The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
As part of an issue dedicated to freedom of thought in the journal Social Philosophy and Policy, I published on article focusing on ideological diversity on the faculty at American universities. You can find the published version behind a paywall here, but I have now posted a draft version that is freely accessible.
The paper takes up four questions. First, is it true that university faculty are not very ideologically diverse. It is remarkable how frequently this claim is denied, but we actually have a substantial amount of empirical evidence over many decades that pretty decisively demonstrate American academia is a political monoculture. As I summarize:
The evidence on the political diversity the American professoriate is imperfect, but it seems quite adequate to conclude that the answer is not very diverse and rapidly becoming less so. We now have a substantial amount of data gathered at different times, using different measures, across different institutions that sheds some light on the political composition of the faculty at universities in the United States, and it all points in a consistent direction.
There is more to be learned to be sure. The evidence that we have does not cover the range of institutions and the range of disciplines that we might like. There is some real slippage in how political and ideological orientations map on to one another. There are some narrow questions that we are not yet well positioned to answer about the ideological composition of university faculty, but we probably have adequate evidence to answer the big picture question of whether university faculty are particularly ideologically diverse. The answer is no.
The first section of the paper walks through the empirical studies on this question over the past seven decades. University professors are overwhelmingly left-leaning Democrats, and that has become only more true over time.
The second section takes up the question of the question of why that is true, and here the evidence is much less clear. Self-selection appears to do a lot of the work, but there are plenty of nudges that help shape the self-selection and some systematic evidence of outright discrimination against would-be conservative academics.
On the whole, there does not appear to be a robust pipeline of conservatives desperate to get into academia, which makes it all the more challenging to alter the current composition of the professoriate. If there were, it is not clear that they would be welcomed. Like many other aspects of American life, academia appears to be subject to partisan sorting, with liberals opting in and conservatives opting out. The sorting might begin rather early, as soon as students first arrive on a college campus, with conservative students avoiding those parts of the university that they find particularly inhospitable and making plans to leave the university environment as soon as possible. University faculty are likely to remain uniformly and overwhelmingly on the political left, as they have been for quite some time.
The third section asks whether any of this matters. A popular theme of political commentary is that it matters because students are being indoctrinated by tenured radicals, but there is no real evidence that this is true. There are no doubt instances of unprofessional conduct by professors, but there is little reason to think that such instances are unique to left-leaning faculty or that the political worldview of students is being shaped by it. There is, however, good reason to think that greater political diversity in academia would enhance the scholarly mission of universities. A greater diversity of perspectives, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, would have consequences for what questions researchers ask and for what flaws of logic or analysis get overlooked or papered over. Our understanding of the world is improved if researchers come at the problem from a variety of perspectives. As co-blogger Orin Kerr notes, we don't even do a good job of leveraging the intellectual diversity that we have.
But greater ideological diversity would improve not only the truth-seeking function of universities but also their truth-disseminating function.
Universities are among those institutions that try to marshal and deploy expertise, but to the extent that institutions of expertise are perceived to be politicized they are distrusted by the very non-experts that they are seeking to inform. It is hard enough to convince political and societal leaders or the general public of truths that run against their own perceived interests. It is all the more difficult to do so when the messenger is perceived as partisan. Even if scholars were confident in the quality of their own work, the outside world, from politicians to students, may be much less confident if they recognize that scholars are all of a same political stripe and often see their own role as activists and not just as neutral scholars. If scholars want the ability to credibly convey bad news to those beyond campus, they need to demonstrate that they do not have their own ideological axes to grind.
The third section of the paper explores other arguments and concerns as well, so read the whole thing.
Finally, the paper asks what is to be done, and here I don't think there are any good answers, especially in the short term. I'm extremely skeptical that political intervention or some kind of political quota system would positively contribute to the health of universities. But out of institutional self-interest if nothing else, universities should be aggressively looking for ways to diversify the faculty in a manner consistent with academic freedom. As in other aspects of university life, a goal of diversity and inclusion can be made compatible with the scholarly mission of the university, but not everything that might be done in the name of inclusion is consistent with that mission. Principled conservatives should be looking for a consistent approach to these matters and not simply looking for ways to favor their perceived friends and punish their perceived foes. There is some common ground to be found here, but admittedly no one seems to have much interest in trying to find it.
Intellectual homogeneity might be stifling, but political homogeneity is often toxic. Universities must recognize and address those expressions of toxicity so as to make sure universities and academic careers are more attractive option for a wide range of students. Actually creating a more diverse environment is often the most helpful remedy to insular cultures, but in the meantime universities need to identify and ameliorate the obstacles that discourage more conservative students from thinking that universities can be welcoming and hospitable work environments. Demonstrating that there is space for thoughtful conservatives to exist and thrive in a university environment will encourage others to consider taking that path as well. University leaders who emphasize the importance and value of intellectual diversity on college campuses can send a helpful message not only to the members of their own campus community but also to the broader world about the nature of the university mission. Centers and programs on campus that provide a visible focus of intellectual activity for conservative students and scholars and for scholarly topics and themes of interest to the political right can break down stereotypes and encourage greater dialogue and communication. Conservatives might still not flock to academic careers in large numbers, but the academy should at least take steps to emphasize that they would not be unwelcome if they did.