Why professors are liberal

Another idea, Professor Is a Label That Leans to the Left:

The overwhelmingly liberal tilt of university professors has been explained by everything from outright bias to higher I.Q. scores. Now new research suggests that critics may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of looking at why most professors are liberal, they should ask why so many liberals -- and so few conservatives -- want to be professors.

A pair of sociologists think they may have an answer: typecasting. Conjure up the classic image of a humanities or social sciences professor, the fields where the imbalance is greatest: tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular -- and liberal. Even though that may be an outdated stereotype, it influences younger people's ideas about what they want to be when they grow up.


He added that the gender-typing of a field like physics might also partly explain the dearth of women in it, another subject that has provoked heated disputes.

To Mr. Gross, accusations by conservatives of bias and student brainwashing are self-defeating. "The irony is that the more conservatives complain about academia's liberalism," he said, "the more likely it's going to remain a bastion of liberalism."

In regards to the last paragraph, a friend of mine noted what it would sound like if you replaced "conservative" with "women" and "liberalism" with "maleness." Or "conservative" with "black" and "liberalism" with "whiteness." Certain types of diversity are easy to dismiss as trivial, or worthy of only academic analysis, while other forms are not brushed aside in this manner. Presumably the fact that sociology professors are invariably center-Left, resulting in a discipline that lacks in any conservative perspectives, is less of a worry than, for example, the lack of Asian Americans.

Another issue is that from what I recall the professoriate is extremely in favor of proactive attempts to race and gender balance the makeup of the students whom they teach, but are far more skeptical of the same considerations being directly inserted into the process of hiring or awarding tenure. I suppose university admissions officers are less objective than faculty hiring and tenure boards?

I do think that the explanation above is correct; if a smart person wants to make money they go into the corporate world, and if they want to "make a difference" they go in to non-profits and academia. I think there's going to be positive feedback loops here as people sort in a manner where they select environments which suit them, and so intensify the tinge of particular professions or disciplines.

More like this

Over at Talking Philosophy, Mike LaBossiere takes up that question. Unfortunately, I think his answer is mostly wrong. Here's his introduction: One common conservative talking point is that academics is dominated by professors who are, if not outright communists, at least devout liberals. While…
When I posted this originally (here and here) I quoted a much longer excerpt from the cited Chronicle article than what is deemed appropriate, so this time I urge you to actually go and read it first and then come back to read my response. From Dr.Munger's blog, an interesting article: Liberal…
When I posted this originally (here and here) I quoted a much longer excerpt from the cited Chronicle article than what is deemed appropriate, so this time I urge you to actually go and read it first and then come back to read my response. From Dr.Munger's blog, an interesting article: Liberal…
There are a great many reasons to hate David Horowitz, but near the top of the list has to be the fact that his constant harping on "liberal bias" in academia has spawned a thousand studies of the politics of academics, complete with chin-stroking analysis peices about What It All Means. The latest…

I disagree ... Career earnings are higher for professors than almost any other career ... Sure, peak earnings in business are higher than peak earnings in academia, but nobody has such a long run of high earnings as professors ... Moreover, the people who make academic careers often have good reason to believe they wouldn't succeed as well in business as other people.

Many conservatives would be happy to become professors, if it were more feasible.

"I do think that the explanation above is correct; if a smart person wants to make money they go into the corporate world, and if they want to "make a difference" they go in to non-profits and academia."

Your comment only makes sense if it is true that "wanting to make a difference" is equated with liberalism, and "want to make money" is equated with conservatism. But that really wasn't what the article was saying at all. People gravitate towards fields where there are people most like them, whether that's sex, race, or idealogical. Liberal/conservative is a lot bigger than the selfishness of fiscal decisions.

right, but i think that explains why the fields have that initial trend in the first place. i.e., i don't think the distribution of the fields are random. the auto-catalytic process they're talking about only amplifies it.

