Liberal Bias in Academia?

This is something you’ve likely heard before – academia is bursting at the brim with leftist intellectuals actively attempting to indoctrinate students.  Perhaps the version you heard isn’t so aggressive.  Maybe the university is filled with left-leaning professors and students just can’t help but be influenced. Or sometimes the opposite case is made: the university is actually painfully conservative, reinforcing conformity and obedience.

But what is the truth? What does the university really look like politically? To answer this question, we have to look at some data.

Mother Jones does a nice job pulling data from a more complete study of the liberal bias by Niel Gross in Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care?, distilling the book down to a few basic points:

  • 50 percent of professors describe themselves as being “left or liberal.” That puts the professoriate considerably to the left of the country as a whole; Gross estimates that professors are “about three times more liberal on average” than American adults.
  • However, just 8 to 9 percent of college faculty can be accurately described as “far left” or “radical”—and the percentage is even smaller among younger faculty. “The professorate is obviously not bursting at the seams with revolutionaries,” writes Gross.
  • 19 percent of professors could be called “moderates.”
  • On the right, Gross estimates that economic conservatives comprise just 4 percent of academia, and that 23 percent of academics are social and pro-military conservatives. In general, conservatives “tend to cluster in fields like accounting, management information, marketing, and electrical engineering” and economics.
  • Professors are also less religious than average Americans—but this, too, shouldn’t be overblown. Research by Gross has shown that just over half believe in God.

According to Gross, and this seems supported by other similar studies, reports of radical left-wing indoctrination in America’s universities is largely overblown. Certainly, intellectuals and academics trend to the left, but the university is not one big union meeting with red flags draped on the walls. Having spent some nine years myself in the hallowed halls of academia, I can attest to Gross’ findings. I’ve never seen a a communist flag in a professor’s office, nor an anti-Christian rally. Still, it’s pretty clear that academia, especially my field–the humanities–is populated mostly by left-leaning thinkers and intellectuals.

The question of why the left is so well-represented in academia is an interesting one, and Gross provides an answer that is likely an important part of the equation: academic self-selects and self-reinforces its political bias. Basically, as the academy began to gain a reputation for trending leftward, people who trended leftward were drawn to the university to be with like-minded people and those who trended rightward avoided the university. In other words, it’s a kind of self-reinforcing political tribalism. And when you look at the structure of most academic departments (though it’s quickly becoming more corporate), the process of bringing in new faculty is pretty personal; much of the process beyond the preliminary issue of qualifications . It’s no surprise that people would naturally gravitate towards candidates who are both qualified and share their worldview.

But it’s more than that, I think. From my own experience, for whatever its worth, the nature of academia seems to draw in a more left-leaning person for a variety of reasons. To be fair, my experience is almost entirely in the humanities world, and more specifically the English/writing world, but I imagine my experience would look familiar to someone in the social sciences or other similar fields. What goes on in the math departments, though, is a complete mystery to me.

One of the main reasons I think left-leaning people are drawn to the university, and to the humanities in particular, is that academia has traditionally been anti-commercial and anti-capitalist–something that appeals to those on the left who recognize the shortfalls of capitalism (which we might separate from “free markets,” here). At least when considering more traditional liberal arts colleges, the primary goal is always that higher, more idealistic aim: to deepen one’s ability to think critically, to challenge conventional thought, to discover what it means to be human, etc. Sadly, the corporate world has infiltrated the university, and academia has been changing for years now, but at least in theory, the traditional role of the university as a place of higher learning above all else still holds true in most institutions.


Another reason I think those who trend leftwards are interested in the academy is the nature of interaction in academia. Generally speaking, it’s communitarian and cooperative rather than individualistic and competitive. Don’t get me wrong–academia is still an extremely competitive place, with colleagues duking it out over grant money and honorary positions. Still, the natural “government” of the university is a committee: a group of people that strive to come to a consensus. This looks quite different from the top-down, more totalitarian or autocratic nature of the corporate world where orders come from above and are handed down. Again, things are changing, but at least at the college and department level, the sense of community is still considered important.

At the end of the day, it does not feel like the end-goal of the university is profit, and I think that appeals deeply to many on the left, who see the profit motive as potentially problematic and counter to their ideals. From a more pragmatic perspective, we can safely assume that people aren’t entering academia for a big paycheck–that’s for sure.

There are other important reasons, too, that there are more left-leaning than right-leaning people in academia. I think the privileging of empathy, the draw of a free-thinking atmosphere, and the separateness from the corporate world all naturally pull those on the left into the halls of academia. In fact, a quick look at those departments that privilege those things the most–say,  English, Peace Studies, Gender/Women’s Studies–reveal the most left-leaning people. People are drawn to institutions that share their values.

UND's Merrifield Hall

U of North Dakota’s Merrifield Hall–arguably the most left-leaning building on campus–houses English, Philosophy, Language studies, among others.

The question that comes up, then, is whether this degree of political singularity presents a problem for academia–whether it is missing out on some benefit from having a larger diversity of viewpoints. As academia is not quite as one-sided as most people think, and because even people who share similar worldviews still have much on which to disagree, I don’t think there’s much to worry about. What say you?


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2 Responses to Liberal Bias in Academia?

  1. College Mate says:

    Intellectuals are usually more liberal in general because the more we know, the more we accept there’s a lot we don’t know.

    As a result, we can accept change and the fact that other people may have vastly different experiences from our own and come to separate conclusions that are no less valid.

    Liberal arts itself teaches this through courses like sociology, psychology, and even economics. These are not principles that line up very well with the conservative right.

    • Cody says:

      I think that’s right, generally speaking; that’s pretty much what I meant by that sense of empathy towards the end of the post. Liberalism, especially American liberalism can be just as closed-minded as American conservatism, though. US politics in general tends towards a kind of statism.

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