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Margin Notes

The latest on lefty profs

Is the liberal bias of professors due to self-selection or better education?


A sociology professor at the University of British Columbia and a doctoral student at Harvard University have weighed in on the eternal debate as to why there is an overwhelmingly leftist slant in academe. Some claim that the liberal tilt of university professors demonstrates bias and discrimination against conservatives, while others suggest that it shows that academics are better educated and hence more open-minded and rational.

Neil Gross at UBC and Ethan Fosse at Harvard take a somewhat different tack. They claim it’s more a case of self-selection, or typecasting. Here’s their theory in their own words:

The theory we advance—which, we contend, ranks highly in terms of comprehensiveness, realism, and parsimony—holds that the liberalism of professors is a function not primarily of class relations, but rather of the systematic sorting of young adults who are already liberally- or conservatively-inclined into and out of the academic profession, respectively.

In other words, they argue that the professoriate has been “politically typed” as appropriate for and welcoming of people with broadly liberal political sensibilities, and as inappropriate for conservatives. “This reputation leads many more liberal than conservative students to aspire for the advanced educational credentials that make entry into knowledge work fields possible,” they write in their as-yet-unpublished paper.

Their findings echo those of husband and wife academics Matthew and Kellie Woessner, who claim that values and personality traits are largely responsible for why liberals are attracted to academe and conservatives are not. Their paper, “Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Doctorates,” can be seen here; and a discussion of their findings can be found here.

Neither the Woessners, nor Professor Gross and Mr. Fosse, believe that discrimination plays a major role.

Interestingly, our own columnist, philosophy professor Christine Overall, doesn’t quite buy the personality argument. In a January 2009 column, she suggests that “smart, well-educated and conscientious people tend to form left-wing views,” adding that, “perhaps the dearth of conservatives in academia can be explained because it is just harder to hold right-wing views in the face of compelling evidence against them.”

As an aside, just how left-leaning are professors? I don’t know of Canadian statistics, but in U.S., according to The Chronicle’s 2009 Almanac of Higher Education, 55.8 percent of academics consider themselves either  “far left” or “liberal,” while just 15.9 percent claim to be either “far right” or “conservative.” The remaining 28.4 percent self-identify as “middle of the road.”

Scientists, many of whom of course are academics, have a similar bias. In a spring 2009 survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Pew Research Center, 56 percent of respondents said they were liberal, 42 percent said they were neither, and a mere two percent said they were conservative (from Science, July 10, 2009, vol. 325).

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Dr.Doinglittle / January 26, 2010 at 18:27

    No doubt there is bias against conservatives in many academic depts, especially in the arts and social sciences. I’d say even moderates get a bumpy ride in places for not towing a leftist line. Some depts of course aren’t as bad as others. Sad thing is many profs seem to think they are unbiased… the same people who publish in leftist journals and write letters to the editor in newspaper deploring left-of-centre policies.

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