[The Montana Professor 17.2, Spring 2007 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

The Lopsided Ivory Tower: Reflections on a Controversy Occasioned by a Conference

Paul Trout

The controversy

Diversity, inclusiveness, tolerance, equal representation, affirmative action, academic freedom--for several decades these and related terms have been used to justify the institutionalization of an array of programs, procedures, and policies designed to include more ethnic and racial minorities, as well as women, in every aspect and level of higher education.

These terms are now brought forward to urge inclusion on campus of yet another under-represented group--political "conservatives." The claim is based on the fact that the vast majority of professors, at most public universities and many prestigious private ones as well, hold and espouse views that are liberal-to-left and advance their views by affiliating themselves with the Democrat party. As a result, there is less intellectual "diversity" on campus than in the society at large. This want of diversity is said to violate the core ideals of higher education and to skew both research and instruction, as well as undermine the credibility of higher education in the eyes of taxpayers, many of whom may be disinclined to support politically lopsided campuses.

While several educational organizations have expressed concern about this disparity (American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the National Association of Scholars), the effort to do something about it has been spearheaded by David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Horowitz, a long-time radical polemicist turned conservative polemicist, has initiated a multi-state campaign to enact legislation to promote and protect intellectual diversity and academic freedom in state-funded colleges and universities. His model draft is entitled the "Academic Bill of Rights." About twenty states are examining the possibility of adopting a version of this statement, including Colorado and South Dakota. Montana could be added to this list.

The conference

In anticipation of such an event occurring in Montana, the Office of the Provost and the Burton K. Wheeler Center for Public Policy (both at Montana State University) last spring hosted a conference to discuss the general topic of academic freedom (March 27 and 28, 2006). The title of the conference was "Without Interference"?: Academic Freedom in the 21st Century." The conference began with a keynote address by David Hollinger, professor of American History at the University of California-Berkeley, and Chair of the American Association of University Professors' Committee on Academic Freedom (the AAUP is opposing Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights"). The following day, invited panelists discussed the general issues of academic freedom and academic responsibilities.

The panelists were Lawrence G. Abele, Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs for Florida State University; Anne D. Neal, President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni; Sheila Stearns, Montana Commissioner of Higher Education; LeRoy Schramm, retired Chief Legal Counsel for the Montana University System/Montana Board of Regents; Leslie Taylor, Montana State University's Legal Counsel; Gordon Brittan, Regents Professor of Philosophy at Montana State University; Mike Foster, Chair of the Board of regents of Higher Education; and, Rachel Hergett, editor of Montana State University's student newspaper, The Exponent.

Since the nationally distinguished, and highly placed, academics participating in this conference were articulating views widely held throughout academe, and were attempting to discredit on behalf of the academy the claims of Horowitz and others, what was said at this conference has material bearing on the national controversy.

The keynote address

The keynote speaker, David Hollinger, Chair of AAUP's Committee on Academic Freedom, appropriately struck what was to be the key note that resounded through the conference: concern about the alleged political imbalance of state-supported colleges and universities is baseless. Yes, Hollinger admitted, there may be a few excesses here and there, but they have been blown out of all proportion by "outsiders" for political ends. According to Hollinger: (1) there are no data that convincingly demonstrate any political imbalance in higher education; (2) even if there were such an imbalance, it would not matter since educators today are professionals who do not let their personal politics affect either their research or their teaching; (3) only professors have the "cognitive authority" to determine the standards and processes used to decide what is good, right, and true within the disciplines; (4) and the "campaign" to induce state legislatures to adopt the Academic Bill of Rights is part of a rightwing conspiracy.

A couple of Hollinger's major claims deserve a closer look since they represent the best arguments that a spokesperson for the liberal professoriate can manage under the circumstances.

According to Hollinger, the hubbub about political imbalance in higher education has been drummed up by a cabal of rightwing foundations and think tanks upset about, and bent on subverting, the "liberal," "secular," "feminist," and "multicultural" values and programs now found on most campuses. The conspiracy began, according to Hollinger, in 1971, when Lewis F. Powell Jr., a subsequent Nixon appointee to the Supreme Court (1972) urged the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to mobilize millionaires to create faculties with a pro-capitalist, "big business" point of view. As a result, it became "open season on university professors." Hollinger's claim was echoed the next day by panelist LeRoy Schramm, who also said that conservative complaints about classroom indoctrination are attempts to "intimidate the university for political motives." Perhaps conceding more than he intended, Schramm said that such attempts have merely unified the faculty and administration in the common cause of defending the university against "the likes of Lynn Cheney."

