Rethinking liberalism in academia

In my last post I wrote about how people read a film like “Avatar,” seeing what they want to see (or what they most fear). Now, a new research paper seeks to prove that the same thing happens in other areas of life.

The paper, which focuses on something it calls “typecasting,” is entitled, “Why Are Professors Liberal?” And The New York Times’ article about the paper, “Professor Is a Label That Leans to the Left,” by Patricia Cohen, successfully probes beneath the turbulent surface of our arguments about liberalism and conservatism.

The overwhelmingly liberal tilt of university professors has been explained by everything from outright bias to higher I.Q. scores. Now new research suggests that critics may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of looking at why most professors are liberal, they should ask why so many liberals–and so few conservatives–want to be professors.

Here’s the point of the paper, which is based on data from the General Social Survey of opinions and social behaviors. We know that less than six percent of American nurses are men. Why is that? It’s largely because of gender typecasting. We have pretty much decided that nursing is a job for women.

In short, the same thing happens in academia, but it involves political typecasting. When Johnny and Janie are deciding what careers to pursue, chances are they will rule out academia if they are conservative.

Nursing is what sociologists call “gender typed.” [Paper co-author Neil] Gross said that “professors and a number of other fields are politically typed.” Journalism, art, fashion, social work and therapy are dominated by liberals; while law enforcement, farming, dentistry, medicine and the military attract more conservatives.

“These types of occupational reputations affect people’s career aspirations,” he added…

I wish Cohen had devoted more space to discussing the religious elements of academia’s liberal tilt. Unfortunately, she only briefly mentions “secularism” and academia’s preference for professors who embrace “a non-conservative religious theology.”

Still, her article explains the “Why Are Professors Liberal?” paper’s thesis and its implications in a balanced manner, quoting contributors to the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s collection on college life, “The Politically Correct University.” Cohen also adds helpful transition sentences, such as: “Typecasting, of course, is not the only cause for the liberal tilt” [in higher education].

Cohen provides a solid conclusion with another quote from Gross:

“The irony is that the more conservatives complain about academia’s liberalism,” he said, “the more likely it’s going to remain a bastion of liberalism.”

As an aside: I am regularly in contact with conservative Christians who both condemn secular culture and express a desire to redeem it, sometimes in the same sentence. I am also regularly in contact with these people’s children, many of whom conclude that it is safer to live and work within the expansive Christian subculture than it would be to pursue a career in an area mom and dad and Pastor Bob consider enemy territory. I pray that some residents of the subculture would somehow stumble upon this article, read it article and share it with young people who are asking God what they should do with their lives.

[I also ask that Get Religion's wonderful readers would share their comments on Cohen's article (focusing on coverage of religion is our purpose here at GR), not their theories about liberalism in academia or elsewhere!]

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  • MattK

    Thesis could be expanded to journalism. Is their a political typecast for journalism? Is this why so many journalists are “liberals”.

  • Mike Hickerson

    This is not Neil Gross’ first foray into the beliefs of university professors. For those interested in professors’ religious beliefs, I strongly recommend the paper that Gross wrote with George Mason’s Solon Simmons, “How Religious Are America’s College and University Professors?” (PDF). My job (with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) is to help evangelical students become professors, and Gross & Simmons’ work has been very valuable. They’ve found that there are far fewer evangelicals in academia than in the population in general, and the percentage of evangelicals declines sharply as one moves up the ladder of academic institutions. Community colleges, for example, closely mirror the general population’s religious beliefs. Elite institutions, like Harvard, Stanford, Oberlin, and so on, might as well be a different country. Interestingly, there are far more Christians in elite academia than is commonly assumed – it’s just that those Christians tend to be more liberal mainline Protestants, so conservative activists usually overlook or ignore their presence.

