According to many critics, the case is shut. Higher education — the one American institution that should make intellectual diversity a first priority — actually appears to do just the opposite. In fact, some critics suggest that universities have made it a top priority to create an environment of intellectual homogeneity – to an extent that is rarely found in most other areas of American life.
A series of studies beginning in 1995 were conducted by The American Enterprise Institute and are often cited as persuasive evidence of the exceedingly narrow bounds of intellectual discourse at American universities. The initial study relied on the political party affiliation of professors in a handful of academic disciplines at Cornell and Stanford, using voting records of two counties, Tompkins County for Cornell and Santa Clara County for Stanford. That study discovered 171 registered Democrats and just seven Republicans at Cornell. In the Stanford sample, they found 163 Democrats, 17 Republicans, and six independents.
In answer to critics on the left who claimed The American Enterprise methodology was both overly narrow and politically biased, a far more comprehensive academic study was led by Daniel Klein, an economist at Santa Clara University. That study was published by the National Association of Scholars in its journal, Academic Questions. Klein’s methodology was essentially the same but the study covered many dozens of universities and academic disciplines across the country.
In his 2005 essay in The American Enterprise, “Case Closed: There’s No Longer Any Way to Deny It: College Campuses Are the Most Politically Undiverse Places in America,” TAE editor Karl Zinsmeister said. “Perhaps universities should recruit intellectually conservative professors with the same zeal they display for balancing flesh tones,” Zinsmeister’s essay said, quoting TAE reporter Ken Lee. “Political lopsidedness does not bode well for the educational process. While today’s students are taught by professors of diverse skin colors, they are not exposed to a diversity of ideas. The university, once dubbed the free marketplace of ideas, has been transformed into a gray one-party state where only one set of views thrive.”
Even some liberals agreed. In a 2012 commentary in the Christian Science Monitor, historian Jonathan Zimmerman, a self-described “devout” Democrat, based his pro-affirmative action argument by following the money flowing from college campuses to political campaigns.
Zimmerman found, for example, that at Columbia University some 650 professors and staff members gave money to the Obama campaign compared to just 21 who donated to Mitt Romney’s campaign. At the eight Ivy League schools, some 96 percent of staff and professors contributing gave to Obama. “Race-based affirmative action has made our universities much more interesting and truly educational places, adding a range of voices and experiences that hadn’t been heard before,” Zimmerman writes. “Hiring more conservative faculty would do the same thing.”)
Affirmative action based on political ideology seems a rather drastic step. In their forthcoming book, Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, Jon A. Shields and Joshua Dunn Sr., have written what they describe as a glimpse into the “hidden world of right-wing professors.” While clearly sympathetic to the arguments that much of higher education is populated with faculty on the political left, Shields and Dunn (who do not disclose their own political preferences) also suggest that most of the conservative professors they interviewed for their study had managed to survive and even thrive in academe.
Shields, who teaches government at Claremont McKenna College, and Dunn, a political scientist at the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, did extensive interviews of 153 “right-wing” professors in six academic disciplines at 84 universities. A quarter of their sample of 153 included political science professors, followed by economics (22 percent), history (19 percent), and so on. The sample of conservatives included just 9 percent who worked in departments of sociology. More than half the sample included full professors and fully 60 percent of the sample worked at Ph.D. granting research institutions.
“Such professors,” Shields and Dunn write, “tend to regard themselves as political scientists or economists who happen to be conservatives, rather than conservative political scientists or economists.” They go on, “And this means that conservatives are often tolerated by their progressive peers not because they are repressing their politics in a sharply ideological work environment or even because of the broad-mindedness of liberal academics — they are tolerated because large swaths of the academy itself is not very politicized to begin with.”
Indeed, at its core, American higher education is a centrist — and arguably a largely conservative enterprise — despite the personal political preferences of faculty or even the presence of a very small percentage of radicals on the left or right who are employed at universities.
To assess just how ideologically slanted higher education is in American society, it’s instructive to follow the money. The vast majority of institutions are publicly funded, as state legislatures, with majorities of Democrats or Republicans, have signed on to a social compact that has remained remarkably steady over several generations.
