As I write, the 2020 presidential election is (almost) behind us. Perhaps you are wondering, “What’s the political affiliation of my professors?” It is not an unreasonable question. Some faculty are quite forthright about their political leaning. Some might be more discreet.
I suppose I can admit something here, among friends: I am quite liberal. I have toned down expressing political sentiments as I’ve gotten older but also out of a (perhaps unfounded) fear that some video of me might be taken out of context and uploaded on social media. The political leanings of our students at UMass Amherst reflect the state at large, politically, as being about 1/3 Republican, 2/3 Democrat. I say this knowing that tenure and academic freedom allows for great latitude in these matters. Still, people who are not professors might not realize this, but faculty aren’t exactly eager to have a media fiasco on their hands.
On the flip side, opinions on the value of higher education appears to differ depending on political identity. In a 2018 study, 83% of Democrats have a strong or fairly strong belief that college and university professors work in the best interest of the public, while less than half of Republicans felt similarly.
On the right, there is a belief that colleges indoctrinate students in far-left ideology. Outgoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in 2017 that professors tell students “what to say, and more ominously, what to think.” (Full speech here.) Faculty often chuckle at this idea. One oft repeated joke: “We can’t even get students to read the syllabus!”
But also, data seems to show that professors—and this was a surprise to me—do not change students’ political ideologies a great deal. What is interesting is that on both sides there is a belief that, if higher ed is going in the wrong direction, it’s because of rising tuition costs: 77% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats concur.
These data beg the question: why is there an imbalance in political ideology among college faculty? Why are professors more liberal than conservative? One of my favorite sayings (I believe by Arthur Stinchcombe) is that any good sociologist should be able to identify three plausible hypotheses for any social phenomenon. So here are a few hypotheses:
A.) Liberal people, with their greater reception of controversial ideas and a lower interest in religious explanations for social phenomena, tend to select into the profession while more conservative folks opt for other careers.
B.) Groupthink and gatekeeping marginalize conservative ideas in higher education, and conservative graduate students and faculty are not hired while more liberal ones are.
C.) Students are trending as being more liberal before they even get to college and academic institutions, as businesses seeking customers, cater to their clientele.
D.) There is a nefarious liberal plot to brainwash 18-year-olds into our wacky ideas. Muah Ha Ha.
The serious, non-brainwashing, hypotheses above—self-selection vs gatekeeping—have been debated. Sociologist Neil Gross, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that draws from his book Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care? writes that part of the explanation is in academia’s “hospitality” toward progressive values and ideas, attracting smart liberal thinkers.
In another op-ed Gross explains that highly educated folks are increasingly liberal in their thinking in part due to the rise of the number of women with advanced degrees as well as due to the right’s move toward anti-intellectualism. Gross notes that this anti-intellectualism and perpetuation of the idea that conservativism has no place in academia, only further exacerbates the issue. (Here is a conservative critique of that hypothesis.)
And last: You might wonder if your professors put ideology before their pedagogy, and how that affects students’ educational experiences. As I mentioned above, I’ve tended toward sticking to the facts, and the sociological explanations of phenomena. As Stephen Colbert said at his 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, however: “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
Sociological explanations tend toward systematic answers rather than individualized explanations, and I suspect that these are often interpreted by my more conservative students as being more politically liberal. (Here’s a story of a conservative student’s experience trying to rate her professors’ political leanings.)
For what it’s worth, I do consider students’ political frameworks (and that 1/3 to 2/3 dynamic among my class) when I lecture. For example, poverty. Are people poor because of their own individual choices or because of systematic factors? In my introduction to sociology classes I talk about Herb Gans’s famous “Uses of Poverty” essay to point to how our systems rely on poverty, but I also say that capitalism itself relies on poverty to create scarcity and to limit labor costs.
Is that liberal? Is that conservative? I’m not sure. It is thinking in terms of systems, however. I also point out that firefighting, police, and the military are beloved socialist institutions (which I imagine makes people scratch their heads), and in my media and culture lectures I describe the devastating effects on music built into the deregulation of Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996.
A study of 3,800 college seniors (article here) found that conservative students felt more pressure to change their views than liberal students. (In some disciplines more than others; for example, in health care fields like nursing and public health—where universal health care might come up—conservatives felt greater pressure.) Students didn’t change their views dramatically, save for a modest uptick in liberal leaning. What was more interesting was that it was the conservative professors who were more likely to influence their students. Should we ban conservative faculty because they change students’ ideology? Or should the takeaway be that there needs to be more conservative faculty?
Or it could mean that, if anyone is actually interested in swaying political beliefs, being a professor is not the most efficient way to go about it!