The Liberal World of Academics

In the 1990s neo-conservatives began talking about ways to address the dangerous element of academics. For the most part, conservative pundits and shock jockeys suggested that the vast majority of U.S professors are liberal Democrats, who are aiming to convert students to this specific political bias. There is a substantial amount of information to support the argument that most U.S professors are liberal, and that their views spill out into the classroom. But does this matter? In this article, I will explore the myth and the rebuttals to neo-conservatives’ fear of liberal academics. In the end, I argue that liberal academics do not make a lasting impact on our political landscape, but rather reflect the continual presence of democracy.

The Myth
The story is often told that neo-conservatives are losing the country to liberals. One of the reasons for this is the liberal bias rampant in academics. People such as David Horowitz and Daniel Pipes founded groups as early as the 1990s such as the Middle East Forum, the Students for Academic Freedom, Campus Watch, and many others in an effort to ‘curb’ this encroaching liberalism and call out professors who are manipulating information in the classroom. Their fear, or advertised fear, is that this one-party representation in academics is ruining the democratic system. There is very little, if any, information supporting this claim.

The Rebuttals
U.S professors are more liberal than conservative and I would not dispute the argument that the majority vote Democratic. This political bias does affect professors’ perspectives and executions of classroom material. As such, it is understandable that neo-conservatives are concerned about the power professors wield in and out of the classroom. Professors tailor their own lectures, write articles, and are seen as embodiments of knowledge. But will this lead to an eventual conversion of the U.S educated class to liberalism? Statistics suggest otherwise.

According to the March 27, 2008 article “Are Liberal College Professors a Problem?”:

“A study that will appear soon in the journal PS: Political Science & Politics accepts the first part of the critique of academe and says that it’s true that the professoriate leans left,” the IHE report continues. “But the study — notably by one Republican professor and one Democratic professor — finds no evidence of indoctrination. Despite students being educated by liberal professors, their politics change only marginally in their undergraduate years, and that deflates the idea that cadres of tenured radicals are somehow corrupting America’s youth — or scaring them into adopting new political views.”

In many ways this finding mirrors conventional wisdom. Professors have historically been liberal in the United States, but this continual liberal influence did not lead to a reduction of conservatism. If anything, the events during and following the Reagan Era suggest a growth in conservative values and adherents. Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, shares in this skepticism. He also feels that people like Horowitz and Pipes exaggerate the actual impact professors have on U.S society. Cole inverts the neo-conservative stance on academics to show the unhealthy imbalance conservatives are having in the U.S society through business and military connections.

According to Cole in “Are Professors too Liberal?” on October 14, 2002:

For instance, Corporate Executive Officers of major corporations are vastly more powerful and influential than are mere college teachers. And yet, it has long been known that CEOs are heavily Republican in their voting patterns. Shall we make a law that half of all persons chosen CEOs of corporations must be registered Democrats, and must give their campaign donations to that party?

Or, let us take the officers in our military services, who have grown increasingly rightwing in the past thirty years. Polling data show that in 1976 only one third of military officers said they were Republicans. By 1996 two-thirds of officers identified with the GOP, and only ten percent were Democrats. This development is truly worrisome. Would President Bush have been so successful in pushing his joint chiefs of staff to put away their objections to an Iraq campaign last summer if he knew two thirds of his officers had voted against him? Did not the open contempt many in the armed services expressed for Bill Clinton weaken our democracy?

Cole goes on to point out in the same article,

By the mid-1990s they [conservative think tanks] outspent their liberal counterparts by five to one, and were mentioned almost eight times as often in newspapers, radio and television transcripts..

Conservative think tanks do not hire liberal scholars and do not produce liberal reports. They often publish their own books, with no double-blind refereeing or other quality controls. The studies they produce concerning social issues are driven by partisan politics and are often sloppy (failing to incorporate a control group, for instance). They can be enormously influential. Ronald Reagan adopted two-thirds of the proposals put forward by the Heritage Foundation in its “Mandate for Leadership.” Why does Horowitz not propose that half of the influential and best-funded think tanks always be liberal in orientation? Surely this is an imbalance that needs to be addressed?

Cole’s points here are important to consider, especially in the realm of publishing. Academics face rigorous hurdles when they publish. Journal articles traditionally take over a year just to consider, where they undergo a double-blind reviewing process. Even in humanities and social science journals where opinions and subjectivity is more relevant, articles are published for their critical data and argument enriches a discourse, not their political leanings. This is not the case for most conservative think-tanks, which ordinarily cite each other in a web of self-legitimacy.

Liberal Academics Part and Parcel with Democracy
Some of the most powerful theoretical frameworks in academics to date come from the work of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Psychological and neo-Marxist analyses offer some of the most cogent and forceful arguments throughout the disciplines. In this respect, it is no surprise that most academics lean to the left. The strongest social theories encourage liberal views and ideas. This phenomenon is global. If you examine countries around the world, their universities are the strongest bastions of democratic ideals. While a sizable amount of student movements have been socialist, they are always aimed against dictatorships and demand power to the people, one of the main principles that prompted our U.S Constitution.

Students were at the front of the movement against the Chinese regime at Tienanmen Square, China in 1989. In South Africa, students led a revolt against the apartheid, and was one of the first and most powerful movements in South Africa to date (incidentally, our famous conservative President Reagan rejected Congress’s request to denounce South Africa’s Apartheid. Congress eventually overturned his veto, but this did not prevent Reagan from labeling Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress a terrorist organization). In another example, students gathered around Thailand’s Thammasat University to protest the dictatorship and demand a democracy in 1973, which they got for three years (and have been, to date, arguably the longest democratic period in Thailand).

Neo-conservatives rightly point out the imbalance of political perspectives in college classrooms, but this imbalance has not slighted the conservative agenda. Big business and military opinion hold more power, and helped to create a healthy conservative following that was present until the recent Republican administration. Though you may disagree with liberal perspectives, consider the legacy of academic liberalism in democratic countries. Academic liberalism is a testament to a democratic countries’ intellectual freedoms. The removal of such would only suggest a healthy and productive totalitarianism. For a wonderful illustration of this, visit North Korea.