Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and, in 2014-15, will be a visiting professor of sociology at Princeton University. His books include Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? (Harvard University Press, 2013) and the forthcoming Professors and Their Politics, co-edited with Solon Simmons (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). Trusteeship asked him about academe and liberal bias.
Professors tend to skew liberal: fact or fiction?
Professors do tend to be more liberal politically than other Americans. Although what it means to be liberal or conservative has changed over the years, social surveys dating back to the 1950s show that even then professors were generally more supportive of government intervention in the economy and civil-rights protections for racial minority groups and political dissidents. Today, surveys indicate that somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of American college and university faculty members are in the broadly liberal camp, as compared to about 20 percent of American adults overall. That makes the professoriate one of the most liberal of the major American occupations.
With that said, the faculty isn’t a monolithic political bloc. Political attitudes across disciplines and types of institutions vary quite a bit. The social sciences (except for economics) and the humanities are particularly left leaning; applied fields like business and engineering, less so.
Should boards be concerned about political diversity on their campuses?
It’s not clear to me that they should. Professors pulled toward the center left in the 1950s, further left in the 1960s and 1970s, and leaned back slightly toward the right in the 1980s, all in line with broader national trends. During this period, the American university became the envy of the world and a major engine of economic growth and scientific and technological advance. Generally speaking, faculty political belief didn’t get in the way of good research and teaching. In fact, that colleges and universities were seen as environments protective of intellectual freedom and creativity, from the 1960s on, helped attract some of the brightest minds to academic work.
My sense is that while some fields and departments may have become too politicized for their own good, on the whole, American professors remain very much the professionals they always have been. Expressions of concern about faculty politics by any board members—who tend to be more conservative—and by administrators do nothing so much as send a signal to professors that they’re being placed under political scrutiny. Maybe their campuses aren’t intellectual safe spaces after all. Given otherwise deteriorating employment conditions in the higher education sector, sustained board concern about political diversity might begin to drive intellectual talent away.
What can be done to increase political diversity among both faculty and students?
While a conservative professoriate is unlikely any time soon, some things might reduce the hostility many professors feel toward the Republican Party. For starters, more GOP support for basic research in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities might help convince faculty members that the party is not under the influence of anti-intellectuals.
How can institutions encourage students of differing political sensibilities to commingle?
Most students aren’t all that political, but progressive students tend to gravitate toward the social sciences and the humanities, and conservative students toward fields like business. Other evidence hints at institutional polarization. For example, religiously affiliated colleges seem to be attracting growing numbers of conservative students. The danger is that liberal and conservative young adults may have fewer venues to get together to talk about politics and engage in genuine dialogue. Partisan stereotypes may harden as a result.
Colleges and universities should be in the business of giving students rigorous instruction in their fields of study, not social engineering, but the country would probably benefit if there were more settings on campus—for example, town-hall-like forums—where students from the left, right, and center could be encouraged to engage civilly with one another.