    Gross and Simmons also have a 2007 working paper (PDF) available on the social and political views of faculty. Both of these papers are available for free online, and are more accessible than most academic research papers, so it’s a little disappointing that Cohen didn’t link directly to them in her article.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The claim in the article that there was no evidence found of “bias” against conservatives applying for admission to a faculty is belied by the rest of the article, which emphasizes that the liberal mindset of many faculties is specifically reinforced through the selection process. Indeed, we are told, the specific quid pro quo that professors get for being paid less is the ability to pick their colleagues so as to make the workplace more congenial for themselves.

    Besides, bias against conservatives can manifest itself through various proxies. As the article notes, there are more conservatives in professions like medicine, engineering and the military. The justification for not selecting applicants for academic posts is often articulated in terms of the past experience of the applicant in a more politically conservative profession, like the military, makes them “unsuitable” for the academic life. When I went through the national law school faculty hiring fair that is held each year, in order to protect law schools from charges of racial, gender and ethnic bias in hiring faculty, I was told repeatedly that faculties were not iinterested in people who had substantial experience in real world legal practice, no matter how much experience in teaching or researching they also had. Practical experience was viewed as a significant negative. Apparently the ability to detach one’s research, writing and teaching from mundane reality is considered a signal virtue by law professors.

    Inasmuch as one definition of “conservatives” is “people who have been mugged by reality”, one can understand how liberals–people who are detached from reality–tend to dominate academia, since it is the lack of reality, the emnphasis on concept above concreteness, that defines what faculties value in a colleague.

  • Jerry

    This is an interesting question. Limiting my thoughts to the religious sphere…

    The article ignores one very large ghost: academia is a home for those who question existing theories and learn from research. Those who say science is wrong when a finding disagrees with how that person interprets scripture have an incompatible world view.

    Anti-science people who don’t believe in scientific findings such as the age of the universe, dismiss the evidence of physics and geology, disagree with the fact of evolution etc automaticall6y put themselves out of the boundary of the university just as someone who accepts those findings of science are not welcome in groups where a certain interpretation of the Bible holds sway.

    Of course, scientific finds aren’t scripture and are subject to review according to the rules of science. but one of the criteria for such a review is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”. In other words, if you promote a theory that reinterprets all the evidence and existing proofs, you have to present a compelling case. The whole “ID” kerfluffle was an example where that was not done.

    The situation in the liberal arts is different since there is no issue of scientific research but I’m sure there is a spillover because the academic premise is that everything should be questionable in the pursuit of truth and thus nothing should be accepted on faith.

  • Bram


    You clearly are not familiar with how the liberal arts work, because there “everything should be questionable in the pursuit of truth” *except* everything that left-liberals believe in (including atheism) and “nothing should be accepted on faith” *except* everything left-liberals believe in (especially atheism).

  • Miss Sippi

    Bram speaks the truth! I have unhappy memories, twenty years on, of an attempt to become a conservative, Christian, English professor. It was interesting to see a small, diverse group graduate students in my department — Catholic, Evangelical, Anglican, and Jewish — “circle the wagons” in defense of our belief in objective reality. I was cautioned by my advisor, a fellow Episcopalian, not to say that I “wasn’t really a feminist” — it was the kiss of death.

  • Alan Williams

    I think Cohen’s argument is historically weak and, to an extent, rhetorical spin. Sure, professorship has been politically-typecasted, and nursing gender-typecasted, but it’s like saying “evangelicalism” means A, B and C, “and if more liberals would just become evangelicals, then the typecast would disappear.” Well, sure…Jimmy Carter was a liberal evangelical and now the South is Republican. In other words, there are strong historical movements of discourse that make it hard for Person A or Person B to simply walk in, feel at home and change the world. Cohen should have touched on the academy intentionally secularizing in the 1920s, and the effects of the Civil Rights era and feminism (particularly, the issue of abortion) on secular and religious circles. Instead, I feel like she’s making a “well, duh” argument.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Cohen (the journalist) is not making that argument. The argument belongs to Strauss and Fosse, the sociologists. As far as the “well, duh” argument, check out Cohen’s lead:

    The overwhelmingly liberal tilt of university professors has been explained by everything from outright bias to higher I.Q. scores.

    As one who follows these issues, I’ve seen plenty of those attempted explanations. Maybe you feel that Strauss and Fosse are making an obvious point, but they also have data to back it up.

