In our opinion: University faculty members are leaning even further left, survey says

Published: Monday, Oct. 29 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

A close look at faculty liberalism and its effects done five years ago by social scientists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons suggested that faculty political attitudes might actually be moderating as aging baby-boomers began to retire from their faculty posts.

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It has long been known that university faculty members, on average, tend to be more liberal than the general public. But a new survey from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA shows that faculty members are leaning even further to the left.

In a 2007-08 survey of faculty attitudes, 8.8 percent of college faculty described themselves as "far left." In the latest 2010-11 survey, over 12 percent describe themselves thus. Over half of college professors identify themselves as "liberal." And fewer today claim to be "middle of the road" or "conservative."

A close look at faculty liberalism and its effects done five years ago by social scientists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons suggested that faculty political attitudes might actually be moderating as aging baby-boomers began to retire from their faculty posts. But this latest survey belies Gross and Simmons' conclusions.

Indeed, there are mounting indications that the left-leaning political skew within universities is not a fluke, but the result of overtly biased decisions regarding hiring, publication and funding that are in the hands of existing faculty.

A recent study of 800 psychology professors done by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers, showed that over a third of those surveyed admitted that if given equally qualified candidates for an academic post, they would hire a liberal over a conservative. Over 18 percent surveyed said that a "conservative perspective" in a paper would prevent them from recommending publication, and over 23 percent said that a "conservative perspective" in a grant proposal would keep them from recommending funding.

The same study found that of the 6 percent of academic psychologists who actually identified themselves as conservatives, most were reluctant to reveal their political beliefs to colleagues because they perceived potential professional retaliation. Apparently with good reason.

Psychology, as an academic discipline, may not be reflective of other fields. But in a country where twice as many people self-identify as conservative as opposed to liberal, it is abundantly clear that higher education is not reflective of America.

Given the importance of college credentials for economic success in a global economy and given the importance of the traditional college experience is in the formation of identity and attitudes, having a professoriate that is so left-of-center in a center-right country begins to create not just a cultural issue, but a significant structural problem. Specifically, will conservative legislatures adequately fund what economist Dan Klein has called a "vast apparatus of leftist groupthink"?

There is no simple way to rebalance the attitudes at America's colleges, whose protectionist organizational structure derives from the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, all who help fund and govern higher education should, at the very least, stop pretending that some kind of objectivity is at the core of America's higher education project. What they should do is begin worrying about how their insular norms might be disrupted even as they become exposed.

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