Yes. I think this insight is right on. I also think people do not generally understand the immense psychological force of identity in behavior.

I'd suggest that most major life choices such as career, marriage partner, military enlistment, higher ed or not, which school, etc. are made by emotional forces directing people to the choice that most closely matches the image of who they believe themselves to be and their profound need to have others see them as that person.

This even extends to what kind of cars they buy, what style clothes they wear and where they buy them, the music they listen to and the clubs and restaurants they frequent, etc.

Any cognition involved in such decisions is more likely to be after the fact and for the purpose of justification.

If you doubt that identity is a significant force in behavior try telling your teenage daughter what style clothes you'd like her wear to school.

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 18 Jan 2010 #permalink

Another part of it is the way conservative has come to be defined. Professors are unlikely to be Bible Christians, for example, or little-government conservatives, or authoritarian militarists. I have known "liberal" professors who were actually quite conservative, militarily cautious, anti-Communist, culturally elitist, anti-populists, and socially moderate, but they were big government welfare conservatives.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 18 Jan 2010 #permalink

I would argue that the skepticism of the professorate in regards to the racially "pro-active" (truly a marvellously anodyne phrase, so much less offensive than "racially discriminatory") hiring of faculty is somewhat offset, at least in the Humanities (my own area), by the existence of specially tailored fields of study: African-American Studies, Chicano/Latino/a Studies, Asian-American Studies,etc.A quick glance at the faculty lists in any of these "disciplines" will usually show that the ethnicity/race of the bulk of the faculty neatly matches the area of study.

Couldn't the liberalism of professors be (at least partly) explained by this: professors are smart and study (various aspects of) reality (in various ways), and reality has a 'liberal bias', in the words of Colbert, so it is reasonable to expect that they turn out liberal. Liberalism is correlated with higher education, after all, and this might just be the tail end of that trend.

By Ketil Tveiten (not verified) on 19 Jan 2010 #permalink

Ray in Seattle

I wholeheartedly agree. I think many people scoff when the idea that we logically back-pedal from choices that just feel right. The cortex has evolved and built on top of so many other parts that preform emotional functions. To barrow from Steven Pinker, the mind works very hard to make it seem that we have unadulterated control and are free from influence in our choices. Props to razib, insightful as always.

One thing not addressed in the linked article is how broadly "professor" is defined. For example, the researchers say that most sociologists are liberal, and most doctors are conservative, but they don't mention the politics of professors at medical schools.

Similarly, do their conclusions apply to professors of engineering or management? It seems plausible that business faculties would tend to match the politics of other businesspeople, or that the jobs would appeal to the same sort of people who like the idea of being professors in other areas.

It's easy to assume professor=liberal arts professor (where math might count, science probably doesn't, and engineering almost certainly doesn't).

I'm dubious about that claim about professors as successful. I don't have any empirical data but I suspect it also is looking only at those who become full professors - i.e. the successful. I'd suggest that universities depend for their function on grad students and post docs who are underpaid just as much as law firms depend upon clerks and low level attorneys who underpaid and overworked. In a sense those grad students who don't get tenure are very much akin to the businessman who, after years of work, doesn't make it.

I believe that in the humanities something like 5% (quoted yesterday on NPR) actually get jobs with their PhDs. Yet those attempting are just as much a part of the university teaching system.

So while I have no empirical data, I think one has to be careful about the way we create our calculations.

Razib, I agree that the double standard of affirmative action is quite weird. And I think you're right that you'd think diversity would focus on diversity of the discipline itself. Yet instead most departments, I notice, go through fads where a series of people are given tenure who adopt relatively similar views. It's sometimes interesting looking at the professors who are nearing retirement age and the, now partially forgotten, fads that led to that focus being what was sought after. I've found this in both humanities and science departments at several universities. (I don't hang out much in biology departments, but I suspect it's true there as well)

[In regards to the last paragraph, a friend of mine noted what it would sound like if you replaced "conservative" with "women" and "liberalism" with "maleness." Or "conservative" with "black" and "liberalism" with "whiteness."
Certain types of diversity are easy to dismiss as trivial, or worthy of only academic analysis, while other forms are not brushed aside in this manner.]