States have agreed that colleges and universities remain a pretty good bet to meet the economic demand for human capital, by educating and training new generations of Americans who will get decent jobs, have families, go to church, vote, stay out of jail and off welfare, purchase goods and services, and invest in the future for oneself and family. This production cycle works, in part, because the public and private sectors have decided to invest in future economic growth and political and social stability. In fact, American universities have followed social movements, not led them. African Americans won their civil rights in black churches and on the streets of Selma and Montgomery, not because a cabal of leftist professors thought it was a radical idea.
Clearly, American higher education does not exist to promote or execute a radical leftist (or right wing) political or economic agenda. The very existence of mainstream colleges and universities depends on behavior that, ultimately, answers to other mainstream institutions that hold the purse strings. And that includes billions of dollars in private money that alumni, corporations and other big-money donors give to both public and private universities — especially private universities.
In 2015, Stanford University raised a total of $1.63 billion in charitable contributions, the most ever recorded in in a single year, according to Council for Aid to Education in its annual report. Harvard, the nation’s wealthiest university, raised $1.1 billion from private donors. In total, charitable contributions to universities increased 7.6 percent to $40.3 billion from the prior year — “the highest recorded since the inception of the survey in 1957.” More than 55 percent of that record amount came from private foundations and alumni. Except for UCLA and UC-San Francisco, the top ten universities receiving the most charity were all elite private institutions, including Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. What’s more, private gifts of $100 million or higher totaled almost $1.5 billion, and went to just four universities.
It’s inconceivable that either the public or private sectors of the U.S. economy would provide so many billions to higher education institutions if corporations, foundations, legislatures and other aspects of mainstream society believed for one minute that universities would fail to serve the interests of mainstream society. Case in point: The Associated Press recently reported that a major donor to the Harvard Law School, the law firm Milbank, yanked its $1 million commitment to pay for scholarly conferences at the law school after learning its donation “helped pay for a discussion supporting an independent Palestine.”
Don’t be fooled. Despite the “charitable” moniker that exists to satisfy IRS rules for charitable organizations, individuals and other private sector donors give billions to American universities out of self-interest. Often, that interest is to promote an agenda that serves private financial interests and/or preserves the very social arrangements that have allowed major donors to mass great wealth. Follow the money and then assess just how the professoriate’s political affiliation really matters to the real work of the modern university — which is the preservation and growth of mainstream society.
There’s another equally significant reason why universities themselves mitigate the academic effects of the political affiliation of individual professors in the humanities and social sciences. Unlike the hard sciences, where ideology rarely comes into play, the humanities and social sciences are the fields in which questions of intellectual conformity matter most.
A social science professor’s political beliefs undoubtedly influence the intellectual framework with which one poses academic questions and approaches scientific problems. But fears of abuse of personal ideology are probably overstated. Increasingly in the social sciences — and in some cases almost pervasively — the effects of personal ideology occur at the margins of far more dominant methods of inquiry and proof. Quantitative analysis based on math, statistics, and theory is now the dominant methodology to prove or disprove truth claims in many of the social sciences, particularly in economics, political science and, increasingly, in sociology.
Shields and Dunn emphasize this phenomenon frequently in their book. Nowhere is method more pronounced than in the field of economics, which is also where the authors found the highest percentages of conservatives in the social sciences and humanities. In the authors’ sample, fully 77 percent of the economists surveyed identified themselves as libertarian scholars of the Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” variety, who believe that unfettered markets and limited government oversight most efficiently allocate resources and create wealth. But even that core believe is overshadowed by quantitative methods in economics, a field that since the second world war has come to resemble physics and other hard sciences in its reliance on data and quantitative analysis to prove or disprove causal relationships in economic and even social behavior.
The dominance of method in economics means that scholars from diverse ideological perspectives can meet on the same playing field of research — and get along quite nicely. The National Bureau of Economic Research is a case in point. Economists from a wide range of ideological viewpoints participate in NBER’s research program, all unified in a common believe that scientific rigor is the most critical underlying ideology in their work. Left-leaning economists from UC Berkeley get along with libertarians from the University of Chicago because economic science almost religiously adheres to that value. The economists’ personal views about human nature take a back seat to method — the data set and what the commonly accepted tools of analysis can permit one to prove from the data. .
“Many conservative economists we interviewed emphasized a commitment to scientific rigor,” Dunn and Shields write. “As an economist at a prestigious university put it, ‘[politics is] just not what we’re focused on that much. We’re more focused on, ‘Did you ask interesting questions? Did you do the model well? Did you understand the method? It’s a science thing. People’s views of the science may be affected by their own underlying values but there is a common language, a common framework, a common methodology.’”