Hollinger provides no evidence that Powell's recommendation led to a concerted effort by rightwing foundations to advance their view on the campus. He leaves it to be assumed that every criticism leveled at the academy since 1971--and there have been many of them--is instigated by this conspiracy and thus validates his claim. Lack of evidence aside, assume for the sake of the argument that Powell's suggestion did lead to efforts to promote capitalist ideas on campus. Why should such efforts be construed as inappropriate or nefarious when the efforts by liberal foundations and organizations (Ford Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Heinz Endowments, the Soros Foundations Network/Open Society Institute) are embraced without qualm? The answer: because infusions of money from liberal sources support the orthodoxy that now prevails on campus.

Another claim advanced by Hollinger is that only faculty members--insiders--have the "cognitive authority" to determine what is right, good, and true within the disciplines. Although Hollinger did not flesh-out this concept, it would be fair to say that he believes that each professional educator acquires this cognitive authority through education and certification, socialization, enculturation, experience, and peer approval. Once earned, this cognitive authority enables a faculty member to engage in the professional debate about what should be taught, researched, rewarded, published, and who should be hired, tenured, promoted, etc. By this definition, only the faculty can judge what it should do and how well it is doing it.

This concept of cognitive authority assumes a process of knowledge-making that entails unconstrained debate between multiple points of view, and honest, unbiased assessment of claims and evidence. It is the integrity of this process that enables professional researchers and educators to arrive at the best provisional knowledge achievable at any given time. If this process is not working properly, if it does not enable the honest vetting of various and conflicting claims, then the claim of cognitive authority is merely an assertion of right and power--the faculty has the cognitive authority to declare that it has cognitive authority. According to Hollinger, it is this cognitive authority that immunizes the faculty from assaults by those "outsiders" who do not have cognitive authority. As Hollinger put it, "when outsiders try to pressure us, we need to tell them straight out--our only client is the truth." The university, after all, must stand, as Hollinger urged, as a "bulwark against right-wing forces." As these words make clear, Hollinger perceives the function of the university in political terms.

Hollinger's "us" versus "them" formulation raises the question of who is "them." If only faculty members have cognitive authority, then he is suggesting that the university is not accountable to other social institutions, including governing boards and legislatures. But, if the members of governing boards also have cognitive authority, then so would legislators, who have oversight responsibilities in respect to tax-supported educational institutions. Where is the line that demarcates those with cognitive authority from those "outsiders" who don't?

Hollinger's attempt to shield the status quo of higher education from unwanted and inconvenient oversight is understandable, but it is scarcely justified in the face of growing evidence that the vetting processes that bestow cognitive authority indeed have been affected by political values and passions, and play a part in the promoting the growing political imbalance of college faculties (more on this later).

Hollinger's concept of cognitive authority rests on the claim that the processes of knowledge-making work efficiently and are uncorrupted by partisan bias. This claim is merely asserted, not supported with evidence or logic. No wonder. The evidence, as I shall show in the following sections, points in the opposite direction. If the vetting processes are in fact influenced by the private politics of academics, and if one political ideology has disproportionate influence over these processes, then the resulting "consensus" and "truth" of the vetting are merely the "consensus" and "truth" acceptable to those who control the processes. What they are doing is contriving standards and definitions that legitimize their own partisan views. It is a process that academics in the social sciences and humanities seem to understand so well in other contexts.

To admit that higher education is populated by a disproportionate number of people who are left of center politically would be to take the first step towards questioning the alleged cognitive authority of today's faculty. This may explain why no one at the conference exhibited any real interest in discussing the growing number of surveys and studies that document the considerable leftwing tilt of most public colleges and universities--across the disciplines. In the next section, I will review these data, and have more to say about the claims of Hollinger and panel participants.

Survey data

Since many academics either ignore or deny the existence of data about the ideological imbalance that prevails throughout higher education, this section will survey a few of the more recent studies that analyze this imbalance. Although each study uses a different methodology to gather the data, together they make a rather compelling case that campuses and universities, both public and private, have become one-party enclaves.

Klein and Stern examination of six professional associations

In the Spring of 2003, David B. Klein and Charlotta Stern surveyed 1200 academics from six national scholarly associations./1/ Randomly selected members were asked their views on 18 policy issues, and what party they more often voted for during the last ten years. To this question, 80% said Democrat and 9% said Republican. According to Klein and Stern, "the D-to-R ratio for the active social-science and humanities faculty nationwide is probably at least 8 to 1" (10). It would appear that the gap between Democrats and Republicans on college campuses has increased since the 1970s. Since 1964, 1968, and 1972, years when surveys were done, the Democrat-to-Republican "ratio has doubled," going from 4 to 1 to 8 to 1. According to Klein and Stern, this gap is only going to widen: "we see that the Democrat percentages are generally trending up and the Republican percentages are generally trending down" (11). This trend towards an ever greater liberal dominance is confirmed by the Rothman study discussed below.

