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The Truth About Liberal Bias in Academia

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Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently caused a stir by calling President Obama a “snob” for saying that he wanted all Americans to go to college (it’s actually not what the president wants, but that’s beside the point). “There are good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day,” Sen. Santorum explained indignantly, “that [sic] aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them.”

Gathering momentum, he later claimed in a radio interview that when he was in college, his professors deliberately gave him lower grades because he was a conservative.

Santorum’s lament reiterates a familiar complaint from those on the political right in America, who have long charged that university and college faculties are loaded with left-wingers, and that these academics bring their political opinions into the classroom, where millions of impressionable young minds await reprogramming.

No one with any grasp on reality can deny that academia does have a liberal accent. Numerous studies and polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of higher education faculty members hold left-of-center political views. As Dr Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, has noted, this cannot be down to chance, since the percentage of the general public who self-identify as conservative is 40 percent, double the percentage who identify as liberal.

Numerous theories have been put forward for why this phenomenon exists. Those on the right charge, and say they have the documentation to prove it, that conservatives are systematically frozen out of academia. College students aspiring to be educators, they say, are discouraged by their professors if they have conservative views; faculty members tend to hide conservative beliefs for fear of ridicule by their peers; and conservative academics have a harder time getting published because the peer review process is controlled by their liberal colleagues.

Meanwhile, on the left, some have claimed that the reason most academics are left-wing is that liberals are smarter than conservatives. It’s a simple step from there to claim that liberals are, plainly and simply, right: or, as Stephen Colbert famously quipped, “Reality has a liberal bias.” But these folks are stepping on fallacious ground, because they disregard the obvious truth that there is more than one kind of smarts. No, I would not expect my car mechanic to be able to explain quantum theory; but on the other hand, there exist tenured college professors of many years’ standing who are incapable of finding their way from A to B with the help of a map.

A more refined (though hardly less emotive) view is espoused by science writer Chris Mooney, whose forthcoming book The Republican Brain promises to enlarge on the theory that it’s all just biology. People with a certain genetic makeup, he says, are predisposed to be “threat identifiers”, which aligns with the ideological conviction that characterizes political conservatism but is less well suited to the analysis of different possibilities that is integral to effective academic work.

All of these ideas have some truth to them. Anyone who’s spent any time at college knows that liberalism is highly visible on campus, and that by contrast, right-wing views and opinions have a very low profile. I have myself known many conservative students who’ve been uncomfortable about expressing their views in class. The difficulty with the charges made by the right is that they constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy; if academia is overwhelmingly liberal, naturally it is going to harbor hostility towards conservatism. This does nothing to explain why colleges are liberal in the first place.

And it does nothing at all to bolster Santorum’s claims about universities being left-wing indoctrination factories. I’ve yet to see any studies proving that millions of young people enter college as conservatives and emerge after four years as devoted liberals. There is, on the contrary, plenty of research to suggest that higher education simply has the effect of reinforcing students’ preexisting political views, whatever they happen to be.

So what is it then, really? Why are the faculty common rooms and lecture halls of America stuffed with legions of welfare-loving, leather-elbow-patch-wearing, tofu-munching, deodorant-eschewing, Marx-reading ideologues?

An answer, ironically, is suggested by an academic paper published last year by a group of American and Canadian social scientists. As with a lot of questions surrounded by sound and fury, the answer they put forward turns out to be simple and blindingly obvious: self-selection. Liberals, it seems, gravitate to academia because the scholarly environment (not to mention universities’ preexisting liberal reputation) is appealing to them. Conservatives, on the other hand, can’t be having with all that pinko navel-gazing and would rather venture out into the world, start businesses, become CEOs, get elected to Congress, and generally run the place.

The theory that liberals are attracted to the liberal environment of academia while conservatives are put off by it still doesn’t explain how it got that way to begin with. It might just be one of those curious historical accidents; one of those odd traditions that makes no objective sense. Or Mooney might be onto something with his idea that the groves of academe are a natural outgrowth of a specific type of brain structure that has the side effect of making you politically liberal.

What’s certain, and hugely ironic, is that this is an academic question which isn’t likely to be settled as long as the Santorums of this world don’t trust academics in the first place, and the academics themselves don’t trust an answer that comes from the outside.

