Why Are Professors Liberal?


To the careful observer of American higher education, the questions Neil Gross raises in Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? might seem self-explanatory. Indeed, such an observer could reason, everyone knows that American universities are run by left-wing academics who bar conservative students and faculty from moving up the ranks. In addition, he might say, conservatives obviously care about political skew because the professoriate tends to marginalize or ignore their views. However, Gross wishes to upend both narratives. 

Before he does so, Gross asks whether the professoriate is really as left-leaning as its critics allege. Unsurprisingly, his finds that it is. Gross draws this conclusion from older data, which shows not only that college professors have self-identified as liberals since the 1940s, but that professors have become more left-wing since 1969. In addition, he and a research partner conduct their own research. Their “Politics of the American Professoriate” study surveyed 1,416 professors from across the disciplines and types of higher education institutions, and interviewed select respondents. His findings add some nuance to the discussion. For instance, he finds that “strong conservatives” comprise 23 percent of the professoriate, “economic conservatives” comprise 4 percent, and “moderates” comprise 19 percent. This data hardly paint a picture of a conservative wilderness. 

Helpfully, Gross’s findings also illustrate the ideological distribution within each field. Here, however, the data conforms to the traditional narrative. There is ideological balance in physical science, engineering, and computer sciences departments, but the humanities and social sciences are overwhelmingly left-leaning. As we know from years of chronicling political bias in the classrooms, the ideological skew of the latter disciplines is problematic. Professors who teach humanities and the softer sciences let their convictions enter the classroom to a much greater extent than those teaching in highly technical fields. Thus, whatever balance exists in the professoriate overall does not actually translate into an equal airing of conservation and liberal perspectives. In subjects where partisanship likely shapes scholarship, left-wing professors reign supreme. Gross, perhaps hoping to paint a rosier picture of academe, does not emphasize this point sufficiently.

With that said, however, Gross acknowledges our universities’ leftward slant and makes a valiant effort to explain it. He begins by rejecting “the standard explanations,” including claims that liberals join the academy to shape policy and preserve their class position, that advanced education fosters liberal attitudes, and that left-wing temperament is better suited for the academic lifestyle. He does not find evidence for any of them.

To his credit, Gross also devotes ample time to addressing the more formidable argument that conservatives are underrepresented in the academy because liberal gatekeepers bar their entry. Dissatisfied with the data on this question, Gross and two research partners designed a novel study. Posing as prospective doctoral students in search of information on graduate school, they sent two emails to the directors of graduate study for the top seventy-five social science and humanities programs. To test the effect of political bias on admissions, one email had the “student” mention that they had worked either for the Obama or McCain campaign, while the second email did not. The researchers found no significant difference in the levels of frequency or enthusiasm with which the directors responded to the “conservative” applicant. This led Gross to believe that “most social scientists and humanists in leading departments work hard to keep their political feelings and opinions from interfering with their evaluations of academic personnel.” 

Unfortunately, Gross’s study shows no such thing. The letters he and he co-researchers submitted were only expressions of interest, and did not require the graduate study directors to make any definite commitments. We cannot infer that these professors would allow conservative students to join their hallowed ranks. More importantly,  Gross seems to misunderstand the problem of partisan bias in the academy. The issue is not that professors are biased against Republicans, but that the humanities and social sciences are so thoroughly politicized that students with conservative inclinations do not share the research interests of today’s professoriate.

As Gross himself acknowledges, certain disciplines are so suffused with a left-wing outlook that conservative students have no reason to seek careers studying them. By and large, most professors likely do not care if their graduate students have worked for Republicans. However, they are insistent that their students share their interests, which are often informed by a left-wing narrative. There is therefore little space for conservative students.

More compelling, then, is Gross’s account of how the academy became a bastion of left-wing thought. Gross traces this phenomenon to the American university’s long-standing relationship to Protestant theology and the WASP aristocracy. He argues that as the Protestant elite that traditionally produced America’s professors began to support the Progressive movement in the nineteenth century, America’s professors, in turn, increasingly adopted the Progressive outlook. Since then, Gross asserts, the public has associated the academic world with leftism. As a result, today’s students engage in what Gross calls “political self-selection”: left-wing students join the professoriate because they perceive it to be a profession for good left-wingers, while conservative students tend to avoid the academy for the same reason.

While this account is surely incomplete — as noted above, ideological pressures also keep conservative students out — it provides a more realistic explanation of our universities than those offered by some of academia’s contemporary critics. Gross’s research shows that it was not the protests of the 1960s that turned the universities leftward; indeed, the strong relationship between the university and the left has a much older pedigree. Consequently, the problems conservatives have identified are more entrenched than they would like to think.

Ultimately, Gross does not take the conservative critique of the university seriously. He claims that the critique was part of modern conservatism’s strategy to “defend the rich and to preserve social hierarchies against the ideals of egalitarianism” while “avoid[ing] the charge that it was undemocratic.” In Gross’s account, conservatism’s attack on elite universities allowed it to appear populist even as it attempted to preserve privilege for the few.

Gross’s decision to dismiss the conservative critique is unwise. In doing so, he avoids exploring the perfectly reasonable claim that a diversity of viewpoints might actually improve the quality of college education. Indeed, he evinces no concern for the paltry representation of conservatives in the university, a fact that should depress any advocate of intellectual pluralism. Perhaps he truly believes in the unchanging left-wing character of the university and, by extension, in the futility of reform. However, it is precisely for this reason that conservatives continue the fight. 


3 thoughts on “Why Are Professors Liberal?

  1. I stopped reading when the article claimed that 23% of the professoriate is “strongly conservative.” What rubbish. You can go through a hundred history or sociology departments at major universities and not find a single Republican much less someone who is conservative. Let me make a wager–I’ll bet 95% of those strongly conservative profs voted for Obama. Their definition of a conservative might mean that they are not as Marxist as their colleagues.

  2. My understanding is that the liberal tradition in academia goes back to the 19th C when it was fashionably prestigious among Americans to go to Europe, Germany, for higher education. The German socialist strain thus creeped into our higher education system.

  3. I taught political science for 34 years retiring in July,1999.I will be 79 in June.
    My life has gone through many phases.Most important were that my dad was a small businessman and I knew,living through the depression, how TOUGH life could be.
    I worked in jobs through college even though my folks were relativelty well off.I was NOT a Jewish American PRINCE.
    I had 2 miltary tours -6 months at Fort Leonard Wood in 1959 double pneumonia and called out of grad school at UW Madison in the JFK Berlin mobilization of septemeber,1961.all these events had a huge impact on me. You meet all kinds of people that way.Raided in a NEW DEAL home,I still changed my views.

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