The Slowing of Higher Education's Liberal Slide
The ideological beliefs held by faculty and administrators of America’s colleges and universities have been lopsidedly left for decades. This liberal dominance is a huge problem for higher education as it has limited viewpoint diversity, diminished unpopular ideas, and inhibited honest discourse which is the hallmark of a real and robust liberal education.
But the release of new data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) on our nation’s professoriate offers good news and hope for the future. It appears that the sharp political shift of university faculty to the left, visible over the past three decades, has stalled. While a liberal dominance still exists, the new HERI data show that the numbers have not worsened over the past three years.
A few years ago, I sounded the alarm that higher education was in crisis. Over the past three decades, the professors who teach our nation’s undergraduates have driven out real viewpoint diversity from campuses and have moved sharply leftward. From 1989 through 2014, HERI surveys of the ideological leanings of college faculty members consistently showed that the percentage of those identifying as liberal always outnumbered moderates and conservatives. Some periods stand out: in the mid-1990s, a notable leftward shift was indicated by the data. By 2014, liberal identifiers jumped to 60 percent (vs. 40 percent in 1989), with moderates at 30 percent (vs. 20 percent in 1989), and conservatives at just 10 percent (from 20 percent in 1989).
Today, three years after my warning, the ideological imbalance among our nation’s faculty has remained static. The just released 2016-2017 HERI data reveal that in aggregate, 60 percent of our nation’s faculty lean liberal and far left. 28 percent identify as middle of the road and the remaining 12 percent claim to be conservative or far right.
These numbers are practically identical to the earlier HERI survey findings. They also reveal how much more left-leaning our nation’s professors are compared to the very students they teach. In 2016, for instance, 36 percent of incoming college students identified as liberal while 22 percent were conservative. The centrist 42 percent were the plurality. Putting this in context, the liberal to conservative ratio for incoming students was 1.6 to 1—for faculty, the liberal to conservative ratio was 5 to 1. Depressing facts for students who expect their faculty to teach balanced ideas and perspectives.
Moreover, the HERI data make it clear that conservative faculty voices are least likely to be found on public university campuses. Mirroring earlier trends, only 8 percent of professors at public universities identify as conservative compared to the 66 percent who lean left — an 8.25 to 1 liberal to conservative ratio. Following close behind are private, non-sectarian four-year colleges, which have a 6 to 1 ratio, and public colleges which have a 5 to 1 ratio. Private universities, on the other hand, are the most balanced with 16% of professors being conservative compared to 55% being liberal — a 3.4 to 1 ratio.
While no one should be celebrating the skewed balance found among our nation’s professoriate, the new HERI numbers offer hope that concerns over the meteoric rise of liberals in the academe and the ideological monoculture that exists in many of our colleges and universities may be slowing down. Since 2014, almost 6,300 new faculty jobs have been created, not accounting for the replacements of faculty who have moved on and no longer teach. This has certainly provided an opportunity for the academe to grow and tilt even more to the left in the past few years. But it hasn’t, and this should be taken as a positive sign.
Regrettably, the HERI data offer no real clues as to why — in an environment in which questions about socialism and the new left are so prevalent — the leftward trend for those teaching at our nation’s institutions of higher education has slowed. One possibility is an increased awareness of this imbalance on the part of faculties, graduates, and trustees. Significant public attention has been paid to the lack of viewpoint diversity in higher education. Numerous national news stories aided by advocacy on the part of groups like the Heterodox Academy and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have put pressure on trustees and professors who hire many faculty members and who generally support real intellectual diversity.
Is this pause in the leftward drift of America’s professorate real? The new HERI data could suggest that higher education is at an inflection point and more balance may eventually emerge. And while forces pushing college campuses to the left are still prominent, a progressive increase in faculty ideology has not happened, despite the pressures of the Trump era. So, I am still optimistic, but only time will tell.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.