This growing imbalance would seem to have serious implications for intellectual diversity on campus. After studying the responses of faculty to policy questions, Klein and Stern are forced to conclude that the liberal/left ideology revealed by this policy-opinion survey is cognitively narrow, limiting intellectual diversity even more:

What makes the situation worse is the fact that the one-party Democrat tent is a very narrow one. Democrats have almost no diversity of opinion on minimum wage, occupational safety, FDA regulation, the EPA, discrimination, gun control, redistribution, and government control of schools. On an issue-by-issue basis, the Democrats show much less diversity than the Republicans.... Clearly, campus diversity does not extend to political/policy ideas and values. (17, 19)

Klein and Western examination of voter registration records at Stanford and Berkeley

Klein and Andrew Western conducted a study of the party registrations of professors in a total of 22 departments at Stanford and Berkeley./2/ At Stanford the overall ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans was 8 to 1, while at Berkeley it was almost 10 to 1. The University of California-Berkeley had 445 registered Democrats to 45 Republicans. At Stanford, the count was 275 to 36. Not surprisingly, Klein and Western found that the political lopsidedness was most extreme in the social sciences and humanities. Here are the pooled results of the numbers of Democrats to Republicans in some of the most lopsided disciplines:

psychology = 50 to 1
history = 53 to 1
sociology = 27 to 0
English = 51 to 2
political science = 46 to 4
anthropology = 18 to 1
linguistics = 13 to 1
philosophy = 19 to 2
religious studies = 9 to 1

The least lopsided department was economics, where the ratio of Democrats to Republicans was merely 4.5 to 1.

There are still those in the academy who would like to think that the political imbalance in the social sciences and humanities is somehow counterbalanced by a heavily Republican bias in the hard sciences or engineering. But this view is not supported by the Democrat to Republican ratio Klein and Western found:

civil engineering = 24 to 7
electrical engineering = 40 to 13
chemistry = 42 to 9
mathematics = 35 to 9
physics = 42 to 5

The natural sciences are even more lopsided, with the biology departments having 50 registered Democrats but only two registered Republicans. Clearly the "the data indicate that the one-party character of academia is quite uniform across campus" (59).

The American Enterprise study of voter registration records

In 2002, The American Enterprise magazine examined voter registration records in the local jurisdictions of 21 colleges and universities scattered throughout the country. While a few faculty members were not registered, "a great many had signed themselves up as members of an ideologically identifiable political faction."/3/ Here are the totals at each school (the number of departments and the specific departments surveyed varied from school to school):

Departments Democrats Republicans
Brown 54 3
Cornell 166 6
Davidson College 10 1
Denver College 35 1
Harvard 50 0
Penn State 59 10
Pomona College 18 2
San Diego State 80 11
Stanford 151 17
SUNY-Binghampton 35 1
Syracuse 50 2
U. of California-Berkeley 59 7
UCLA 141 9
U. of California-San Diego 99 6
U. of California-Santa Barbara 72 1
U. of Colorado-Boulder 116 5
University of Houston 45 14
University of Maryland 59 10
University of Texas-Austin 94 15
Williams College 196 4

Every one of the departments--86--examined at these schools had a preponderance of left-leaning faculty members. Twenty eight of these have no members on the right, and 26 had only 1. As other studies have indicated, sociology departments are the most lopsided, with the greatest incidence of having no one registered as being on the right.

The Rothman/Lichter/Nevitte study of the NAAS Survey

A study by Stanley Rothman, Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte found that the 1999 North American Academic Study Survey (NAASS) of American college faculty at 183 four-year colleges and universities (stratified by Carnegie classification) revealed that political lopsidedness has intensified in the past few decades and is not restricted to a limited number of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences./4/

The survey found that 72% of American faculty members described themselves as left/liberal, but only 15% described themselves as right/conservative. Of those who self-identified as left/liberal, 18% described themselves as "strongly left." Of the 15% who described themselves as right/conservative, only 3% called themselves "strongly right" (4). (In society at large, only 18% of the U.S. public described themselves as left/liberal, while 37% described themselves as right/conservative.) The NAASS also asked respondents to identify their political party affiliation as Democrat, Republican, Independent or "other." Half of the respondents (50%) identified themselves as Democrats, compared to only 11% who identified themselves as Republicans (close to the 5 to 1 margin among left- versus right-of-center self-identifiers; 33% called themselves "Independent").

The NAASS data also reveal that political lopsidedness exists across fields:

Discipline Left/Liberal Right/Conservative
mathematics 66% 17%
physics 66% 11%
linguistics 65% 11%
chemistry 64% 29%
education 61% 29%
economics 55% 39%
nursing 53% 47%
engineering 51% 19%
business 49% 39%

Disciplines thought to house conservatives clearly do not. Reviewing the findings, Rothman et al. conclude that these findings "suggest an across the board commitment to positions that are typically identified with contemporary liberal ideals" (8).