Even in sociology, which has long been identified as a bastion of true believers for leftist causes and impervious to scientific rigor, is being infiltrated by more by quantitative methods than by radical ideologues. The authors interviewed one conservative sociologist who had successfully presented a paper about the fluidity of homosexual identity. The sociologist argued that homosexual identity was not simply hardwired by biology but was also shaped by “’some element of social construction.’”
This sociologist commented on the reception his paper drew from other sociologists. “Sociologists, as a rule, if you’ve got an argument and a data set, are willing to listen.” This is not to suggest that many conservative professors do not suffer from genuine bias that comes from their minority status. But one economist at a prestigious university said a lot of the bitter complaints from conservatives stemmed from professional jealousy. He noted a tendency for some conservatives to blame failures on liberal bias if their accomplishments or research activity did not receive the respect they believed was deserved.
Thus, two major influences have led universities to restrict the influence of liberal politics on the intellectual output of higher education: First, universities do not exist in a vacuum segregated from the demands of the larger society. In fact, it’s just the opposite. American universities are completely dependent on the financial resources of its constituents in the public and private sectors. Universities and the professors who are employed by them are largely servants to the larger society — hardly institutions who employ an army of leftist scholars who have a secret agenda of subversion or revolution. Second, in the interest of truth-seeking based on the science and method, political differences between conservatives and liberals are increasingly irrelevant.
Still, the charge remains: political liberals remain dominant in terms of percentage of total faculty on most college and university campuses, creating an imbalance of power that inevitably leads to the intentional or even unintentional indoctrination of students.
For their part, Dunn and Shields suggest that this concern comes mainly from outside of academe. Within the academy, according to their interviews with professors, even conservatives say the fear of indoctrination is not nearly the threat that outsiders believe. “Unlike some right-wing thinkers outside the academy, conservative professors do not believe that their leftist colleagues convert many students to Marxism, postmodernism, radical feminism, or other popular varieties of left-wing thought,” the authors conclude.
But even when faculty treat students with respect and professionalism, leftist tendencies among the faculty can often skew their teaching, Shields and Dunn suggest. Other scholars disagree. The sociologist Kyle Dobson, for example, argues the university experience often moderates the attitudes of left-leaning students by the time they graduate. This suggests that students are properly exposed to a wide range of viewpoints at most American universities. They key factor is whether students are academically engaged.
Whither Affirmative Action?
Nevertheless, fears about the disease of intellectual conformity at universities has prompted a genuinely action-oriented movement. At the center of this movement is the Heterodox Academy, founded last year by a number of scholars who’ve made it their mission to promote more intellectual diversity on campuses, led by Jonathan Haidt of NYU’s Stern School of Business. The Academy is a self-described “mix of liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and centrists.” Haidt writes, “Scholars have been calling attention to this problem for decades… and nothing has been done. This time will be different.”)
Really? Besides teach-ins, conferences, websites, and calls to arms, exactly what can be done to simply create intellectual diversity? Besides the passage of time and slowly shifting viewpoints in the academy, what legal remedies are there?
Zimmerman suggests hiring preferences for conservative professors are justified in light of the Supreme Court’s Bakke decision. “I am not suggesting schools should have any kind of numerical quota for conservative professors, which every department or institution would have to reach,” Zimmerman says. “We should simply take political leanings into consideration, just as we do with racial background, when reviewing candidates for academic positions.”
The rub, however, is that political ideology hardly ranks with race, age, religion and gender as a constitutionally protected category, and it would be inordinately difficult to make a legal case for hiring preferences of any kind for the largely white, male population of conservative professors. For example, in the interest of diversity, hiring conservatives should be a priority for sociology departments. But, by the same token, shouldn’t economics departments, most of which are stacked with libertarians and conservatives, also be required to give hiring preferences for Marxists?
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine conservative professors suddenly being in favor of affirmative action for themselves while arguing against the same preference based on race. For that reason, Shields and Dunn say, most of the conservative professors they interviewed thought special hiring preferences for themselves would be a bad idea. One conservative sociologist told the authors: “I personally think that the only way we should bring up affirmative action for conservatives is the reductio ad absurdum of the diversity rationale, but not as a serious proposal. It’s just a f….. nightmare kind of scenario, a cure worse than the disease.”