November 12, 2004

The "liberal professoriate" -- not so fast

Geoff Pullum is right to take Mark Bauerlein to task for claiming in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the phrase right-wing think tanks is "always" qualified by well-funded, when a more accurate statement would have been "qualified by well-funded 0.3 percent of the time." But Geoff is much too credulous when it comes to evaluating Bauerlein's claim that studies have shown that "campuses are havens for left-leaning activists." When somebody on the right cites a study that "proves" the existence of liberal bias in the media or the academy, it's a good idea to keep your hand on your wallet.

The study that Bauerlein cites, for example, was supervised by the American  Enterprise Insitute's William Zinsmeister, who sent volunteers to boards of elections to search out the voter registrations of college faculty.  The result, as reported by Bauerlein, was that "More than nine out of 10 professors belonged to the Democratic or Green party, an imbalance that contradicted many liberal academics' protestations that diversity and pluralism abound in higher education." But as Martin Plissner showed in an article in The American Prospect, the study's methods were highly questionable:

In the University of Texas sample, for example, 28 of the 94 teachers came from women's studies -- not exactly a highlight of any school's core curriculum or a likely cross section of its faculty. At the same time, none of the 94 was from the university's huge schools of engineering, business, law or medicine -- or from any of the sciences. At Cornell University, it's the same story: 166 L's [Democrats or Greens] by the AE bar graphs, and only 6 R's. But not one faculty member in the entire sample taught in the engineering, business, medicine or law schools, or in any of the sciences. Thirty-three, on the other hand, were in women's studies -- more than any subject, save for English.

It goes on: at UCLA, more than half of the faculty sample studied was drawn from just two departments, history and women's studies, and none of it was drawn from the faculties of business, law, engineering, medicine, or any of the sciences.

You could make the same point about a widely publicized 1998 study of voter affiliations at the University of Colorado done by the Rocky Mountain News' Bill Scanlon. It purported to show that the humanities and social-science departments at the university were "a one-party monopoly." But Scanlon's sample was also cherry-picked. He looked at the party affiliations of professors of political science but not of economics; he included the education school but not the business faculty (this at a university where business is a popular undergraduate major). And he looked at no one in the law school or in departments in the sciences or engineering. But the study was described by David Horowitz as showing that "93.6% of the faculty at Colorado University (Boulder)...who registered in political primaries were Democrats," with no qualification.

Is the American professoriate predominantly liberal in its political orientation? Very probably, like the professional class in general. And that point of view is particularly prevalent in certain humanities social-science departments. But the overall disproportion is nowhere near as dramatic as these shoddy and dishonest studies make it out to be, particularly when you move away from the large research institutions -- usually in blue states -- where the right has concentrated its attentions, and where most of us LanguageLoggers are fortunate enough to be located.

The right can argue that the political orientation of professors in the humanities and social sciences is more important than that of other departments, since those fields often deal with political questions as subject matter. But it's hard to see why there's a greater threat in having mostly liberals teaching Hegel, Beowulf or Dante than in having mostly conservatives teaching economic theory. And you wonder whether Bauerlein, David Horowitz et al. would be willing to extend their calls for ideological balance to business faculties, say, who are shaping the way the next generation of people who hold real power in America will be thinking about matters like corporate accountability.

Then, too, the predominance of liberals in humanities and many social-science departments has a lot less effect on overall student attitudes than the right likes to pretend. As a recent study from the National Center for Education Statistics shows, more than 71 percent of American undergraduates choose "career majors" like computer science, accounting, and business, while only about a quarter choose "academic majors" in fields like humanities and social science. In 1999, just 5 percent of undergraduates were majoring in English literature or humanities, against 19 percent who chose business and marketing and almost 12 percent who chose computer science or engineering. If the small proportion of students who major in humanities tend to have a liberal point of view, that's chiefly a matter of self-selection, rather than indoctrination -- students with conservative views tend not to view medieval studies as a career track.

More to the point, these studies assume an inescapable connection between having a point of view and having a bias: a  historian with politically liberal views can't possibly give an objective, even-handed account of free trade or the history of race relations in America. That's a convenient assumption for people like Bauerlein, particularly if they want to take it as a justification for trumping up the evidence for their own side.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at November 12, 2004 01:01 PM