Do professors lean to the left?

By Michelle Williams

Some believe that college professors are raging liberals, dead set on converting you into a peace-loving activist. Your one uncle is convinced you went off to college and came back a communist. The leftists got to you. Or did they?

Instead of asking why so many professors lean towards the left, a new study asks why so many liberals want to be professors.

The research was completed by Neil Gross, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, and Ethan Fosse, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Harvard University. Gross has authored numerous other studies of professorial politics, including a 2007 study that found liberal faculty members were often more moderate than believed. Gross and Fosse based their analysis on data from the General Social Survey from 1974-2008.

Fosse and Gross do not disagree that those in academia are more liberal than the population at large, but their study seeks to explain why this is the case. The survey finds that 43 percent of the political rift in the professors’ politics can be explained. When compared to the American public, professors are more likely to be either secular in their religious beliefs, or a member of the Jewish faith or a Protestant faith not engaged in conservative politics. Professors are also more likely to be open to controversial ideas, and more willing to risk their professional integrity to study an issue, the research finds.

The study also found that in comparison to most Americans in terms of educational attainment (a doctorate or master’s degree), professors are willing to accept a much lower salary. A study of 1,259 institutions by the American Association of University Professors showed that the average salary was $85,827 during the 2008-09 academic year.

One influence the pair found on professors’ political paradigm was their existing ideas.

Gross and Fosse state in the paper that “the theory we advance … 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.” When the image of a professor comes to mind, adjectives individuals used to describe professors included wearing a tweed jacket, glasses, rambling, and being non-religious and liberal, according to the study. Even though this isn’t necessarily the case, such images affect what individuals entering the field of academia aspire to become.

Gross and Fosse cite past research about how some professions become “sex-typed,” and are associated with gender. Much like how the stereotypical image of a professor comes to mind, for the occupation of a nurse, individuals inherently assume the job is held by a woman. Beyond gender, the authors explain that certain fields of work attract those of a specific political stance. “We argue that the professoriate, along with a number of other knowledge work fields, has been ‘politically typed’ as appropriate and welcoming of people with broadly liberal sensibilities, and as inappropriate for conservatives,” the study holds. Gross and Fosse cite such fields as art, fashion, journalism and social work as attractive to liberals, whereas law enforcement, farming, medicine and the military attract conservatives.

The issue of salary not equating to jobs held by comparably educated individuals does not seem to influence professors’ decision to join the academy, according to research.

Daniel B. Klein, an economist at George Mason University and Charlotta Stern, a sociology professor at Stockholm University published a study titled, “By the Numbers: The Ideological Profile of Professors.” Klein and Stern state that the political homogeneity of academia today is due to the structural changes that progressive reformers made in the 19th century to higher education. Essentially, they maintain, professors choose peers with similar dispositions to themselves. It was their view that teaching should not be about salary, and the only way to ensure this was for professors to choose their co-workers. Klein and Stern argue that when hiring, “the majority will tend to support candidates like them in the matter of fundamental beliefs, values and commitments.”

Michelle Williams can be reached at [email protected]