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Profs and politics: A sociologist researches the left and right along the academic aisle

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According to Gross’ varied research, somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of the American professoriate classify as “liberal.”
Chuck Twardy

Back in my newspaper days, whenever people thought they proved “liberal bias” by citing surveys showing that a majority of journalists are Democrats, I’d borrow an argument from academia: Correlation does not imply causation. Besides, the reporters and editors I knew scrupulously segregated politics and work.

Now I'm a journalism instructor, and I’m sensitive to correlations between politics and practice in my new field. My second argument seems more pertinent: Shouldn’t it tell you something that inquisitive, intelligent and well-educated people tend to be liberal?

According to Neil Gross, yes and no. The University of British Columbia sociology professor draws on studies conducted with colleagues, and on others’ research, to pick apart a familiar conservative lament in Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? Depending on how you examine the matter, somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of the American professoriate classify as “liberal.” (Journalist surveys place Democratic self-identification at just under 40 percent.)

The Details

Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?
Three and a half stars
By Neil Gross, $35

Gross and Solon Simpson conducted a Politics of the American Professoriate survey in 2006, assigning 1,416 professors to “political clusters.” Nine percent are “radical left,” but less than half of them embrace Marxism; they believe, in Gross’s words, “that class inequality is the most significant ill affecting society.” To their right, a “progressive” 31 percent and a “center left” 14 percent share a concern for social justice but do not believe the economic system must change. “Moderate” weighs in at 19 percent.

Sifting through his and other data, Gross reasonably infers that intelligent people tend to be tolerant, thus liberal and thus attracted to academic careers, but he argues that this alone does not explain the professoriate’s leftward lean. Gross blames “political self-selection”—the brand attracts liberals and repulses conservatives. But most professors, like journalists, strive for objectivity, and few proselytize in class. An audit study by Gross and two colleagues found negligible differences in Directors of Graduate Studies’ reactions to queries from liberal and conservative prospective students.

Conflating academics with elitism has been a Republican tactic since the Nixon days, but noisy efforts to rein in academics have failed. So far. Gross frets “that political balkanization in the university may ramify outward,” further polarizing national politics. Maybe. My colleagues and I have more immediate fears. Repeated state budget cuts and emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, whose professors skew right, slowly threaten to silence the arts and social sciences in public universities. That’s why conservatives care.

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