No matter what factor is being examined--self-identification, party registration, voting, political contributions, policy support--Democrats/liberals/ progressives/leftists outnumber Republicans/conservatives/rightists by an overwhelming majority across the disciplines. These dramatic findings went unmentioned at the Burton K. Wheeler Conference. These data might have given rise to dark imaginings about a leftwing "conspiracy." They also complicate breezy generalizations about cognitive authority, as shall be demonstrated in the next section.

Hollinger, and many other professors, would respond to these data with a "so what?" For Hollinger, no matter how lopsided the political culture of higher education, it does not matter. "The mere fact that 90 percent of a given department's faculty members are Democrats," he said, "does not necessarily indicate a lack of balance." Hollinger, of course, is trading on the word "balance." In this usage, it apparently does not refer to political affiliation but to something like academic integrity or professional ethics. This is why he asserts that "peer review is better than political balance." For Hollinger, peer review is a buffer against imbalance.

This claim, merely asserted but not argued, questionably assumes that the political values and biases of faculty members have no effect on their professional judgments and actions, on peer review. Thus, Hollinger can say, "I believe that to be balanced is to do an academic job professionally."/5/ Hollinger sees no "problem" in political imbalance because he assumes that the political values and opinions of academics have little or no effect on the execution of professional duties and activities.

Let's see if he's right.

Some unintended and unwanted consequences

Ideally, the university both transmits and creates truth and knowledge. To perform these functions, faculty members have been granted the freedom to think, teach, investigate, and criticize within the confines of a professional code of conduct. Over a century, this code has been articulated in thousands of official documents. The essential elements of the ethical code governing academics are well and widely known:

Obviously, the academic code entails as many obligations and responsibilities as it does freedoms.

The assumption is that adherence to this code will facilitate the preservation, transmission, discovery, and creation of truth and knowledge (thus giving professors their cognitive authority). As Russell K. Nieli recently explained:

It is to the universities that we have traditionally looked to overcome the partisanship and interest-driven distortions that are part of the very nature of political life. It is to the universities that we have looked to keep us honest and informed on the most pressing public controversies of the day, and to be exemplary arenas in what Justice Holmes famously called "the free trade in ideas," which he saw as the life-blood of constitutional democracy. And it is to the universities that we have looked for the high task of "the reconciliation and combining of opposites."/6/

Ideological lopsidedness--whether of the left or the right--undercuts the effectiveness of the knowledge-transmission and knowledge-making enterprise because it leads to groupthink.


It is unlikely that any group possesses the only truth and the whole truth, as John Stuart Mill reminds us in On Liberty: "Popular opinions are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth. They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjointed from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited." In other words, it is imperative that truth-seekers listen to, and sometimes embrace, the claims of rivals. This is the most effective and reliable method for analyzing and resolving social and political controversies:

In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace that a party of order or stability and a party of progress or reform are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.... Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity. Unless...all the other antagonisms of practical life are expressed with equal freedom and enforced and defended with equal talent and energy, there is no chance of both elements obtaining their due; one scale is sure to go up, and the other down. Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners./7/

A one-party campus, Mill might have argued, is not a congenial environment for the free exchange of ideas and encourages partisan views that adversely affect the search for the truth. In a politically lopsided academic culture, there is not enough intellectual antagonism, or ideological conflict, about assumptions, claims, and methodologies to insure a healthy peer-review vetting system. As a result, the alleged cognitive authority that emerges from this system is merely an honorific and self-flattering disguise for a groupthink that is invulnerable to contrarian assessments because the source of those contrarian claims have been excluded, marginalized or overpowered. Lopsidedness is self-perpetuating.

Robert P. George characterizes the forces at work this way:

It is very, very difficult for us human beings, fallen creatures that we are, even with the best will in the world, to evaluate scholarly work that challenges our most cherished values and conclude that, despite our disagreement with the conclusions reached, this really is interesting, challenging, intellectually substantive, good, high-quality work. What our real problem is is subconscious prejudice, the inability to appreciate work that challenges things that we think are really important. The problem here is not liberalism. The problem is human nature. If conservatives were in the dominant position in the academy that liberals are in now--the hegemonic position--we would see the same kind of subconscious prejudice. And in the few places where conservatives are in the dominant position we get exactly the same phenomenon. The real problem is allowing any monopoly of ideas to form, allowing any orthodoxy to take hold where there aren't a substantial number of people who are in a position to argue in favor of somebody whose work challenges other people's views. To get a healthy situation, there really does have to be some intellectual diversity. There needs [sic] to be people who are in a position to make the case for work that is going to strike a lot of people as heretical./8/

The negative effects of groupthink can be found in every facet of the university's knowledge-transmission and knowledge-making enterprise.


