College faculties, long assumed to be a liberal bastion, lean further to the left than even the most conspiratorial conservatives might have imagined, a new study says.
By their own description, 72 percent of those teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15 percent are conservative, says the study being published this week. The imbalance is almost as striking in partisan terms, with 50 percent of the faculty members surveyed identifying themselves as Democrats and 11 percent as Republicans.
The disparity is even more pronounced at the most elite schools, where, according to the study, 87 percent of faculty are liberal and 13 percent are conservative.
"What's most striking is how few conservatives there are in any field," said Robert Lichter, a professor at George Mason University and a co-author of the study. "There was no field we studied in which there were more conservatives than liberals or more Republicans than Democrats. It's a very homogenous environment, not just in the places you'd expect to be dominated by liberals."
Religious services take a back seat for many faculty members, with 51 percent saying they rarely or never attend church or synagogue and 31 percent calling themselves regular churchgoers. On the gender front, 72 percent of the full-time faculty are male and 28 percent female.
The findings, by Lichter and fellow political science professors Stanley Rothman of Smith College and Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto, are based on a survey of 1,643 full-time faculty at 183 four-year schools. The researchers relied on 1999 data from the North American Academic Study Survey, the most recent comprehensive data available.
The study appears in the March issue of the Forum, an online political science journal. It was funded by the Randolph Foundation, a right-leaning group that has given grants to such conservative organizations as the Independent Women's Forum and Americans for Tax Reform.
Rothman sees the findings as evidence of "possible discrimination" against conservatives in hiring and promotion. Even after factoring in levels of achievement, as measured by published work and organization memberships, "the most likely conclusion" is that "being conservative counts against you," he said. "It doesn't surprise me, because I've observed it happening." The study, however, describes this finding as "preliminary."
When asked about the findings, Jonathan Knight, director of academic freedom and tenure for the American Association of University Professors, said, "The question is how this translates into what happens within the academic community on such issues as curriculum, admission of students, evaluation of students, evaluation of faculty for salary and promotion." Knight said he isn't aware of "any good evidence" that personal views are having an impact on campus policies.
"It's hard to see that these liberal views cut very deeply into the education of students. In fact, a number of studies show the core values that students bring into the university are not very much altered by being in college."
Rothman, Lichter and Nevitte find a leftward shift on campus over the past two decades. In the last major survey of college faculty, by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1984, 39 percent identified themselves as liberal.
In contrast with the finding that nearly three-quarters of college faculty are liberal, a Harris Poll of the general public last year found that 33 percent describe themselves as conservative and 18 percent as liberal.
The liberal label that a majority of the faculty members attached to themselves is reflected on a variety of issues. The professors and instructors surveyed are, strongly or somewhat, in favor of abortion rights (84 percent); believe homosexuality is acceptable (67 percent); and want more environmental protection "even if it raises prices or costs jobs" (88 percent). What's more, the study found, 65 percent want the government to ensure full employment, a stance to the left of the Democratic Party.
Recent campus controversies have reinforced the left-wing faculty image. The University of Colorado is reviewing its tenure system after one professor, Ward Churchill, created an uproar by likening World Trade Center victims to Nazis. Harvard's faculty of arts and sciences voted no confidence in the university's president, Lawrence Summers, after he privately wondered whether women had the same natural ability as men in science and math.
The study did not attempt to examine whether the political views of faculty members affect the content of their courses.
The researchers say that liberals, men and non-regular churchgoers are more likely to be teaching at top schools, while conservatives, women and more religious faculty are more likely to be relegated to lower-tier colleges and universities.
Top-tier schools, roughly a third of the total, are defined as highly ranked liberal arts colleges and research universities that grant PhDs.
The most liberal faculties are those devoted to the humanities (81 percent) and social sciences (75 percent), according to the study. But liberals outnumbered conservatives even among engineering faculty (51 percent to 19 percent) and business faculty (49 percent to 39 percent).
The most left-leaning departments are English literature, philosophy, political science and religious studies, where at least 80 percent of the faculty say they are liberal and no more than 5 percent call themselves conservative, the study says.
"In general," says Lichter, who also heads the nonprofit Center for Media and Public Affairs, "even broad-minded people gravitate toward other people like themselves. That's why you need diversity, not just of race and gender but also, maybe especially, of ideas and perspective."