Liberal professors have little impact

July 11, 2006|By LIONEL S. LEWIS

Are there too many liberal professors on American campuses? Is this a danger to students or society?

The dominance of liberal faculty, particularly in the humanities and social sciences and at more prestigious American colleges, has long vexed conservatives. It was a bother to Nicholas Murray Butler, Columbia University's long-time president, before World War I, and it enraged Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy after World War II. Newspapers held liberal faculty (predominantly from Harvard), who had vocally opposed President William McKinley's intention to declare war on Spain, largely responsible for his assassination.

The size of the Democratic majority on campus is generally wide. In 1948, over 60 percent of professors voted for the Democratic candidate; in 1964, the figure was 78 percent. In a 1972 survey, twice as many professors identified themselves as liberals.

Conservatives have moved beyond simply complaining about this ideological imbalance; they have been working mightily to increase their presence on campus. What has most convinced them of the urgency of their task is a 1999 survey of 1,643 faculty members from 183 schools that found that 72 percent of professors described themselves as left/liberal while only 15 percent described themselves as right/conservative.

A decade earlier, the Carnegie Foundation reported that 62 percent of professors in four-year colleges described themselves as liberal/moderately liberal while 23 percent described themselves as conservative/moderately conservative.

Conservatives believe the prevalence of liberal professors means that a liberal ideology has permeated American campuses. They also believe the result is ideologically based discrimination in the hiring and promotion of faculty, the intimidation, ridicule, punishment and brainwashing of students and bias in the classroom, even in the sciences.

As to the first charge, two important studies have shown that liberal faculty members do indeed achieve higher professional status than their conservative counterparts. With this in mind, the 1999 survey's researchers tested the hypothesis that discrimination is the reason that a greater number of practicing Christians than would be expected teach at lower-quality schools.

Although the statistics led them to conclude that "achievement accounts for the lion's share ... in determining the quality of the school that hires and retains or promotes" professors, conservative critics remain skeptical.

Thomas Sowell writes that "even top scholars who are conservative are unlikely to be hired by many colleges and universities." David Horowitz contends that "white Christians make up ... only 17 percent of the population at Harvard. Like the exclusion of conservatives from Harvard's faculty, this does not happen by accident but by ideological design."

Princeton professor Robert George reports feeling isolated by the bias: "Today, the hegemonic point of view is the liberal point of view in universities." He also worries about its impact on a student: "If they find out he's pro-life or against same-sex marriage, he might be cut off, or not be able to get through graduate school."

It is unclear where the hordes of the radicalized college graduates are. In 1996, 88 percent of grade-school graduates and 49 percent of college graduates voted Democratic; in 2000, the figures were 74 percent and 50 percent. If anything, these figures would suggest that a college education leads people to vote more conservatively.

Elite colleges have surely graduated their share of those on the right. Of the 18 national security advisers in the last 50 years, 12 earned 16 degrees from six elite institutions - Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Cal Tech. And five - McGeorge Bundy, Walt W. Rostow, Henry A. Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Condoleezza Rice - taught at elite schools. Of the 10 "Vulcans," the inner circle of the foreign policy team promoting the Iraq invasion in 2003, seven have Ivy League degrees.

Of course, even if someone were able to find evidence, beyond a few anecdotes, to support the worst nightmares of the conservatives - that campuses are dangerous places for conservative thought - it would hardly matter.

Over six decades of research shows that the values of students remain largely unaffected by what goes on in the classroom. The values young people leave college with are pretty much like those they bring with them when first setting foot on campus; at most, they take away new skills.

Scores of studies have shown that the effect of college on the attitudes, values, religiosity and political views of students is almost nil. In short, it hardly makes a difference if the professoriate is mostly liberal or conservative, teaching Leon Trotsky or Leo Tolstoy.

Lionel S. Lewis, a professor emeritus at the State University of New York, Buffalo, is the author of "The Cold War and Academic Governance: The Lattimore Case at Johns Hopkins." His e-mail is

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