Regarding politics, while some devise esoteric theories how the inquisitive
mind leads to non-mainstream political views, historically intellectuals have
sometimes been largely oriented to what today would be called “conservative”
views. I think today’s leftish-faculty orientation is easily explained: the
academy, even at so-called private schools, is heavily dependent on public
funds, and liberals tend to be more disposed to larger government. Liberals
like big government, and big government means a better, more secure life for
more faculty.

Since the gateway to the professoriate is through professors
themselves, right-leaning prospective faculty are sometimes turned off by the
usually correctly perceived need to suppress their views in order to get an
appointment and tenure. Those who do not share the affinity for big government
are often shunned, leading conservative/libertarian groups such as the Charles
Koch Foundation to fund little campus enclaves 
where right-minded professors can teach and do research without
harassment. Attempts to form those enclaves are often bitterly fought by the
faculty.  Promoting “diversity” in higher
education means supporting relatively trivial variations in physical attributes
of humans (such as skin color or gender differences), not the far more
important differences of the mind manifested in verbal and written expression.

All of this is reinforced by the survey data on work
habits. Faculty, more or less, do what they want to — the perfect job. Third
party largess has given them the ability to live a life that few others can afford.
The independence of universities limits external oversight, and as dollars are
dropped on universities, the largely unaccountable campus community spends them
on what it wants — falling teaching
loads, lots of administrative support, etc. Government has been good to
academe.

As the faculty and broader community increasingly
diverge, however, there is a growing possibility that this divergence will have
unintended consequences. People love higher education, but are increasing
chafing at rising prices, mounting student loan burdens, and a growing
perception of how goofy universities appear to the average citizen. This leads
to tepid state support for public universities, and even occasional discussion
about limiting tax-exempt status for gifts to rich public schools. Universities
may be becoming too different for their own good.

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder teaches at Ohio University and is the author of "Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today."

2 thoughts on “Out of Sync: America’s University Faculty

  1. The primary driver for the wide and growing divergence between university faculty politics and the average American is tied to the failure of academics to practice what they preach – liberal thinking. That is, a willingness to show respect for and incorporation of the views of those with whom they disagree. Self-selection reinforces this rigid and stifled environment.
    For all their screaming and kicking about thought censorship, university faculties, in large part, are experts at systematically and harshly banning any perceived threat to their own narrow and, often, bankrupt views of the world beyond their safe, well-funded lives. The financial crisis may be the most effective means to cut funding to the demi-gods of what was once a powerful system of developing creative, diverse, and analytical thinkers.

  2. Does the HERI study break down the academics by discipline? Other studies have shown that the soft/social sciences have a predominant Liberal mindset, whereas the hard/physical sciences have avoided this.

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