Almost every department in the humanities and social sciences has instituted in the curriculum--to some degree and in some way--politically orthodox approaches and topics. Class/Race/Gender approaches, which now permeate the humanities and social sciences (and are increasingly found in other disciplines and professional schools), incorporate an avowedly left-leaning political orientation. Many of the "studies" disciplines--African-American Studies, Women's Studies, Gay/Lesbian/Bi-sexual/Transgendered Studies, Pornography Studies, Peace Studies, White Studies, Fat Studies, etc.--promote a generally leftwing appraisal of the world. Middle Eastern Studies, for example, has been so warped and corrupted by anti-Israel and anti-American biases that, according to Martin Kramer, it has repeatedly failed to foresee or understand tectonic changes in the Middle East, with tragic human consequences./9/ Cultural Studies--an interdisciplinary field focused on the poetics and politics of popular culture--has been shaped by leftwing theorists, including Marx, Sartre, Foucault, Lacan, the Frankfurt School, and Gramsci. The assumption governing these "study" areas is that the Truth has been found, and it merely needs to be conveyed to students.

It is difficult to assess with precision exactly how pervasive, frequent, and intimidating the politicization of undergraduate instruction has become; universities have not shown much interest in gathering data. Without statistical evidence, supporters of the status quo have claimed that no problem exists. A spokesperson for the University of Georgia assured the readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education that "we have no evidence to suggest that students are being intimidated by professors as regards students' freedom to express their opinions and beliefs." The head of AAUP declared that the political affiliations of the faculty are of little consequence in the classroom.

Not unexpectedly, most academic participants in the Wheeler conference also seemed disposed to believe that there's no problem. Apparently Montana State has not been keeping careful records of student complaints. And LeRoy Schramm argued against giving students' complaints "presumptive validity" since such complaints were "anecdotal" and (therefore?) "untrustworthy" (Schramm did not explain whether this also held true for complaints students make on evaluation forms). Hollinger dismissed student complaints as expressions of the understandable angst provoked when "provincial" students encounter "cosmopolitan" professors. Professor Abele conducted his own investigation of the issue by visiting a website (Nonindoctrination.org) where he found 600 complaints, half of which he dismissed as not revealing (in his view) a political bias. The other complaints, he argued with breathtaking insouciance, prove--by the fact that they were made--that no indoctrination had occurred!

On the other hand, the Center for Survey Research and Analysis (CSRA) at the University of Connecticut surveyed randomly chosen undergraduates in the top 50 colleges and universities (as listed by U.S. News & World Report). Forty-nine percent of the students surveyed said that their professors "frequently injected political comments into their courses, even if they had nothing to do with the subject." Twenty-nine percent of the respondents felt that they had to agree with the political views of the professor to get a good grade. Forty-eight percent reported that panels and lecture series on political issues seemed "totally one-sided." Forty-six percent said professors "used the classroom to present their personal political views." And 42% faulted reading assignments for presenting only one side of a controversial issue. A majority of the students responding considered themselves liberal or radical. Only 10% of the respondents were majoring in political science or government. The vast majority were studying subjects like biology, engineering, and psychology.

Nothing proposed by Horowitz in his "Student Bill of Rights" conflicts with long-standing assumptions about the boundaries of free speech and academic freedom in the classroom. Horowitz's model bill reads: "Faculty and instructors shall not infringe the academic freedom and quality of education of their students by persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose." The bill would, indeed, discourage a faculty member in biology from using up course time to explain why Americans deserved to be killed on 9/11 (or, for that matter, why Iran should be bombed). As Horowitz explains, "the truly insurmountable problem for opponents of this injunction is that the principle of restricting professorial speech in the classroom to what is professionally appropriate is not only a long-standing principle of academic freedom, it is a principle already embraced (if not practiced) by most universities."/10/

Scholarly research and publications

Scholars researching social issues often are emotionally invested in those issues. It is natural that their political commitment and point of view should at times influence their research. "As studies have shown, sociopolitical biases influence the questions asked, the research methods selected, the interpretation of research results, the peer review process, judgments about research quality, and decisions about whether to use research in policy advocacy."/11/ After all, what one finds often hinges upon what one is looking for and how hard one looks for it. "Science frequently is interpreted in a manner consistent with the values and beliefs of the scientist doing the research" (206). Political bias affects not only the research but the peer evaluation leading to publication of the research./12/

A study by Redding of articles appearing in American Psychologist between 1990 and 1999 revealed that 96% of the articles expressing any political views expressed liberal views. As Redding also points out, research is distorted in another way as well--by the exclusion of research that might correct one's own. The works of avowed conservatives (inside and outside academia) are rarely read and cited by academic researchers (unless to be sneered at). The prevailing assumption seems to be that nothing is to be learned from conservative scholars. The exclusion of conservative viewpoints has an insidious effect on intellectual honesty, creativity, and progress. As Redding puts it, "lacking political diversity, we maintain a dominant liberal discourse that may result in the biased evaluation or exclusion of conservative ideas as well as undue confidence in the validity of liberal paradigms, thus undermining the accuracy of our scientific theories and findings" (208).