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About Dr Dreadful

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    I’m really sorry to comment on your article with an article-length reply, but I just had to.

    I’ve got an article pending that addresses the fact that although Santorum won the Republican primary in Mississippi, Romney decisively won in the majority-black counties while Santorum overwhelmingly won in the majority-white counties (while statewide about one percent of the votes were cast by blacks). But more pertinent to your article, there seem to be only two majority-white counties – Grenada and Oktibbeha – where Romney beat Santorum. These are also the homes to the two largest universities in Mississippi, Ole Miss and Mississippi State University. Romney (the “Father of Obamacare”) beat Santorum by double digits in both.

    And it all goes back to the same drumbeat I’ve been using for the past few years – with allowances for local culture and religion, it’s the level of urbanization that drives the politics of a region…because it’s the level of urbanization that not only attracts big business and industry (and the academic institutions which support them), but also forces daily interactions of people with those who are different from themselves.

    And what are most colleges but melting pots wherein young and impressionable adults are forced to interact with other young adults not just from every corner of America, but from all over the world? This cannot help but result in the spread of ideas, of concepts, of acceptance of those who are different.

    Think about the spread of acceptance of homosexuality in campuses, Doc – did this happen in the classroom? Or did it happen in the dorm rooms, not just over decades, but over many generations?

    Of course there are outliers among college institutions as well – witness Jerry Falwell’s “Liberty University” where “creation studies” is a required course. But such places are certainly the exception and not the rule.

    It boils down to this – with allowances for local or regional culture and religion, the greater the degree of direct interaction that a people have with those who are significantly different from themselves, the greater the degree of that “liberal mindset” among those people. This is true not only in America, but all over the world…

    …and the two factors of “level of urbanization” and “degree of interaction with those who are different” go hand-in-hand. Even in the reddest states, the major population centers are the most liberal…and in the bluest states, the most rural areas are the most conservative. Again, this is true not only in America, but all over the world (though one must allow for statistical skewing by local religion and culture (read: Riyadh)). In China, who are the dissidents most likely to be – peasants or businessmen? Or professors and students?

    And to throw the door open the rest of way, this also explains why in the grand sweep of history, humankind as a whole has ever drifted towards the liberal and away from the conservative. The drift has been glacially slow, filled with leaps of progress and tragic slips into the abyss of tyranny, but the drift is there nonetheless…and with the advent of radio/television/internet/cell phones, it has accelerated beyond the dreams of liberals such as Galileo, Newton, and da Vinci, all of whom held social ideas that were in their day seen as beyond the religious pale.

    Witness the sweep of history towards the liberal, Doc – and while this progression in our perception is so very slow and political painful, in the long view of history, it’s now happening in the blink of an eye!

  • I saw your article in pending when I submitted mine this morning, Glenn, along with a few other pending Politics screeds, so I’m not sure how I managed to leapfrog the queue.

    Yours is an interesting point and it’s kind of the opposite of Mooney’s. He says that a “biological” openness to considering multiple viewpoints predisposes one to be an academic; you say that exposure to those viewpoints, at college or in a cosmopolitan urban setting, encourages liberal-style openness.

    There are a few grey areas if you’re right, though. I grew up in an outer suburb of London that, while increasingly multicultural, consistently returned Conservatives to Westminster and the local council. (It still does.) It was (and is) one of the most conservative constituencies in the country: at general elections the Tory candidate invariably wins by a landslide, followed by the Liberal Democrat (centrist) and then the Labour guy shuffling in a distant third.

    But it’s far from being a rural area.

  • jamminsue

    Dreadful and Glenn, excellent! And, thank you. As a college student, and also a GA,and have graded many many undergrad papers. May I point out that those conservatives that complain about being knocked down for the message of their papers may have themselves to blame? I say, the student did not answer the questions spelled out in the syllabus, or did not follow the required format (MLA, Chicago, etc) spelling, sentence sructure, grammar, etc. Same as the kids who were moderates or liberals.
    Actually, a conservative paper is welcome as often it is DIFFERENT.

    Further, it may be that academia was 100% Liberal at one time, but in my college the younger professors are likely to be more conservative than the older ones.

    Also, the Young Republicans are more visble than the Young Democrats, and the anti abortion people are more often on campus preaching their stuff than anyone ele.

