Politics of the Professoriate, Again

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, from Neil Gross at Harvard, and Solon Simmons at George Mason University, is written up in Inside Higher Ed today

The 72-page study -- "The Social and Political Views of American Professors" -- was produced with the goal of moving analysis of the political views of faculty members out of the culture wars and back to social science. The study offers at times harsh criticism of many of the analyses of these issues in recent years (both from those hoping to tag the professoriate as foolishly radical and those seeking to rebut those charges). The study included community college professors along with four-year institutions, and featured analysis of non-responders to the survey (two features missing from many recent reports).

The results of the study find a professoriate that may be less liberal than is widely assumed, even if conservatives are correctly assumed to be in a distinct minority. The authors present evidence that there are more faculty members who identify as moderates than as liberals. The authors of the study also found evidence of a significant decline by age group in faculty radicalism, with younger faculty members less likely than their older counterparts to identify as radical or activist. And while the study found that faculty members generally hold what are thought to be liberal positions on social issues, professors are divided on affirmative action in college admissions.

As a special bonus, there's extra analysis from everybody's favorite former Harvard president, Larry Summers. So, you know, there's that to look forward to.

I don't have a great deal to add to the exhaustive analysis of the report, but I would like to offer one explanation for the age effect that they see: the tenure system.

A fair number of bits are expended on talking about reasons why younger faculty appear to be more moderate in their views (60% of faculty under 35 were classified as "Moderate," compared to 42% of those over 50; only about 5% of faculty under 45 were "Left Activists" or "Left Radicals" compared to 30% of the older set). There are the usual generational theories thrown about, but I'd place at least some of the blame on the tight job market and the tenure process.

As any academic can tell you, the standards for achieving tenure have only gone up over the past umpteen years. Places that didn't require research of their faculty now expect publications for tenure, places that required minimal research now expect a significant amount, and so on. The thing is, research takes a lot of time and effort, which doesn't leave a great deal of free time and energy for activism.

And, on top of that, there's the constant fear of offending someone. The stakes in the tenure process are higher than ever, and the standards for tenure remain kind of murky, so many junior faculty will make an effort to be as inoffensive as possible prior to their tenure review, for fear of upsetting someone who might hold a grudge (and nobody holds grudges like academics...).

It doesn't surprise me at all to see that younger faculty are more moderate in their views and actions than older faculty. That's how the system is set up these days: all of the incentives for younger faculty point away from active political engagement and extreme views.


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"the survey asked professors to identify themselves"

I wonder how accurate that self-identification is.

By Johan Larson (not verified) on 08 Oct 2007 #permalink

So, do the junior faculty become more liberal once they get tenure (or give in to their liberal leanings), or will the faculty remain more moderate after the older faculty retire?

"And, on top of that, there's the constant fear of offending someone."

Not helped by Horrorshow and other's campaign against certain highprofile leftist professors seeking tenure.