Scholarly organizations

Scholarly organizations, especially in the social sciences, reflect the liberal/left values and commitments of their members. The result is that scholarly organizations often conduct themselves as advocacy groups committed to advancing a left-to-liberal agenda. The newsletter (September 2000) of the American Studies Association, for example, commended the commitment of the ASA leadership to "social justice as a defining feature of the organization's heritage and its future." In the thirtieth anniversary issue of American Quarterly, an editor reminded members that "the teacher of American Studies must assume an adversary role against the culture. He must try to save himself from the culture's poison tentacles, and in the classroom he is obligated to help save others too, or help them save themselves. His only humane option, under the circumstances, is to serve as a cultural radical." The writer then quotes the founder of the "movement": "The primary purpose of the radical as teacher is to subvert a corrupt culture as it is internalized in his students." In short, academic analysis must be subordinated to radical critique./13/

The American Studies Association is hardly unique in its political activism. The leftwing political positions adopted by the American Political Science Association have been examined by Robert Weissberg./14/ The left-of-liberal ideology of the American Sociological Association has been analyzed by Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern./15/ A recent past-president of the ASA (2003-2004) called for sociologists to engage in direct advocacy and politicking for leftwing ideas: "We might say that critical engagement with real utopias is today an integral part of the project of sociological socialism. It is a vision of socialism that places human society or social humanity at its organizing center" (qtd. in Klein/Stern 5-6). The trouble is that what is socially just, as Charles Tittle points out, "is not as clear and easily agreed upon as public-sociology advocates and partisan political scholars seem to think. Indeed, sociologists are as likely to be wrong as right, and in the process they can easily cause damage" (qtd. in Klein/Stern 7). One sociologist said that "the non-sociological drift in the ASA entails a corruption of sociology to further a particularist political agenda" (qtd. in Klein/Stern 8). The left-of-center ideology dominating the American Psychology Association has been tellingly examined by Richard E. Redding in an essay criticizing the organization for distorting the scholarly ethics and practices of the discipline./16/ A recent APA president urged psychologists to "advocate 'radical' leftist positions and to 'explicitly blend our data and values in order to make strong arguments for the kinds of [radical] change we think is necessary'" (206).

Was that "blend" or "bend"? After examining the policy positions adopted by the APA since 1990 on contentious social issues in the culture wars, Redding concludes that "all are liberal. Many of these policies lack sufficient scientific foundation, which may provide an example as to why psychology's efforts to influence law and policy have not been as successful as many had hoped" (208). "In endorsing particular social policies, we may exploit our professional status by creating the impression that psychological science has identified the most appropriate means for achieving desired social ends; otherwise, we would not undertake advocacy qua psychologists. We also commit what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy--deriving an 'ought' from an empirical 'is' by conflating values with 'scientific facts'" (212).

In 2002, Boston University held a conference on "The State of the Social Sciences."/17/ Session III addressed the issue of "The Political Leanings of the Social Sciences." One participant, Peter Wood, pointed out some of the negative effects of ideological commitment and uniformity. First, they induce scholars to lie and to accept the lies of others to advance a political agenda. There is little interest in uncovering inaccuracies in congenial research, and when these inaccuracies do come to light, they often are either ignored or denied. Second, they induce scholars to engage in self-deception. Social scientists are prone to identify with the people they think they should help. This identification provides a powerful incentive for social scientists to interpret data in ways that might advance the cause of people in need of a break. Third, social scientists who live in a political echo chamber move to the extreme, nursing the notion that "we can erase human nature, or that there is no such thing as human nature, that it is all culture, it is all therefore malleable, that we can change the world to suit some sort of ideal." For Wood, this is putting "social science in the service of something that ultimately is destructive" to both the social sciences and the people that are supposedly to be helped (191-92). And fourth, a lopsided political commitment within the social sciences poses a danger to academic freedom. Academic freedom is predicated upon truth-seeking and commitment to fairness (192). Academic freedom guarantees that scholars can "freely question and teach and pursue ideas where ever they might lead us. But if we are engaged in lying, if we are engaged in self-deception, if we are engaged in a wrongful sort of utopianism, I think we put that academic freedom in jeopardy" (Wood 192).

