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Why are professors liberal?

Abstract

The political liberalism of professors—an important occupational group and anomaly according to traditional theories of class politics—has long puzzled sociologists. This article sheds new light on the subject by employing a two-step analytic procedure. In the first step, we assess the explanatory power of the main hypotheses proposed over the last half century to account for professors’ liberal views. To do so, we examine hypothesized predictors of the political gap between professors and other Americans using General Social Survey data pooled from 1974–2008. Results indicate that professors are more liberal than other Americans because a higher proportion possess advanced educational credentials, exhibit a disparity between their levels of education and income, identify as Jewish, non-religious, or non-theologically conservative Protestant, and express greater tolerance for controversial ideas. In the second step of our article, we develop a new theory of professors’ politics on the basis of these findings (though not directly testable with our data) that we think holds more explanatory promise than existing approaches and that sets an agenda for future research.

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Notes

  1. There is growing recognition among sociologists of knowledge that professors’ politics matter. For example, sociologists of ideas attend to the ways in which commitment to paradigms and approaches, especially for humanists and social scientists (Gross 2008; Rojas 2007) but for natural scientists as well (Frickel 2004), may be bound up with political identity. Scholarship on the sociology of intellectuals considers how the economic conservatism of a small number of academics, namely economists, powerfully shaped late twentieth-century social and economic policy (Babb 2004; Fourcade-Gourinchas and Babb 2002). Likewise, a large body of research in science studies examines how scientists’ explicit and tacit political commitments may influence their investigations (e.g., Barnes 1977; Shapin and Schaffer 1985; Haraway 1989).

  2. In this article “liberalism” refers to views that would be classified as left of center in the contemporary American context, including favorable attitudes toward certain aspects of the welfare state and government programs to reduce inequality, support for a politics of inclusion vis-à-vis minority groups, and a preference for multilateralism and diplomacy in international affairs. We address below the question of historical variation in liberalism’s meaning.

  3. However, the authors miscalculated the numbers for political self-identification. Later analysis revealed that the correct figures were 62% liberal, 26% moderate, and 12% conservative (see Rothman and Lichter 2008).

  4. Given that this is so, some might ask whether professors should truly be seen as liberal at all. Our view, developed elsewhere (Gross et al. 2011), is that liberalism and conservatism are not objective categories of ideology and political practice, with the analyst entitled to specify a priori what makes someone a liberal or conservative. Rather, these are historically-variable collective identities, the meanings of which are constantly in dispute among actors in the political field, with significant consequences. We thus hew closely to our statement above that we mean by liberalism those views and self-understandings seen as liberal in the contemporary American (neoliberal) context.

  5. In apparent contradiction, Lipset and Dobson also insisted, in line with Ladd and Lipset’s findings, that the highest-status academics tended to be the most liberal. Also see Lipset (1982).

  6. Of course, a political movement could exhibit creativity at the ideological and organizational level and still be characterized by rigidity among the rank and file. And, indeed, running in the opposite direction from work by historians on the contemporary conservative movement is scholarship by political psychologists, reprising themes of the “authoritarian personality,” who claim that support for conservatism is undergirded by a psychological need for “uncertainty avoidance; intolerance of ambiguity; needs for order, structure, and closure; perception of a dangerous world; and fear of death” (Jost and Hunyady 2005, p. 261). In agreement with Martin (2001), we find such claims theoretically thin and empirically problematic.

  7. Bourdieu (1991) gives a different account of these dynamics when considering the case of pre-Nazi Germany.

  8. No measure is available in the GSS of whether respondents are located in the broader nonprofit sector. While a substantial number of American professors teach at private institutions and might benefit more indirectly from the largess of the state, if the new class direct economic interest hypothesis were robust the high percentage of professors who are public employees should substantially reduce the political gap between professors and other Americans.

  9. Because of space and data constraints, we do not examine any hypotheses linking professorial liberalism to meso- or macro-level features of the American political-economic context, as would be suggested by comparative class approaches to intellectuals and politics of the kind developed by Brym (1980), Karabel (1996), and Wright (1978).

  10. Our dummy variable here codes for whether respondents are Protestants and members of liberal or moderate denominations.

  11. We are grateful to Omar Lizardo for suggesting this approach.

  12. For those interested in replication, the specifications of our imputation model—including the random seed—are available from the authors.

  13. As a check on the reliability of the imputation procedure, we reran all the models reported below excluding imputed cases for the six variables with high levels of missingness. Results were substantively unchanged.

