Professors Stanley Rothman, Neil Nevitte and S. Robert Lichter tested the hypothesis that “an ideological homogeneity exists in academia that has become self reinforcing,” by analyzing data from the 1999 North American Academic Study Survey (NAASS) of colleges and universities across the United States and Canada. Their findings were published in Academic Questions, a quarterly journal published by the National Association of Scholars. As Rothman states, “Being a Republican or conservative significantly reduces the predicted quality of the college or university where [one] teaches, after taking scholarly achievement into account.”
Rothman’s study asked two broad questions: First, do colleges and universities actually have views that are predominantly Democratic or left-of-center, and second, whether these views are self-reinforcing. To answer the first question, Rothman measured political identification according to three separate measurements: Left-Right ideological identification, political party preference, and social and political attitudes. He found that while only 18 percent of the U.S. public in 1999 identified themselves as liberal, with 37 percent of the population identifying themselves as conservative, approximately 72 percent of professors identified themselves as liberal, with only 15 percent identifying themselves as conservative.
An earlier study conducted in 1984 by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education put the Left/Right distribution among professors at 39 and 34 percent respectively. Indeed, when the researchers looked at professors’ views on specific social and political issues, a similar trend emerged. Here, 66 percent of professors agreed that government should guarantee full employment, 75 percent endorsed extramarital cohabitation, and 88 percent agreed that one should protect the environment even in the face of higher prices and fewer jobs.
So it appears that there is a left-leaning shift within academic circles. But is this shift self-reinforcing? Rothman finds that indeed it is: Conservatives, besides being underrepresented in academic circles, are also hindered in their career advancement, independent of their level of merit. When he analyzed religious activity, party affiliation, ideological leanings, and institutional prestige, Rothman found that right-leaning professors tended to be employed at less prestigious universities, as compared with peers of relatively equal merit. While Rothman admits that academic achievement was the most important factor in determining employment, ideological leanings were second.
The results of this study, if ultimately correct, can have significant implications, not only for conservatives, but indeed for the quality of academic education at large. Intellectual objectivity and political and social progress can only come about in an environment of rigorous debate and discourse. Without the continual challenge of legitimate academic debate, established ideas ossify into dogmas and new ideas are prevented from coming to the fore.
While one can argue that debates between both professors and intellectual schools of thought occur all the time in academia, one must consider the framework within which those debates occur. If Rothman’s study turns out to be correct, it would seem that academic debate would only occur within the philosophical and ideological precepts of a liberal worldview.
The major debates would be increasingly within a framework of liberal ideas (e.g., to have a greater or lesser welfare state) rather than about the ideas themselves (e.g., whether a welfare state is justifiable in the first place). While this would obviously be harmful to conservatives, it would be primarily harmful to the academic process itself; for not only would valid conservative ideas fail to make it into mainstream academic discourse, but indeed valid liberal ideas would lay stagnant, simply for want of a worthy conservative opponent.
Justin De Rise is a senior at George Washington University.