Engaging Culture

Are Political Attitudes Shifting at Major Universities?

In a new book called “The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University,” Louis Menand shares some pretty interesting statistics about changing attitudes at major elite universities in America.  In his last chapter, “Why Do Professors All Think Alike?” he tackles the perception that university professors are predominately liberal.  Guess what?  They are.  (No surprise there.)

More than 95% of humanities professors at elite universities voted for John Kerry, and 0% for George Bush.  More generally, only 19% of faculty identify themselves as conservative, and many would say they keep pretty quite about it.  But the startling news is that the liberal faculty are generally the older professors.  Menand sees a significant shift toward the center as younger colleagues join the faculty.  So he predicts a strong move to the right in coming years, as older faculty – bred in the 60’s –  retires.

Just as interesting was his premise about why so many faculty have similar political views.  As Reviewer Michael Roth writes about the book in the LA Times:  “But the real reason professors tend toward conformity is a training system that reinforces the status quo. It takes far longer to earn most doctorates than to get degrees in law or medicine, and Menand notes that the system of graduate education is designed to produce more low-paid ABDs (All-But-Dissertation) than PhDs.

If the graduate student finishes and is lucky enough to find full-time work, that young prof will be very invested in the models already used in what is likely to have been at least a 10-year apprenticeship. “The academic profession in some areas,” Menand notes, “is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself.”

Anyone who’s received a Ph.D. understands that perspective.  But as younger teachers arrive with the energy to change the system, maybe times are changing at universities after all.


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  1. Hi Phil,

    I love your blog and your insight into so many different issues. I found it through Todd Bell’s twitter page and have not looked back. Thanks for passing on your thoughts and insight.

    I just wanted to make a brief comment on your use of the term “liberal.” As a student at UCLA and having accomplished most of my education in the California public university system, I can say I have been instructed under mostly “liberal professors” and have a pretty good idea what that looks like. However, the word “liberal” has really been taken out of context, especially in conservative circles.

    To TRULY be a “liberal” simply means to be a person who can see any issue from all sides, not simply from one perspective. From what I have observed, being conservative usually tends to mean seeing an issue from certain, more narrow point of view – such as a “biblical worldview.” Therefore many of the professors I have encountered – men and women considered to be liberal – really are not liberal, simply close-minded. Even the dictionary states that to be liberal is to be “broadminded,” hence the definition of a “liberal arts education.”

    In addition, “liberals” usually tend to be more forward-looking as opposed to “conservatives” who usually look to a time in the past and wish to repeat it – a form of fundamentalism.

    I just wanted to throw that out there… We tend to place a negative stigma on people or ideas which are liberal. Of course, depending on one’s worldview, that negative stigma might be warranted. However, being a liberal does not simply mean a person who hugs trees, supports abortions, rejects the war on terror and believes in gay marriage. While most people who are liberal (broadminded – see life from all perspectives) tend to jump on these bandwagons, these are not prerequisites for being a liberal.

    After years of living in the Bible-belt, I can say that I have learned a great deal from these “liberal” professors who have expanded my view and appreciation for the world. I wish everyone could be so lucky!

    Thanks Phil. And thanks for all of your posts!

    Jason C. Prater

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