Does political imbalance have a negative effect in the natural sciences? It would seem to, although the effect may be less pronounced. Certainly Environmental Studies, as Peace Studies, promotes an ideology, though it is unclear to what degree this ideology corrupts its knowledge-making enterprise. Leftwing political ideology has also affected the science-based profession of medicine, as Sally Satel documented in P.C., M.D.: How Political Correctness is Corrupting Medicine (2000). The political imbalance of the natural sciences also affects the campus by helping to legitimize and reinforce the political lopsidedness in other disciplines; it contributes to the biasing of the intramural and extramural peer-review system; and, it may even affect the science classroom, in the choice of texts and topics, and in political remarks said in passing (before, during, or after class).

What is to be done?

The American Council on Education (ACE) and 29 other organizations representing higher education released a statement on intellectual diversity entitled "Academic Rights and Responsibilities."/18/ The statement articulated five overarching principles that the writers believe are "widely shared within the academic community." For our purposes the most important is the admonition that

colleges and universities should welcome intellectual pluralism and the free exchange of ideas. Such a debate will inevitably encourage debate over complex and difficult issues about which individuals will disagree. Such discussions should be held in an environment characterized by openness, tolerance, and civility.

The report also reminded professional educators that "neither students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions." It also declared that the "validity of academic ideas, theories, arguments, and views should be measured against the intellectual standards of relevant academic and professional disciplines." And, finally,

because colleges and universities have great discretion and autonomy over academic affairs, they have a particular obligation to ensure that academic freedom is protected for all members of the campus community and that academic decisions are based on intellectual standards consistent with the mission of each institution.

Here are some suggestions that could alleviate both the imbalance and the pernicious effects of the imbalance.

Will enough academics at enough colleges enact enough of these (or better) suggestions to actually increase the breadth of intellectual diversity in higher education?

I don't think so. Here's why I don't.


I see no evidence that there are enough fair-minded liberals or radicals to bring about substantial change across the nation's campuses. Ideological lopsidedness is so entrenched and so widespread that it is self-perpetuating. The dynamic of replication is driven by several forces. Ideological homogeneity within a department creates what its members regard as a congenial work environment, where casual political quips and pronouncements made in the hall or at meetings will not be subjected to scrutiny or occasion a confrontational rebuttal. The absence of political opponents makes collegial interactions more comfortable and benign and the environment more pleasant to work in. It is unlikely that those who now dominate the campus will want to sacrifice the securities of cognitive assonance for the intellectual discomfort of cognitive dissonance. Why abandon the emotional comforts of the ideological cocoon?

And, judging from the attitudes of participants at the Wheeler conference, many academics find nothing wrong with the current ideological lopsidedness of higher education. As professor Hollinger blithely put it, what's the problem with a given department being 90% Democrat? Although he used "90%," I think he would ask the same question if it were 100%. Hollinger sees nothing problematic with this situation because he does not see Democrat/left values and policies as biased. They are the "truth," and 100% of the "truth" is a Good Thing. Hollinger believes that these values and policies are "true" and "good" because he assumes that they have undergone authentic and rigorous vetting. According to his thinking, then, what liberal academics believe must be morally and intellectually superior to those of their opponents. This is why he sees any effort to redress the political imbalance on campus as a nefarious conspiracy against the truth.

This sense of ethical superiority is reinforced by the widespread conviction amongst academics that one of their most important professional duties is to wage war against racism, homophobia, sexism, and imperialism. These terms, of course, can mean what Humpty Dumpty wants them to. They are almost always defined to condemn attitudes and policies that differ from those espoused by the left. A Republican or conservative is, by definition, a "racist," "homophobe," etc. The notion of allowing more of these intellectually impoverished and morally vile people into the citadel of higher education must strike many on the left as absurd and reprehensible. Given this widespread and unquestioned "conservaphobia," no amount of evidence or argument is likely to convince a critical mass of academics to make room for right-of-center colleagues to any significant degree, if at all.

If the lopsidedness of higher education is to be corrected or at least lessened, the heavy pushing will have to come from outside the Ivory Tower. It is possible that at some point taxpayers and the politicians who represent them will become disenchanted with an institution that sees itself as an agent of, or a supporter of, the values and policies of only one of the two dominant political parties. This point may not be as far off as the participants of the Wheeler conference were eager to think.