  • You’re probably right about substandard work rather than conservatism being the usual reason for marked-down papers, Sue.

    Going by the caliber of Santorum’s utterances thus far, I have little doubt that this, not ideology, was the reason for his low grades.

    If indeed his grades actually were lower, and he’s not just making shit up.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    Nature versus nurture? I’d say the biological argument has much to recommend itself as I pointed out in this article (and there have been subsequent studies since that reach much the same conclusion.

    But in the big picture, I think the ‘nurture’ side of the argument is the bigger factor – and that’s due to my own experience (which means it’s non-scientific) in that among the kids that grew up where I did in the deepest part of the Deep South, I’m very much the exception to the rule. I resisted the ‘nurture’ part. The vast majority of the other children where I grew up – if the ‘nature’ part of the argument held true – should have had more among them who turned out more liberal, if not so liberal as myself.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And Doc –

    Concerning your experience in London, there will always be exceptions to the rule…but the rule stands nonetheless. For instance, what is the general education level of that suburb, and how prosperous is that suburb compared to the rest of London? How strong was/is religion there, as compared to the rest of London?

    Please understand that the ‘rule’ I’m speaking of is generally true – but only generally. It’s just like human psychology – mass psychology is much easier, much more predictable than individual psychology. So it goes with the rule about urbanization, academia and liberal mindsets, for while the overall trend is easy to see, the individual stories are devilishly difficult to pigeonhole.

  • To answer your three questions, Glenn: higher than average, very, and about the same.

  • jamminsue

    Also, it just occurred to me, my professor on Tuesday said, the purpose of college is to encourage you to question authority and be able to do some critical thinking.

    No wonder the conservatives think its a liberal bastion

  • Your professor had a good point.

    Conservatives are authoritarian by nature. The only time they question authority is when they’re deprived of it, as is the case right now with the current occupant of the White House.

    For that reason I don’t really regard libertarians as conservative, for all that they claim theirs is true conservatism.

  • Igor

    The accomplished Marxian Economist Richard Wolff, Ph.D testifies that ALL his education is from Stanford, Harvard and Yale (all supposedly liberal schools), and yet he was never required to read one word of Marx during his education!

    How do you explain that?

  • Dunno, Igor. Perhaps they gave him a copy of Das Kapital with the cover missing and told him it was Friedman.

  • Igor

    I’ll reveal the answer to #10 tomorrow. Meanwhile, anyone can prove that he actually took a legit econ course from a legit University by answering it himself. But I’m not hopeful. There are any number of idiots posting on discussion groups who claim they took econ, but are obviously faking it.

  • troll

    (geeze…that old challenge Igor? – you’ll have to change your handle again)

  • Igor was known by another name, eh? I thought he or she got into the flow of things rather quickly around here. Hope to solve the mystery soon

  • Cannonshop


    1. Santorum’s a whiner, who probably screwed his own grades himself.

    2. From my observation, it’s the “Liberals” who favour and defend authoritarian “Solutions” and structures. It isn’t the Conservatives who sit and endlessly justify TSA, PATRIOT ACT, the “Individual Mandate”, the Kyoto Protocol, Carbon taxes, “Free Speech Zones” to restrict free speech, the detention of uncharged americans on military bases, etc. etc, nor was/were it Conservatives whose DoJ is recommending radical measures to monitor and detain based on political criteria naming citizens who do NOT riot as “Domestic Terrorists.”

    The “Liberals” ARE the Establishment, the Authority, and the ones in power do NOT brook questioning, ergo the hypothesis and accusation that Conservatism is Authoritarian is bogus.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Cannonshop –


    Who was it that demanded the TSA and the Patriot Act? BUSH administration.

    Whose idea was the ‘individual mandate’? The HERITAGE FOUNDATION, backed by Newt Gingrich AND Mitt Romney right up until Obama started about using it for the Affordable Care Act.

    Whose idea was “Cap and Trade”? That’s ANOTHER Republican idea, thank you very much.

    Whose idea was it to commit TORTURE and implement indefinite detention without charges????

    Cannonshop, you are doing some serious Kool-Aid over there, blaming us for YOUR boys’ ideas – and there were at least two good REPUBLICAN ideas that (as soon as the Democrats decided to run with them) all of a sudden the Republicans wanted to disown!

