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Addressing political imbalance in college faculties
By Linda Seebach
Scripps Howard News Service


April 01, 2005

The latest study about political imbalance in college faculties should end the debate about whether it exists, and move along to the question of whether it matters, and, if so, what if anything should be done about it.

The article is called "Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty," by Stanley Rothman, professor emeritus at Smith College, S. Robert Lichter of George Mason University and Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto. It appeared in an online journal called The Forum, published by the Berkeley Electronic Press (

I've met Rothman at a number of academic conferences over the past 15 years or so, and to the extent I know his political or ideological predilections, they're quite similar to mine. But the one thing I definitely know about him is that he's a fanatic about getting good data and following it wherever it leads. The other two authors I don't know personally, but what I've read of their work suggests the same thing about them.

The data they use come from the 1999 North American Academic Study Survey conducted by a survey research firm, Angus Reid (now Ipsos-Reid). That's quite recent, given how slowly the composition of most faculties changes, and it updates a roughly similar Carnegie survey from 1984. The American sample included 1,643 professors from 183 four-year colleges and universities. The survey gathered demographic information, opinions on social and political issues and faculty activities and accomplishment.

That faculty members are more likely to identify themselves as left or liberal than the population as a whole is scarcely in doubt, except perhaps among exactly those faculty members themselves. But the margin is still striking; 72 percent described their views as left or liberal, and only 15 percent as right or conservative (I don't know the confidence level). A Harris poll taken the same year showed the corresponding figures for the United States as a whole as 18 percent left and 37 percent right. Party affiliations were similarly unbalanced, though with a larger number of independents or centrists. In the 1984 survey, left/liberals outnumbered right/conservatives by only a few percentage points, 39 percent to 34 percent.

But the authors ask another question that's more interesting, because it's harder to get at. "Is there any evidence indicating that these liberal orientations are self-reinforcing? Do faculty who do not share the prevailing mindset find professional advancement more difficult?"

Their preliminary answer is yes. "Even after taking into account the effects of professional accomplishment, along with many other individual characteristics, conservatives and Republicans teach at lower quality schools than do liberals and Democrats." But the thing about doing a statistical analysis is that the results you get are not dependent on the opinions you hold before you do it. "The analysis finds similar effects based on gender and religiosity, i.e., women and practicing Christians teach at lower quality schools than their professional accomplishments would predict."

That probably understates the problem, because the activities the authors use for their index of professional accomplishments, including peer-reviewed articles, chapters and books published, service on a journal's editorial board, time spent on research and participation in professional meetings, are themselves influenced by the perceived quality of a professor's institution.

Other studies indicate that when journal articles are reviewed blind, those by relatively unknown authors have a better chance of acceptance.

This analysis does not show, and the authors are careful not to claim, that deliberate discrimination on political grounds is the sole or even the primary cause, because a great many factors go into faculty hiring decisions. Some fields are trendier than others, where you got your degree matters, where your articles have been published counts and so forth. But once a field has become nearly monolithic, there's a thumb on the scale at every stage of the long journey from college freshman to college professor; from grades in undergraduate courses to getting into grad school to finding a dissertation adviser to getting a teaching job to getting tenure.

The indignant protestations by search-committee members that they never ever discriminate against job candidates because of their politics are probably perfectly sincere. It's just that by the time search committees are looking at candidates, there are hardly any conservatives left in the pipeline.

The answer is not political quotas, or affirmative action for conservatives.

First, many conservatives argue against affirmative action for anyone. And second, in most fields there wouldn't be enough of them anyway to come anywhere close to matching the general population.

But their results suggest, the authors say, that "conservative complaints of the presence and effects of liberal homogeneity in academia deserve to be taken seriously, despite their self-interested quality and the anecdotal nature of the evidence previously presented."

With this paper, the debate has backed up anecdote with data.


Contact Linda Seebach of the Rocky Mountain News

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