  14. For example, the occupational coding is specific enough to tell us that of the 326 GSS respondents who are professors, 11% are social scientists, 25% are humanists or in the fine arts, and 8% are physical or biological scientists, with the remainder located in other fields. Extrapolating from nationally-representative surveys of the American faculty conducted in 1975, 1984, 1988, 1992, and 1998, we would expect 12% of respondents to be social scientists, 24% to be humanists or in the fine arts, and 20% to be physical or biological scientists (Schuster and Finkelstein 2006, p. 447). Similarly, as we report below, the distribution of political self-identity within the professors subsample in the most recent period is almost exactly the same as that found in specialized surveys of the professoriate covering professors in all types of institutions.

  15. This is the size of the gap for which the regression decompositions attempt to account. The number shown in Table 1 is slightly smaller because the data there are unweighted.

  16. For the period 2000–2008, 43% of professors in the GSS sample stated their political identity as “extremely liberal” or “liberal,” and 9% as “extremely conservative” or “conservative.” These numbers are extremely close to the 44% versus 9% figure numbers from Gross and Simmons’s (2007) survey, enhancing our confidence in the reliability of GSS data for studying the politics of professors. Consistent with the observation made by a reviewer that a mean score of 4.45 on the 7 point GSS political self-identification scale for the 1974–2008 period is far from extreme, Gross and Simmons argue that there is a sizable and often ignored moderate bloc in academe. This is an important point often ignored by conservative critics, but it does not change the fact that in relative terms the American professoriate is clearly to the left. A further question arises about these descriptive statistics, however. Another reviewer observed that the standard deviation on the political self-identification variable is considerably higher for professors than for non-professors, and expressed concern that this could signal that a small number of professors in our sample from elite institutions—who have long been found to have more liberal views—could be driving up the mean for all professors, making the professoriate appear more liberal than it actually is. However, Gross and Simmons found that while there is an institutional status gradient in professorial politics, professors in lower tier institutions—in community colleges and 4-year, BA-granting schools—remain much more liberal than most Americans. Indeed, if the contemporary professoriate consisted exclusively of professors from such schools, it would still be one of the most liberal major occupations, at 38% liberal. We therefore think the alternative interpretation of the large standard deviation is correct: that it reflects the greater variance typically associated with small subsamples (see Gelman and Hill 2007).

  17. This is consistent with the findings of Gross and Simmons (2007), who report that, on average, professors are more likely than other Americans to believe that business corporations make a fair and reasonable profit. Although Gross and Simmons find that professors do tend to favor government action to reduce income inequality, as we note below, they also find that the majority are not consistently “progressive” in their economic views. Again, it is the social liberalism of professors that stands out.

  18. Alternative versions of the model using different specifications of this set of GSS variables—for example, whether the respondent thinks high income is the most important aspect of a job—found no substantively meaningful associations.

  19. Details on these scales are available from the authors. All indices are standardized, summated scales exhibiting desirable properties of parsimony (i.e., few items in the scale), reliability (i.e., high values of Cronbach’s alpha), and unidimensionality (i.e., loading primarily on one factor).

  20. We suspect that missingness, which we could obviously not correct for on outcome measures using multiple imputation, may account for the fact that we found no economic attitudes differences between professors and non-professors in the GSS, where other research would lead us to expect at least some. For example, for one of the items in our economic attitudes scale, which asks about the value of government efforts to reduce income differences, 44% of our professorial cases have missing data. Gross and Simmons (2007), asking the same question verbatim, found a 17.8 percentage point gap in liberal responses as compared to general population data from the 2006 GSS.

  21. Consistent with our findings in this regard, Woessner and Kelly-Woessner (2009, p. 55) report, using data from the 2004 Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) survey, that while conservative students are somewhat more oriented toward making money than liberal students (2.46 versus 2.56 on a four point scale measuring the desire “to be well-off financially”), it is moderate students who are the most materially oriented (2.73).

  22. Woessner and Kelly-Woessner’s (2009) argument, that the “academic pipeline” leaks conservatives, is broadly consistent with the theory we develop here.

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Acknowledgements

For helpful comments on earlier drafts we thank Clem Brooks, Charles Camic, Nathan Fosse, Andrew Gelman, Julian Go, David Grusky, Laura Hamilton, Michael Hout, Andrew Jewett, Michèle Lamont, Erin Leahey, Omar Lizardo, Neil McLaughlin, Paul Quirk, Lauren Rivera, Fabio Rojas, Darren Sherkat, Mitchell Stevens, David Swartz, Stephen Turner, and Christopher Winship.

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Gross, N., Fosse, E. Why are professors liberal?. Theor Soc 41, 127–168 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-012-9163-y

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Keywords

  • Professors
  • Intellectuals
  • Politics
  • Liberalism
  • New class