Wrong wrong wrong. This line of argumentation is a result of a false analogy. If I don't accept that analogy, I can't buy into the rest of your argument.

Here's why I think it is a false analogy:

The veracity of competing ideologies can in principle be challenged on logical grounds; it is nonsensical to evaluate the "veracity" of gender and race. What would that even mean?The overwhelming consensus of our culture is that there is nothing inherently "right" or "wrong" with being a particular gender or race. The same cannot be said for political ideology, even if people are split about WHICH ideology is right or wrong.

Ideas are tested and revised according to experience. They are discarded when found wanting. How do you discard a gender when it is found wanting? Or a race?

Finally, when a conservative complains about the "liberalness" of the academy, the explicit goal is to undermine the veracity of the academy, which predictably decreases the enthusiasm of allies of the naysayer who otherwise might want to become part of it. Who would want to go to a place all of your allies say produces only rubbish? When women complain about the "maleness" of physics, they presumably aren't attempting to undermine the veracity of physics and haven't damaged the brand of "physics" from a "value to society" perspective. They don't think the results of physics are rubbish because they were largely compiled by men. (For a snarky "dissenting view" see the Sokal affair.)

The only point I'll concede is that the analogy is valid insofar as entering a social setting where you are a distinct minority (and where the majority may be hostile to the minority) is a very daunting and discouraging prospect.

JJE, what you have written does not make sense.

Firstly, Razib's (well, Gross's) hypothesis is independent of the observation about replacing 'conservative' and 'liberal' with other terms. Secondly, dimissing the latter as a false analogy merely illustrates one way in which this imbalance is 'easy to dismiss as trivial, or worthy of only academic analysis'. And the claim that a conservative objecting to the liberalness of academia is pursuing the 'explicit goal [of] undermin[ing] the veracity of the academy' is question-begging: if conservatives are underrepresented as a matter of culture rather than 'reality bias', and if that constrains and biases the direction of thought in acedemia, then it should be a matter of concern - assuming that the goal is to arrive at empirical truths.

Of course there are obvious ways in which race and gender are qualitatively different issues than ideological bias; and I don't see anything in what Razib wrote that denies that. But Razib's thought experiment highlights how automatically we are prepared to accept a lack of racial diversity as A Bad Thing yet how ready we are to ignore (or even endorse) a lack of ideological diversity. Rejecting that observation on the grounds that 'reality has a liberal bias' is really jumping the gun. Or the shark, maybe.

For what it's worth, I'm a liberal, educated in a profoundly liberal-biased field. I've certainly come to realize that my own education lost out from a lack of exposure to intelligent, informed conservative thinking from the likes of our host - there were too many assumptions in my field that were accepted uncritically because there was no one credible to challenge them, and that is most definitely A Bad Thing.

Aren't professors also liberal? Why aren't there many highly-educated conservative professors out there? Could it possibly be because conservatism has come to signal "We get votes because we talk about God and what is moral, and paint ourselves as the moral party, but we can't really defend our talking points otherwise?" I mean, once you've read a lot of political theory and you thoroughly understand politics, isn't it kind of hard to be a Bible thumper for your political basis?


By hineliyaa (not verified) on 20 Jan 2010 #permalink

JJE, I agree...

"Career earnings are higher for professors than almost any other career."

That is ridiculous. If it is remotely true it is if one considers only those who attain the rank of full professor early in their career. I'm not sure what "professor" means... tenured faculty? Tenure-track? Anyone with a PhD who teaches in higher education? Anyone at all who teaches in higher education?

