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Professors aware of liberal bias

Michael Busk | Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series exploring the role of partisan politics in classes at Notre Dame.

There are no Republicans in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s faculty, according to a 2003 study done by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. There are two at Brown University. Yale University has five, and Columbia University has four. As far as the study could find, the four schools’ combined ratio of registered Democrat faculty to registered Republican faculty was 196 to 11. The study examined 32 of the nation’s top colleges and universities, including the entire Ivy League. Of the faculty and administrators who were registered to one party or another, 1,397 were registered Democrats and 134 were registered Republicans. Along with similar findings, conservatives often use these numbers as evidence of the disproportionate liberal majority in American academia. Liberals often respond by saying universities are dots of blue in a red nation, and as a whole act as a healthy counterbalance to the conservative dominance increasingly found across the nation and even in traditionally-liberal Washington, D.C. “I think it’s just plain true that faculties at universities are more liberal than the general population,” said Daniel Philpott, professor of political science at Notre Dame. “I think it’s demonstrable. Some people would say that’s good. A liberal would say this is the one oasis where you can put forth some of these values, that this is the conscience of society, whereas others would say students aren’t getting a fair perspective.” A recent editorial in The Economist discussed the relationship between politics and the university in America. Its first line was “If you loathe political debate, join the faculty of an American university.” The editorial noted the two largest employee group contributions to the 2004 Kerry campaign were by the faculty and staff at UC-Berkeley and Harvard University – ahead of Time Warner, Goldman Sachs and Microsoft. “Academia is simultaneously both the part of America that is most obsessed with diversity, and the least diverse part of the country,” read the editorial. “On the one hand, colleges bend over backward to hire minority professors and recruit minority students … yet when it comes to politics, they are not just indifferent to diversity, they are downright allergic to it.” Philosophy professor Kenneth Sayre said he believes tension between democrats and republicans in academia is a microcosm of the larger red state/blue state division many claim is tearing the coasts apart from the heartland, and the cities from their suburbs. “You can’t be moderate in today’s political climate and be effective,” Sayre said. “That kind of polarization is definitely on the scene now, and it’s fairly recent.” Sayre said a unified coalition of moderates in academia and in government could be the bridge for an increasingly polarized nation. “What I would like to see, both in national politics and at the university level, would in effect be a cooperative, mutually respectful joining of interests by moderates of all political stripes,” he said. Philosophy professor David Solomon, on the other hand, believes the problem is not heightened partisanship, but rather one-sidedness. “I don’t think there’s much polarization in the American academy,” Solomon said. “I think there’s conformity … There is a rigid set of views, a kind of code of acceptable political views in the American academe that’s quite strictly enforced. Divergent voices are not respected much.” But notions of liberalism and conservatism themselves are also becoming more moderate, several professors said.Solomon believes such a lack of strong extreme positions on the right and left can make academic debate at universities quite tepid. “It would be false to say that everybody at the university’s radically left,” Solomon said. “Nobody’s radically left in this country. The academy consists of squishy-in-the-middle liberals for the most part, and that’s the orthodoxy … I think that’s the danger of the American academe, that it makes discussions really boring, because basically everybody agrees on certain types of issues.” Solomon also mentioned the tension between academia and America at large, citing the fact academia as a whole seems to have come to a general consensus with regard to many issues that are still matters of serious contention throughout the rest of the country. “Maybe it’s just that the simple truth about the world is the set of views academics have come upon [are] out of touch … with American voters because [professors are] smarter than the majority of American voters, and really do see the truth more clearly,” said Solomon. Sayre discussed the ideas of conservatism and liberalism beyond the red/blue dichotomy that is so prevalent in the United States today, harkening back to what he believes is the purpose of a liberal arts education.”I think if an institution doesn’t encourage a more liberal view of life and society, then it’s not doing its job,” Sayre said. “The liberal arts are not named as they are for no reason … Their goal is to liberate you, to expand your horizons and as you expand your horizons you’re going to get less conservative.”Sayre elaborated, arguing that the broadening of worldview that ought to take place at universities should free them from a narrow-minded, dogmatic provincialism. “As you expand your range of experience and your range of knowledge of things that are happening in the world, your views of things become much more inclusive,” he said, “and the more inclusive your views are, the less they are going to tend to be summarized or summarizable in a set of perceptions and political positions that emphasize orthodoxy.”