College Faculty are Mostly Democrats, Especially at Top-Ranked Schools
Scholars — particularly those of us who are Christian scholars — should model the kind of relational harmony we hope to see replicated in society at large.
Last year the Pew Research Center reported that over 60 percent of Republicans think colleges are bad for America. Over 70 percent of Democrats said the opposite. Curiously, as recently as 2015, a majority from both parties had a positive view of colleges.
The 2015 finding was before the suppression of free speech on college campuses became national news. Is it fair to say that colleges, in general, have a liberal bias? Yes, according to an op-ed in the not-so-conservative New York Times. In 1989 there were two liberal professors for every conservative at colleges and universities nationwide. By 2014, the ratio had grown to six liberals for every conservative.
And now, even more extreme results are being reported by the National Association of Scholars (NAS). Through a survey of over 8,500 tenure track professors at 51 of the 66 top-ranked liberal arts colleges according to U.S. News in 2017, the NAS found that 60 percent were registered as either Republican or Democrat. Among these 60 percent, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by over 10 to 1.
Top Ranked Schools are Uniquely Influential
College professors, on the whole, tend to be more liberal. Scholars disagree on the extent of the disparity. They quibble over survey methods. And they disagree on whether the disparity has gotten more severe over time. But both sides seem to agree that the disparity is real. Remember, the college student demographic also tends to be more liberal — it’s been that way for decades. So this isn’t necessarily felt as a problem. It’s also true that at some schools virtually every professor is conservative. But these schools are the exception that proves the rule.
That said, the 10 to 1 Democrat to Republican ratio found by the NAS is a huge disparity. I suspect the lopsidedness is due to the fact that only “top ranked” schools were surveyed. Where did the Halloween costume controversy occur? Yale. The same place that greeted Senator Sasse with protests when he arrived to give the Buckley Lecture at a free speech (!) conference in the fall of 2015. Harvard has seen the same kind of thing in recent years.
The Heterodox Academy, a group of professors who support viewpoint diversity, published a guide to colleges last year. This guide said that the ratio of liberal to conservative faculty in the northeast — home of the Ivy League — was a whopping 28 to 1.
But this isn’t new. Do you remember Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and “hey hey, ho ho, western civ has got to go”? That was at Stanford University — an elite school on the opposite coast.
While “top ranked” schools aren’t the same as “elite” schools, they’re not far downstream. Top ranked schools tend to be trend setters. Others copy them to move up the rankings. And many of the professors at lesser ranked schools received their graduate training at higher ranked schools. So it’s not surprising that what’s generally true in academia is especially true at the higher levels.
The NAS survey looked at the D:R ratio by discipline. The professional disciplines had the least imbalance. Humanities and interdisciplinary studies had the greatest imbalance.
I suspect that groupthink sets in when your ratio is something like 50 to 1 (or more). How do up-and-coming scholars get a thesis committee to sign off on their dissertations if they’re espousing something the committee strongly disagrees with? Something that’s against the grain of deeply entrenched assumptions within a particular discipline?
In a field like engineering, political assumptions are a non-factor. You go with the hard data the graduate student gathered in the lab. But ideas about human nature and government and truth and goodness play a larger role in other disciplines. Assuming they make it through and join the professor ranks, securing tenure with contrarian views is easier said than done.
In the sciences, we’ve seen evidence of groupthink on the issue of Darwinian evolution, with accomplished intelligent design scholars like Guillermo Gonzalez being shut out when he applied for tenure. And even though he’s an astronomer, not a biologist. Other disciplines have their own examples.
Political homogeneity is troubling, the NAS authors write, because “it biases research and teaching and reduces academic credibility.” Indeed.
What Can Schools Do?
Work very hard to value ideological diversity — arguably the hardest kind of diversity to value. Remember that true tolerance presupposes a disagreement. Recognize that your students will be best served by being exposed to a variety of viewpoints. Listen deeply to those who think differently. Have respectful and fair debates about ideas. Encourage friendships like the one that the late Antonin Scalia had with fellow Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Scholars — particularly those of us who are Christian scholars — should model the kind of relational harmony we hope to see replicated in society at large.
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).