It is false to equate diversity of ideas with diversity in race or gender. You enter the moron land of things like equal time for evolution and creationism. Ideas can be inherently worthless or discredited. There is no rational argument for biology departments to have faculty "diversity" by hiring creationists, even though creationism is a widely held position in the U.S. This does become complicated when it involves the shifting sands of the social sciences and humanities. Certainly discredited ideas are clung to and worthy ones scorned because of the cultural proclivities of some academic disciplines. Are the bastions of conservativism any different?

But, really, come on. What's the big deal? With all that John Galt can-do bootstrap attitude conservatives have, certainly a few biased associate profs can't stop them from pursuing their dream of the possibility of tenure and a 3-2 teaching load in a sociology department in the upper midwest.

I think the liberal/conservative divide in academia is a bit overstated (whether in business or the humanities) Yes it's there, but I think few professors inject politics into their classes. Some do, but then the problem isn't their political bias but the fact they are injecting any politics into their class in that fashion.

Where I think the divide becomes somewhat relevant is in making sure scholarship is looking at all the possibilities in order to find true answers. Now in some parts of the humanities that's less of an issue. (I have a hard time wrapping my mind around truth in literary departments regardless of what my English major friends say) But I think in places like sociology it is a problem.

But let's be honest, the issue isn't just politics but academic fads like I mentioned earlier. Ditto for race and so forth. The real issue is whether inquiry is being conducted well but how many academic departments don't look at that as important in terms of intellectual diversity.


I grew up a hardcore, right wing, small town, central Texas Republican. Take my personal anecdote for what it is. But my family (and I in the past) derided the academy, and they do to this day (you should hear them whine when I told them I might consider Berkeley for my next job). I take it as an empirical fact (perhaps unfairly colored by my personal experiences which might not be representative) that conservatives are trying to undermine academia. But don't confuse my argument. I wasn't trying to prove that conservative undermine academia. If I were, that would indeed be question begging of the most vulgar kind. And maybe I'm wrong. Maybe conservatives who attack the academy really are doing it in pursuit of truth rather than as a tribal reaction to an opposing tribe. If I'm wrong on that, then obviously part of my argument is invalid.

Anyway, ideology has "value" for many circumstances and some ideologies can be better or worse than others. Gender (and very arguably, race) have value only under special conditions: the strength of men is greater than that of women, the pain tolerance of women is greater than men, etc.

But in terms of this discussion, I hope no one disagrees that it is reasonable to allow a priori that (c conservative; l liberal) any of the following are possible: c > l, c == l, or c < l without special pleading.

However, it would require special pleading to allow for inequalities for gender and race.

So, if c > l, WHY WOULDN'T a conservative attack a liberal institution in order to undermine it? (Actually, all that is required is that a person perceive that c > l, it doesn't actually need to be true.)

I don't think there is any analysis that can successfully make Razib's post from the analogy on down coherent. It really is apples and oranges. Non-value based ideological discrimination undesirable, but in order to make that argument, an analogy to race and gender is the wrong rhetorical path to walk. You can argue that gender or racial discrimination is undesirable because you have very few and very weak a priori reasons to consider race and gender to be more or less valuable. However, in order to argue that ideological discrimination is undesirable, that particular tack is unavailable to you and you have to use a different approach. After all, some ideologies ARE worse than others. Perhaps one should consider a different analogy when trying to argue for ideological diversity.

I find your statement that 'make a difference' is unique to folks who don't make money surprising and a bit stereotypical.

Plenty of business folks would argue they are there to make a huge difference in the world and money is a byproduct of that effort.

As someone who has been in management for two different Fortune 500 companies and now finishing a PhD in academia, I can tell you that not only do professors make *significantly* less than their corporate counterparts, there are far fewer >$100k fully tenured jobs than there are >$100k corporate jobs.

When I finish my PhD, I'll be looking to re-enter the private sector as a research scientist.

By Chris Irwin Davis (not verified) on 23 Jan 2010 #permalink