Chart of the Day: Universities Are Pretty Liberal Places

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The chart on the right comes from Heterodox Academy, a group founded a few months ago to promote more ideological diversity on university campuses. What it shows is unsurprising: over the past few decades, university faculties have become almost entirely liberal. And this is for all university faculty. According to HA, humanities and social science faculty are closer to 95 percent liberal.

Why? Paul Krugman thinks it’s because conservatives went nuts starting in the 80s, so nobody with any intelligence and genuine curiosity wants to associate with them anymore. Michael Strain suggests that it might be because faculties actively discriminate against conservative job candidates. This argument has been going on forever, and there are a few basic points of view:

  • Undergrads, especially in the humanities, are mostly liberal, which means that PhD program fill up with liberals. Conservatives just aren’t interested in the liberal arts these days, so there are very few to choose from when it comes time to hire new faculty.
  • Being exposed to graduate work in the humanities converts a lot of people to liberalism.
  • Liberal arts departments consider conservative views inherently racist/sexist/etc. and are loath to hire anyone who promotes conservative views.

Needless to say, all of these interact with each other, and more than one may be right. But here’s what I don’t get: why the endless argument? These all seem like eminently testable hypotheses:

  • Are undergraduate liberal arts departments predominantly filled with liberal students?
  • Are conservatives not much interested in the liberal arts these days? Why?
  • How many conservatives apply to grad programs in the liberal arts? How many are accepted?
  • How much do views change while in grad school?
  • How many conservatives end up getting PhDs in the liberal arts?
  • Of those, how many get tenure-track jobs?

If, say, 95 percent of job candidates are liberal, then there’s probably no discrimination. Conservatives are being hired in proportion to their numbers. If conservatives generally don’t major in the liberal arts as undergrads, then probably PhD programs aren’t discriminating either. Etc. These all seem like fairly answerable questions.

Most likely, there’s a vicious circle involved. As the American right became more conservative while the liberals arts became (say) modestly more liberal, it would make sense if conservatives just didn’t feel like joining up. This naturally produced a more left-leaning liberal arts faculty, rinse and repeat. Eventually you end up at 95 percent.

But why guess? Can’t these questions at least be suggestively answered?

For what it’s worth, I agree that it’s a problem regardless of how it happened. It’s easy for liberals to see the conservative bubble when we talk about Fox News or talk radio, and we immediately understand why it’s bad: it makes people lazy and unwilling to question their basic beliefs. We don’t see this so clearly when it’s our own bubble, but we should. Bubbles are bubbles, and ours are no better than theirs.

And now to end on a griping note: I would be a lot more sympathetic to conservative complaints about the academy if they showed an equal concern about fields that lean heavily conservative (big business, the military, etc.). For some reason, though, that never seems to strike them as a problem. Why?

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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