  1. The organizations were American Anthropological Association, American Economics Association, American Historical Association, American Political Science Association, American Society for Political and legal Philosophy, and American Sociological Association. "Narrow-Tent Democrats and Fringe Others: The Policy Views of Social Science Professors" (Swedish Institute for Social Research. See working Paper 8/2005 at http://www.criticalreview.com).[Back]
  2. "Voter Registration of Berkeley and Stanford Faculty," Academic Questions 18.1 (Winter 2004-05): 53-65.[Back]
  3. Karl Zinsmeister, "The Shame of America's One-Party Campuses," The American Enterprise (September 2002): 18-25, esp. 18.[Back]
  4. "Politics and Professional Advancement among College Faculty," The Forum 3.1 (2005), http://www.bepress.com/forum.[Back]
  5. Quoted in Bryan Kelly, "Tackling issues of academic freedom," The Exponent (30 March 2006): 3. There are, of course, several reasons for this lopsidedness. Hollinger insinuated that it can be explained in terms of cognitive authority: since Democrats are intellectually superior to Republicans, holding views that have been validated by the vetting processes of higher education, they thrive in this setting. Republicans, alas, are excluded because their ideas have been discredited (they have "lost the argument," in Hollinger's words). This view of things is not only shamefully self-serving but ignores the fact that the vetting processes have been defined and employed to discredit the views of ideological opponents in order to preserve the ideological status quo. Debates, after all, are never "closed." A more plausible explanation is that an ideologically monolithic institution is simply hostile to opposing ideological views and possesses the power to discourage or eliminate them. Those holding such views may decide not to tackle such a hostile environment.[Back]
  6. Russel K. Nieli, "Enhancing Intellectual Diversity on Campus--The James Madison Program at Princeton," Academic Questions 18.2 (Spring 2005): 25.[Back]
  7. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859; New York: Penguin Classics, 1982), 110-111.[Back]
  8. In Nieli, 30-31.[Back]
  9. Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Washington DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001).[Back]
  10. David Horowitz, "Why an Academic Bill of Rights is Necessary: Testimony before the Education Committee of the Ohio Senate," http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/archive/2005/March2005/DHohiotestimony031505.htm, 3. The 1940 American Association of University Professors' Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure states: "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject" (AAUP: Policy Documents & Reports, 1995, 3). Horowitz's two-page "Academic Bill of Rights" can also be found at this website. To summarize its principles: faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted, and tenured on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise; however, in the humanities, social sciences, and the arts, faculty should be hired, fired, promoted, and tenured with a view to "fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives." But "no faculty member will be excluded from tenure, search and hiring committees on the basis of their political or religious beliefs." "Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination."[Back]
  11. Richard E. Redding, "Sociopolitical Diversity in Psychology: The Case for Pluralism," American Psychologist 56.3 (March 2001): 206.[Back]
  12. This issue of how ideological commitment affects peer review and research has been thoroughly studied by scholars from an array of disciplines: S.I. Abramowitz, "Publish or Politic: Referee Bias in Manuscript Review," Journal of applied Social Psychology 5 (1975): 187-200; L.A. Brenner, "On the Evaluation of One-sided Evidence," Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 9 (1996): 59-70; B. Denner, "Research as Moral Crusade," American Psychologist 47 (1992): 81-82; J.D. Gartner, "Antireligious Prejudice in Admissions to Doctoral Programs in Clinical Psychology," Professional Psychology Research and Practice 17 (1986): 473-75; D.F. Halpern, "PC or Not PC? Contemporary Challenges to Unpopular Research Findings," Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless 5 (1996): 251-271; C. Kitzinger, "Politicizing Psychology," Feminism and Psychology 1 (1991): 49-54; C.G. Lord, "Biased assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequently Considered Evidence," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37 (1979): 2098-2109; R.J. MacCoun, "Biases in the Interpretation and Use of Research Results," Annual Review of Psychology 49 (1998): 259-287; M.J. Mahoney, "Publication Prejudices: An Experimental Study of Confirmatory Bias in the Peer Review System," Cognitive Therapy and Research 1 (1977): 161-175; V.L. Streib, "Academic Research and Advocacy Research," Cleveland State Law Review 36 (1988): 253-259.[Back]
  13. In James E. Hartley, "Should American Studies Study Itself?" Academic Questions (Spring 2004): 40-41.[Back]
  14. Robert Weissberg, "APSA's Radical Egalitarian Task Force," Academic Questions 18.1 (Winter 2004-05): 30-39.[Back]
  15. Daniel B. Klein and Charlotta Stern, "Sociology and Classical Liberalism," The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy 5.2.1 (Summer 2006).[Back]
  16. "Sociopolitical Diversity in Psychology: The Case for Pluralism," American Psychologist 56.3 (March 2001): 205-15.[Back]
  17. Proceedings published in Critical Review 16.2/3 (2004): 147-208.[Back]
  18. See The Montana Professor 17.1 (Fall 2006): 17-18.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 17.2, Spring 2007 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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