Some reflections on liberalism in the academy

So much for the tenure system promoting a diversity of opinions.  This article cites studies that show that fewer than 4% of academics self-identify as “conservative”, and the number of science and humanities profs voting for George Bush in 2004 was “so small that it came to a statistical value of 0 percent.”  This while some 40% of Americans self-identify as “conservative”.

Shouldn’t we find this disturbing?  The article concludes, “It’s not good for America to have a major political party and important elite institutions dominated by people trained to ignore—or worse, sneer at—the conservative ways of thinking that motivate most Americans.”

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

12 thoughts on “Some reflections on liberalism in the academy”

  1. While I think the characterization of liberals as “people trained to ignore…or sneer at the conservative way of thinking” is hasty at best, I do agree that this domination of our education by the liberally inclined could be a problem. Then again, the elitist part of me says that there may be a reason that the educated are likely to be liberal.

    It also seems presumptuous to assume that conservatives are blackballed in hiring processes and encouraged not to pursue higher education. All the author can provide as evidence for this is his word.

    The question, if it is determined that this problem is due to pressures that are unfavorable toward conservatives is, “How do we fix it?”


  2. I’ve never been on a search committee, so I cannot speak first-hand on this. But my guess is that the “blackballing” of conservatives is often real but difficult to measure. This because I don’t think the hiring process is malicious in intent and people don’t enter into it with an axe to grind. But it is natural for people in a department to want to hire people they think will be “collegial”, and that may well often turn out to mean “like minded”.
    This is anecdotal, but I have plenty of conservative friends in the academy who keep their mouths shut (especially on abortion and gay marriage) because they are afraid (justified or not) that they will be denied tenure and other opportunities if they were up front about it.


  3. What if it’s rare for conservative people to be interested in being academics? I don’t think that’s obviously false. Here is a hypothesis: those who self-identify as conservative tend to see issues in more stark terms (“black and white”), while the self-identified liberals see gradations, ambiguity, complexity, etc. If this is true, then liberals would be more likely than conservatives to enter a profession where all you do is argue back and forth over issues.

    At USU, by the way, I am always surprised by how conservative the faculty is. Maybe it’s different at other ends of the campus, but PoliSci and Econ seem to me far to the right of “conservative”!


  4. I like it when Huenemann is up front with his elitism.

    And I agree with him, USU does seem to be out of the mainstream of academia in that it has a relatively conservative faculty. Still, wouldn’t you say that the USU faculty is, as a whole, much less conservative than Utah generally? Even so, I would not feel particularly comfortable being openly pro-life to the faculty. Maybe that is unjustified paranoia.

    I wonder also if Huenemann might have his attitude colored by the fact that he is colleagues with Sherlock (definitely a conservative) and I (I am not as far right as Sherlock, who thinks recycling and climate change are shams). The philosophy department, as currently composed, is actually pretty even, and I certainly wouldn’t say that it is biased against conservatism.

    I am not compelled by your hypothesis about conservatives. Let’s suppose I am a “conservative” (though my Catholic views on social justice and things of that sort are probably “liberal”). But I see plenty of nuance, and it seems to me that conservative intellectuals do too (Pickstock, Marion, Popes JPII and Benedict, etc etc). It strikes me that the wingnuts of both the left and the right see things as “black and white”.


  5. Did anyone read this article in the times from last month?

    I know a lot of self identified conservatives who didn’t vote for W. I don’t think he stood for conservative values. A close friend in SLC is a very devout conservative mormon and he wouldn’t touch W with a ten foot pole post Patriot Act and the bailout only added insult to injury.

    Conservatives believe in a small federal government and states rights. Republican != Conservative


  6. Interesting article, Mike, though one wonders which came first, the actual phenomena or the stereotype. (I don’t buy the article’s claim about “progressive reformers of the 19th century”.)

    Kleiner, you’re a weird (that is, atypical) conservative.


    1. Thanks?

      Instead of “weird” I would prefer “consistent”.

      There is actually a growing crowd of “weird” conservatives like me, including “postmodern conservatives” (not that they or I would self-identify as “pomo” but we engage it), Meynell, Pickstock, some of the radical orthodoxy folk, so-called ‘new natural law’ theorists, not to mention JPII and contemporary Catholic personalism. First Things (though a bit neo-con for my tastes) is another example of pretty darn nuanced and intellectually rigorous conservatism. Same with the new blog “the Catholic Thing”.


  7. I don’t think the article resolves the question but I like that it looks outside the tired typical narrative.

    I have no context to evaluate those claims derived from Louis Menand’s work. Nor do I currently have the desire to get to the point where I could adequately evaluate such claims. :)


  8. Speaking only from my experiences with professors in the PoliSci and Econ departments, it would indeed seem that there is a dearth of “modern conservatives” (strong military, strong Christian values, etc). Again, this is completely anecdotal, but it seems most who would not consider themselves liberal tend to lean more towards the “classical liberal” end of the spectrum (ie Smith, Locke, Berlin, Hayek etc). I would have a hard time naming many that self-identified as Republican anyway.

    On a different note however, I happened to be on Stanford campus after the 2008 election, and their student paper published a report saying that while the faculty as a whole voted strongly (ca 90%) for Obama, the faculty of the Hoover Institute were split much more evenly (something like 60-40 for Obama). So perhaps it is simply a case of self-selection. The “conservatives” or at least those who are not liberals, tend to gravitate towards places such as Hoover, George Mason, etc.

    But what do I know about actual world of academia?


  9. I realize this is a bit of an older post, but I thought I would mention a few things.

    While I certainly agree that those that are hired for collegiate teaching positions tend to be more “liberal” based upon multiple polling numbers and research data, it does seem to me that we are missing the broader view of academia. The same research and polling data that shows us that the majority of college professors are liberal also shows that the students that are flocking to graduate programs are equally “liberal”

    Why would that be the case? Its not like the admissions department for graduate studies carefully examines all students prior voting record or writings on political philosophy, there is clear evidence that the more education you receive from MS/MA to PhD the more likely you are to be “liberal” My personal view is that there is a more cultural/philosophical reason why the majority of professors and students at the graduate level are “liberaL”

    We all know that the kindergarten view of the difference between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives are more economically aware and value business and themselves, and liberals value civil liberties and economic equality for all. If you are a business minded person, spending 8 to 10 years in college is a serious waste of your time. You learn what you need, and get out and make your money. Obtaining a PhD for the purpose of business is unnecessary and honestly it takes you out of the experience equation necessary to succeed in business. Those that chose to pursue PhD’s and other graduate level degrees have obviously made a decision to pursue a degree that will not just benefit themselves, it will benefit others as well (e.g. teachers, writers, doctors, lawyers, etc). I would also mention that if a person chooses to pursue a PhD they are not interested in making substantial sums of money.

    For me the reason why so many professors are liberal is because they chose a career that is not self motivated. Now I am not intentionally insinuating that conservatives are selfish, but lets be honest the core of conservative economic and social values are based upon pulling oneself up by their own bootstraps, and hoping that society follows their personal social values not everyone else’s values. (There are always the exception to the rule like Kleiner, etc)

    Truthfully, I think it is interesting that we are still asking “why are professors are liberal” but we are not asking why there are so few Americans in our Engineering classes. I think it is because we know the truth without having to say it. By and large Americans are terrible at math so they stay away from majors that expect greater math knowledge. Why would we expect conservatives to obtain PhD’s to teach it it wasnt what they were best at?


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