Higher Education

Politics and professors

The Chronicle reports on a recent study (working paper PDF) on professorial politics. Overall, the report suggests that professors are more liberal than average Americans (kind of a dog bites boy story), but it also indicates that there are a growing number of moderates in higher ed, as well as waning radicalism in younger generations.

For example, 14.3 percent of professors aged 50-64 consider themselves liberal radicals, as compared to just 3.8 percent of professors aged 26-35.  Similarly, whereas 17.2 percent of professors aged 50-64 consider themselves liberal activists, this is true of only 1.3 percent of professors in the youngest age cohort. (40-41)

Following on that point, the report makes the following observation of political leanings based on respondents answers to questions on a range of political issues:

  Liberal Center/Center-left Conservative
26-35 21.5 59.5 19.0
36-49 31.0 51.2 17.8
50-64 31.0 56.6 12.4
65+ 27.7 64.4 7.9
Total 30.2 55.3 14.5

So the purpose of the study, in part, is to engage the perception of higher education as a "hotbed" of liberal radicalism. And the study does seek to argue that while professors are liberal, they are more centrist than radical/extreme and that radicalism seems to be associated with a particular generation of faculty who originally attended college in the sixties or seventies.

This is how I see it. I’m sure the vast majority of faculty I know vote Democrat. There may be many reasons for this. However there’s one obvious one. Republicans have a long history of attacking our profession and institutions, of cutting funding for higher education, and so on. At the same time, I know plenty of professors who are culturally conservative. We’re a pretty straight-laced bunch when it comes down to it. Finally, nearly all professors I know are so focused on the particulars of their own areas of study that it would hardly occur to them to use the classroom as a place to advocate for specific political concerns (e.g. an anti-war agenda).

Also interesting in this study was the identification that liberal arts colleges tended to be the place where one find the most intense concentration of liberalism, not Phd-granting, research institutions as is commonly claimed. Of course liberal arts colleges tend not to have much in the way of professional or technical degrees (where conservative views are more common). However, I also think that the emphasis on teaching attracts people of a certain character who might also tend to be more liberal.

I do wonder about the generational difference. I wonder if it’s an indication of a shift in hiring practices, with more new and young faculty in professional and technical areas. I wonder if conservatives tend to leave the academy. You could see this as something sinister in relation to politics, but I would suggest that it is likely that faculty in professional and technical areas are more likely to have enticing opportunities outside academe at some point in their careers.  However, the decline in radicalism also indicates that there has been a change in professorial politics. I suspect that faculty (and people in general) of my generation are skeptical of the efficacy of radical and/or activist politics.

I would say that I regularly see older faculty who might characterize themselves as radical or activist about equality, poverty, peace, environment, and so on, who simultaneously hold culturally conservative views that I see as problematic, as well as views of ideology that I would characterize as uncritical. I’m not saying that to try to pick a fight. I’m just trying to point out the complexity of the issue. Actually, I think the whole idea of plotting my political views on a line or whatever is fairly idiotic. To me, what gets characterized as a lefty/liberal professor is a historical-cultural identity. I can’t be one any more than I could be a hippie or a beatnik or a yuppie. Perhaps as a wider demographic of citizens attend college, the next generation of faculty will emerge from a more representative pool of students.

The important thing, I think, is not that higher ed speak with a particular political voice (a comical notion anyway given that faculty rarely agree on anything), but rather that higher ed maintain its function as offering critical, intellectual alternative viewpoints to the positions offered by politicians, the business community, and the increasingly corporate news media.

One reply on “Politics and professors”

I tend to agree with your thinking. My sense is that conservatives, those who think a rising tide lifts all boats, will be working to be sure their boat is ship-shape. Liberals, who see that many won’t have the ability to keep their boats ship-shape, will focus on helping others rather than themselves–via education, higher and otherwise. It makes we wonder, why don’t we see complaints that there are too many conservatives in the military? What’s wrong with the military that liberals don’t want to get into in general? Of course, the problem there is not the institution, but the people who don’t want to join. Kinda inconsistent.


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