Apparently, college campuses, and the professors who teach at them, are liberal. Who knew? The Center for Responsive Politics released a study last week, in which it found that employees of the University of California and Harvard were, as groups, the two largest contributors to Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign. That’s insightful — I for one never thought that residents of Boston and the San Francisco would support a liberal, Massachusetts senator. Of 1,000 social science and humanities professors polled across the nation, seven out of eight were Democrats. Groundbreaking.

Suhael Momin

While this study is useless in providing new insight into how to resolve the lack of political diversity on campus, it has been used to bolster the ridiculous assertion that diverse opinions are simply not encouraged on campus. Armed with the study’s statistics, conservatives are clamoring that they are systematically excluded from academia. George Will, a conservative columnist at The Washington Post, said universities seek diversity “in everything but thought.” David Horowitz is once again pushing his absurd “Academic Bill of Rights,” which will — get this — force universities to hire and promote faculty members with “a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives.” Do we really need affirmative action for underrepresented conservatives? To argue ideological discrimination is the only explanation for such political homogeneity is simplistic, and acting on that assertion is irresponsible. It is necessary to explore other reasons for the observed political uniformity.

Is it possible that conservative academics simply do not want to be affiliated with major research institutions? Numerous conservatives with doctorates have left college towns for Washington; take Condoleezza Rice, who prior to becoming National Security Advisor, was the provost of Stanford University. In Washington, the Heritage Foundation and Project for a New American Century are machines run by conservative Ph.Ds who crank out policy briefs instead of journal articles. Many conservatives who remain in academia have purposely isolated themselves at small, private and openly conservative colleges such as Michigan’s very own Hillsdale College. Studies that analyze the political environment at large universities miss these small colleges, and thus many coveted and rare conservative academics.

It’s also worth nothing that while most corporate executives vote Republican and church officials tend to be predominantly conservative, nobody has argued that these institutions are insufficiently diverse or suggested that they discriminate against liberals and Democrats. Instead, there is an understanding that those environments foster conservative political beliefs. Executives tend to vote Republican because highly paid individuals who have to cut through government red tape have a personal incentive to vote for anti-tax, anti-regulation candidates. Looking the other way, individuals who disagree with the Catholic Church on issues of abortion and gay rights are uncommon within the Church’s leadership — not because the Church intentionally discriminates against them, but because such individuals do not wish to rise within the Church. The problem of political homogeneity among college professors might not be the result of intentionally biased hiring practices. Rather, as Fortune 500 boardrooms foster Republicanism, universities discourage it.

Of course, I have no proof for any of this, and I could be completely wrong. But certain “structural characteristics” of the academic world can be used to explain its apparent uniformity. In the past, many conservatives opposed the equality of races; today, they reject the equality of sexual orientations. However, academic institutions, committed to the free dissemination of thoughts and ideas, have encouraged tolerance and acceptance of differences. Religious conservatives base beliefs on faith. Academia, on the other hand, demands that intellectual beliefs are based on facts, figures and proof. These “structural characteristics” of academia conflict with the nature of political conservatism, and those who follow the tenets of academia might find it difficult to follow the tenets of conservatism. Thus, just as most liberal Democrats don’t become high-ranking religious figures, most conservative Republicans don’t teach at universities.

So, for those who are using this study to suggest that universities discourage political diversity, it is worth noting that it only points out that homogeneity exists. It provides no causal explanation, and using it to substantiate a vast liberal conspiracy is premature. A deeper look is required before we rush to solve the problem of ideological uniformity.

 

Momin can be reached at smomin@umich.edu.

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