Professor Is a Label That Leans to the Left
By PATRICIA COHEN
Published: January 17, 2010, The New York Times
The overwhelmingly liberal tilt of university professors has been explained by everything from outright bias to higher I.Q. scores. Now new research suggests that critics may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of looking at why most professors are liberal, they should ask why so many liberals — and so few conservatives — want to be professors.
A pair of sociologists think they may have an answer: typecasting. Conjure up the classic image of a humanities or social sciences professor, the fields where the imbalance is greatest: tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular — and liberal. Even though that may be an outdated stereotype, it influences younger people’s ideas about what they want to be when they grow up.
Jobs can be typecast in different ways, said Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse, who undertook the study. For instance, less than 6 percent of nurses today are men. Discrimination against male candidates may be a factor, but the primary reason for the disparity is that most people consider nursing to be a woman’s career, Mr. Gross said. That means not many men aspire to become nurses in the first place — a point made in the recent Lee Daniels film “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” When John (Lenny Kravitz) asks the 16-year-old Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) and her friends whether they’ve ever seen a male nurse before, all answer no amid giddy laughter.
Nursing is what sociologists call “gender typed.” Mr. Gross said that “professors and a number of other fields are politically typed.” Journalism, art, fashion, social work and therapy are dominated by liberals; while law enforcement, farming, dentistry, medicine and the military attract more conservatives.
“These types of occupational reputations affect people’s career aspirations,” he added in a telephone interview from his office at the University of British Columbia. Mr. Fosse, his co-author, is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard.
The academic profession “has acquired such a strong reputation for liberalism and secularism that over the last 35 years few politically or religiously conservative students, but many liberal and secular ones, have formed the aspiration to become professors,” they write in the paper, “Why Are Professors Liberal?” That is especially true of their own field, sociology, which has become associated with “the study of race, class and gender inequality — a set of concerns especially important to liberals.”
What distinguishes Mr. Gross and Mr. Fosse’s research from so much of the hubbub that surrounds this subject is their methodology. Whereas most arguments have primarily relied on anecdotes, this is one of the only studies to use data from the General Social Survey of opinions and social behaviors and compare professors with the rest of Americans.
Mr. Gross and Mr. Fosse linked those empirical results to the broader question of why some occupations — just like ethnic groups or religions — have a clear political hue. Using an econometric technique, they were then able to test which of the theories frequently bandied about were supported by evidence and which were not.
Intentional discrimination, one of the most frequent and volatile charges made by conservatives, turned out not to play a significant role.
To understand how a field gets typecast, one has to look at its history. From the early 1950s William F. Buckley Jr. and other founders of the modern conservative movement railed against academia’s liberal bias. Buckley even published a regular column, “From the Academy,” in the magazine he founded, The National Review.
“Conservatives weren’t just expressing outrage,” Mr. Gross said, “they were also trying to build a conservative identity.” They defined themselves in opposition to the New Deal liberals who occupied the establishment’s precincts. Hence Buckley’s quip in the early 1960s: “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”
In the 1960s college campuses, swelled by the large baby-boom generation, became a staging ground for radical leftist social and political movements, further moving the academy away from conservatism.
Typecasting, of course, is not the only cause for the liberal tilt. The characteristics that define one’s political orientation are also at the fore of certain jobs, the sociologists reported. Nearly half of the political lopsidedness in academia can be traced to four characteristics that liberals in general, and professors in particular, share: advanced degrees; a nonconservative religious theology (which includes liberal Protestants and Jews, and the nonreligious); an expressed tolerance for controversial ideas; and a disparity between education and income.
The mismatch between schooling and salary complements a theory that the Harvard professor Louis Menand raises in his new book “The Marketplace of Ideas.” He argues that the way higher education was structured by progressive reformers in the late 19th century is partly responsible for the political uniformity of today. In the view of the early reformers, the only way to ensure that quality, rather than profit, would be rewarded was to protect the profession from outside competition. The tradeoff for lower salaries was control; professors decide who gets to enter their profession and who doesn’t.
The tendency of people in any institution or organization to try to fit in also reinforces the political one-sidedness. In “The Politically Correct University: Problems, Scope and Reforms,” a collection of essays published by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group, Daniel B. Klein, an economist at George Mason University in Virginia, and Charlotta Stern, a sociologist at Stockholm University, argue that when it comes to hiring, “the majority will tend to support candidates like them in the matter of fundamental beliefs, values and commitments.”
Other contributors to the book, Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner, who are husband and wife, also found that conservatives are less interested in pursuing advanced degrees than liberals.
Mr. Gross and Mr. Fosse have not yet published their results, but experts in the field have vetted their research and methods. Michèle Lamont, a Harvard professor and the author of “How Professors Think,” said, “I think their paper is very, very sophisticated and quite original.” She added that the theory better fits some disciplines, like literature and sociology, than others, like business or economics.
Mitchell L. Stevens, a professor of education at Stanford University, who also reviewed the research, finds the theory promising. Choosing an occupation is part of fashioning an identity, Mr. Stevens said, noting that people think of themselves as a “corporate type” or a free spirit, which is why you might find highly educated graduates working as bartenders instead of in an office.
He added that the gender-typing of a field like physics might also partly explain the dearth of women in it, another subject that has provoked heated disputes.
To Mr. Gross, accusations by conservatives of bias and student brainwashing are self-defeating. “The irony is that the more conservatives complain about academia’s liberalism,” he said, “the more likely it’s going to remain a bastion of liberalism.”