  • Demian Farnworth

    I love your thought–I guess the underlying implication, too, of the paper–that if we really, really want to redeem it…then get into the field. Do something about it. No different than those who complain about our government but don’t vote.

    I’ve been personally convicted of this matter and want to steer my children out of the subculture mindset to the subdue the earth for Christ mindset. thank you.

  • Alan Williams

    Thx for clarifying. I feel silly for speaking before I read carefully. =p Later in the article Cohen does mention the sociologists talking about the history of the development of the typecast. But I guess my feeling is that people in the academy, if they are critical thinkers, would never say “Oh, smart people are just naturally liberal. That’s why all of us are liberal.” Every professor has encountered intelligent conservative students. But admittedly (as a liberal), I tend to think that the non-science, non-business fields must take into account multiple perspectives, which makes the “single interpretation of scripture” mindset kinda difficult to hold onto. On the other hand, I don’t agree that, say, a Mormon is naturally unqualified to teach a course on feminism — but, in fact, could offer a lot to the feminist conversation in the academy.

  • Mike Hickerson

    There’s really a need for two distinct articles, if not more. There’s the issue of conservative politics and the academy, and then there’s the issue of “conservative” religion and the academy. Many “conservative Christians” that I know in the academy, who hold to “conservative” views of Scripture, salvation, historicity of Jesus, etc., have overall political views that would be considered liberal by most Americans. In our culture at large, conservative religion and conservative politics are closely intertwined, but I think they are much further apart within the academy. (The most politically diverse group I know is the community of evangelical campus ministers, grad students, and faculty that I work alongside.) I’d love to see this distinction between religion and politics within the secular academy explored a bit more.

  • MJBubba

    Demian F. (#9), there is an impediment to getting conservatives (and Christians) to pursue doctoral degrees. These students, compared to the liberals and irreligious, are far more interested in starting and supporting families. After pointing out that new PhDs have generally accumulated a mountain of debt, Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner stated:
    “Conservatism is linked to a greater interest in financial success and a stronger desire to raise families. From this perspective,the ideological imbalance that permeates much of academia may be somewhat intractable.”
    That is from their paper “Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Doctorates” (Ch.3, p.53) included in a collection of essays at:

  • H. E. Baber

    The discrepancy between high educational attainment and income the author mentions I think is the significant factor. But the author doesn’t I think give the obvious and correct explanation of why this makes academics trend liberal.

    Academics are largely people with a taste for intellectual stimulation and professional autonomy. There’s nothing particularly virtuous about that preference–it’s simply a taste, like the taste for spicy foods or gardening or watching TV sitcoms. It’s just what we like, and most of us like it so much that we’re prepared to take risks and trade off virtually anything to get it.

    As undergraduates we look to the future and see what we’re going to get if we go the academic route. We’ll live in student poverty–grad school, post-docs, temporary positions–until we’re in our thirties. We won’t get to choose where we live. If we’re lucky we’ll get a tenure-track position and eventually tenure: we’ll have security and a decent salary but never be rich. But it’s all worth it we’ll trade off virtually anything for job satisfaction.

    So why are we liberals? Because even if we understand intellectually that different people have different preferences, in our guts we just don’t get why anyone would want a lot of money, particularly if the cost is doing a job that isn’t intellectually exciting. We don’t get why anyone would want more money than it takes to get the material goods it takes to get intellectual stimulation–primarily a computer, an internet connection and books.

    We therefore go with Oliver Wendell Holmes who said: “I like paying taxes. It’s the price I pay for civilization.” Provide government services and redistribute the wealth so that everyone gets a good education, a roof over their head, a computer, an internet connection, books and a piano–and no more. I’m parodying slightly ;-) but that’s the gut level thinking, the root of academic liberalism. We live the good life and want everyone to have the life we live–not, I repeat, because there’s anything virtuous about it but because it’s enjoyable.

  • MJBubba

    H.E.Baber (#13), you sound more like a Marxist than a liberal.