    Come off it, Cannonshop – you’re not hating liberals because we’re liberal, or because of what we stand for. You’re hating liberals because they’re the ‘other team’, the ‘other side’, the ‘opposition’, the ‘enemy’…the ones who aren’t Republican.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And Cannonshop –

    I suggest you stop using blanket accusations about ‘liberals’ – because when was the last time the senior Republicans in Congress spoke out about the Patriot Act?

    Because for the past two years it’s been DEMOCRATS on the Senate Intelligence Committee who have been speaking out against the Obama administration on the Patriot Act.

    But you just keep on talking about how authoritarian the Dems are, and whatever you do, don’t question your fantasy about those badbadbadevilevilevil liberals….

  • Cannon: We’re talking about colleges here, not Washington.

    It’s different intellectual approaches I mean, not policies and institutions that one or the other side sees as “authoritarian”. Conservatives tend to be highly dogmatic in the positions they hold: time and again they convey an absolute conviction that they’re right and exclude any possibility that another point of view might have some validity.

    As I said a few days ago on another thread, if I had a penny for every time a right-winger boasted that their argument was watertight and couldn’t possibly be refuted, I’d be one of the 1%.

    You’re not going to get very far in academia with that sort of approach.

    Liberals have a greater tendency to weigh both sides, which is one reason why there are a lot more “moderates” in the Democratic Party than there are in the GOP. If you must go all DC on us, I’d say a consistent theme of federal politics over the last 20-30 years has involved Democratic administrations and congresses constantly compromising while Republican-controlled ones seldom if ever budge.

  • Igor

    Sorry, I had more pressing things to do. Glad to see that the hall monitors are still patrolling, though. BC is a lot like high school.

    Wolff never was required to read Marx for the same reason he wasn’t required to read Hayek or Friedman: they are all moralists and politicians, not economists.

    Only a lazy teacher with a lazy student body would teach the discursive moralists. Perhaps at a community college, but not at Harvard, Yale or Stanford. Besides, the canny Prof knows that students passing through the campus bookstore are attracted to such books by the glamorous dust jackets promising easy solutions to difficult problems, such as “The Road to Serfdom”. Those books will get read, or at least the dust jackets.

  • Clavos

    Only a lazy teacher with a lazy student body would teach the discursive moralists. Perhaps at a community college, but not at Harvard, Yale or Stanford. Besides, the canny Prof teaches only the liberal “economists,” lest, [horrors!] his students turn out to be conservatives who eschew Keynes and his successors.

    There fixed it fer ya, Iggy.

  • I must say I’m stunned, Clav, by the panache with which you advance the debate.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    If you must go all DC on us, I’d say a consistent theme of federal politics over the last 20-30 years has involved Democratic administrations and congresses constantly compromising while Republican-controlled ones seldom if ever budge.

    A great example was the debate this past summer on raising the debt ceiling. John Boehner bragged that he got 98% of what he wanted…and he was STILL roundly castigated by the Tea Partiers for compromising with the oh-so-socialist Lefties!

  • Exactly what I mean about right-wingers’ ideological conviction, Glenn. Doesn’t itself make them wrong, or right… but it’s got to be 100% either way for them.

    (BTW, did you mean to post using your real handle, or was it an oopsie and would you like Chris or me to change it back?)

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc – thanks for noticing that right away – I hate it when I do that – please correct to my normal handle ASAP – Thanks, Doc

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And that one too!

  • troll

    re Igor’s #s 10 and 19 – Wolff frequently addresses this question in his lectures and articles…a recently posted lecture series Marxian Economics – An Intensive Introduction covers it and can be downloaded from OneBigTorrent

  • Igor

    #20-Clavos illustrates rightists propensity for fraud and forgery, changing the words over someone elses name.

    Clavos appears to be one of those Bush supporters who has no qualms about misrepresenting someone else’s statements. Cf., the sordid career of Phillip Cooney during the Bush administration.

    During a March 2007 congressional hearing, Cooney conceded his role in altering reports to downplay the adverse effects of man-made emissions on Earth’s climate. “My sole loyalty was to the President and advancing the policies of his administration,” he told the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.[13][14]

    Which, of course, meant he was in direct violation of the oath he took when he was sworn into office, where he swore to give his loyalty to the US Constitution, NOT to the president. One hears this excuse many times, incidentally, from the more openly corrupt members of the Bush administration, that they gave their loyalty to the president, and not to the Constitution.

    This fellow “Clavos” apparently has no problem lying about peoples statements, so he’s not to be trusted.

  • Clavos

    Clavos appears to be one of those Bush supporters…

    You’re not paying attention old man, I despised Bush as much as I do the current clown in the White House.

  • Constantly testing the breaking strain of the Constitution is how the Bush administration did business, Igor.

    Had you challenged Mr Cooney’s words and actions at the time, you would probably have been told that he had been appointed by the President, who he assumed was adhering to the Constitution in asking him to alter the reports.

  • Igor

    I did challenge Cooneys actions at the time, but everybody seemed to think that was just fine. Other administration officials said the same thing, that they swore loyalty to Bush.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Igor –

    I have to stick up for Clavos on this issue. He might be mistaken on a quote or wrong on an issue, but he’s sincere. He doesn’t try to deceive. The same can be said about most BC Politics denizens. The ones who write with deceitful or malicious intent are the rare exception to the rule.

    That’s the same reason why most of my friends stateside are strong conservatives – we’ve all the mutual understanding that we’re very sincere about what we say. We might be wrong on an issue and we might have this or that fact wrong – but the error is not intentional.

    In other words, shoot the message, but not the messenger.

  • Igor

    I’m at a loss to conceive any civil way to deal with someone who lies about what I said.

  • tommy

    This is exactly the reason why I didn’t finish college. In English class it was blah blah blah white male this white male that capitalism bla hblah.

    Its basically a white guilt session in any class you take other than math. I’ve even had a professor call me BillyBob for holding conservative views, and give me a D on every paper I turned in.

    Santorum’s right, if anyone finds out you are a libertarian/republican they will slash your grade down and call you out in front of class to make an example of you.

    I’ve educated myself, make a decent salary, pay my bills and have a family.

    You don’t need their bullshit brainwashing to make it in the U.S.

  • tommy

    I’d also like to point out that I was called a White Piece Of Shit by a College of Southern Maryland staff member. And nothing was done about it.

  • Tommy, since the excesses of capitalism is a predominant theme in much of English and American literature from the 19th century onwards, and since the majority of characters in these works are white males, I’d be surprised if those elements weren’t discussed at length in a college-level English class.

    I also find it difficult to believe that college classes in physics, statistics, astronomy, kinesiology etc consist entirely of “white guilt sessions”.

    While it’s possible that you may have had one or two bigoted professors, isn’t it at least possible that your grades tended to be low because your work wasn’t of a high enough standard to merit a C or better?

    If your professor was mocking you and you knew for a fact that he/she was giving you Ds simply because of your political views, then he/she was committing serious academic misconduct and a complaint to the dean would have been in order.

    You’re absolutely right that not everyone needs a college education to be successful, but perhaps your professors weren’t out to get you. Perhaps college just wasn’t for you.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    tommy –

    Don’t let your paranoia that the whole world is out to get you because you’re white interfere with the fact that they really are all out to get you just because you’re white. They are right over that ridge, hovering in their black helicopters, just waiting for That Special Moment when you’ve exceeded your maximum allowable whiteness, and then they’ll swoop in and shoot you with their gatling gay-ray guns!

  • Clavos

    Perhaps college just wasn’t for you

    Thanks to our idiotic egalitarian, “everybody deserves a college education” ideas, “college isn’t for” about a quarter of the people in college at any given moment.

    The result is we’ve watered down the value of a college education considerably in just a couple of generations.

  • John

    I would like to share this site I found regarding liberal bias, LiberalBias.com a reliable source for exposing numbers, facts, and figures that do not conform to conservative ideals.

  • Good laugh, that, John, thanks.

    Ostensibly it just makes fun of conservatives but it actually also does a pretty good job of demonstrating how with a little bit of manipulation, false equivalency and good old hysteria you can make anything someone does, however good, look like the worst crime ever perpetrated against humanity.

  • Brian Black

    After being around academia for years, I have no idea how the belief you are smarter and better than everyone else can possibly give rise to an ideology based on patronization. Remember, kiddos, you are incapable of learning on your own or making it your own, you need my help using the government as my agent to do so. The process behind convincing people they aren’t good enough to accomplish on their own is disgusting.