Leftward Leanings

Do liberals outnumber conservatives in the academy? Probably. Does it make a difference in how students are educated? That's debatable.
October 1, 2006

It was a spectacle--some self-generated, some audience-generated--when David Horowitz, a New Left agitator in the 1960s turned conservative social activist in more recent decades, visited Duke last spring. "I have in my hand here a book," he told a Page Auditorium crowd, making a wry reference to the famous line spoken by Senator Joseph McCarthy: "I have here in my hand a list of fifty-seven people that were known...as being members of the Communist Party." The book's title, Horowitz went on, is The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics, a roster that includes two from Duke.

All of those professors, according to Horowitz, who wrote the book, contribute to "the intellectual corruption of the American university." He pronounced himself "amazed at the number of courses and events on this campus whose sole purpose is to persuade, if you like--indoctrinate, as I prefer--Duke's students to believe that America is a racist, sexist, oppressive, imperialist empire that deserves to be attacked."

Top of the world: Matt Burney perched on edge of Dark Canyon near Hite, Utah; Carl Hulit races his mountain bike, opposite, top; Burney, shoulder deep in Escalante River in Utah, bottom

Steve Brodner

Encouraged by a cultural-anthropology professor, a small contingent of students sat in the front of the auditorium wearing black T-shirts reading, "Why didn't I make the list?" on the front and, on the back, "Intimidation, Blacklisting, Litmus Testing, Narcing on Professors=Academic Freedom?" At several points, the group heckled Horowitz with a display of loud, concerted giggling.

Though he may be today's most vocal critic of higher education, Horowitz comes from a tradition that stretches back to the 1988 publishing phenomenon, The Closing of the American Mind, by University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom. The theme was picked up with Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Higher Education, by Roger Kimball, managing editor of New Criterion, in 1990. Those books, and now Horowitz, argue that college and university faculties, certainly in the humanities and social sciences, are predominantly left-leaning. Many who are familiar with the higher-education landscape wouldn't disagree with that assessment. But they would contest the assumption that learning has become corrupted and politicized, or that individual professors are downright dangerous propagandists.

Fair and balanced?: Students for Academic Freedom president Miller decries lack of conservative voices in the classroom

Fair and balanced?: Students for Academic Freedom president Miller decries lack of conservative voices in the classroom. Anthony Cross/The Chronicle

Horowitz is on the speaking circuit promoting an "Academic Bill of Rights." Among other things, it would require that colleges and universities appoint faculty members "with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives." It also would enforce the principle that "faculty members will not use their courses or their position for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination." Horowitz's campaign has caught the attention of Republicans in several state legislatures. Shortly before his visit to Duke, the South Dakota House of Representatives voted to require that the state's public colleges report annually on steps they have taken to ensure "intellectual diversity" and "the free exchange of ideas." In Pennsylvania, legislators formed an investigative panel, triggered by a resolution that protested the liberal "imposition of ideological orthodoxy" on college campuses.

Academic organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, are critical of the campaign. The AAUP argues that the Horowitz-inspired "bill" would "invite diversity to be measured by political standards that diverge from the academic criteria of the scholarly profession." In the end, as the AAUP sees it, scholarly judgments, including evaluations of students, would be left in the hands of administrators or judges--a dramatic departure from the traditional prerogatives of professors.

For some conservatives, the academy is a tempting target, says John Harwood '78, who has covered politics for The Wall Street Journal and, more recently, for CNBC as chief Washington correspondent. "Look what happened to [Harvard president] Larry Summers with what he said about women's achievement in high-end math and science. The reaction that provoked became sort of Exhibit A for the idea that campuses are politically correct in a way that is extreme. And I'd say that critique became very widely accepted in the mainstream press, not just by conservatives."

Harwood questions at least one tenet of the conservative charge against campuses: the idea that the influence of the classroom can overwhelm the influence of family, friends, and society. Many progressive causes have been popularly ingrained, he says. "I think twenty years from now, nobody's going to bat an eye about gay marriage, for example."

It may be "self-evidently true" that the academy is biased, but "the consequences are a little harder to spell out," says Dean McGrath '75. A partner with the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in Washington, he teaches a "Conservatism in Law in America" seminar at Georgetown University. He was formerly deputy chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney; he also served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "You can assume that a very high percentage [of the faculty] is liberal. But it's not true that the student bodies that graduate reflect those same percentages." So whatever biases are being brought into higher education by professors "don't seem to be affecting the views of the students who are coming out." He says he's often joked that the academy is filled either with professors who aren't good at indoctrination or students who are immune to it.

McGrath adds that it may be disingenuous for conservatives--valuing as they do free markets--to beat up on higher education. Higher education "is the one part of our education system that is definitely not broken," he says. "I mean, the world walks to American colleges and universities for their education. We let students freely pick; they go anywhere they want. And to a great extent we don't tell them what to take once they're there. I would not be in favor of trying to tell colleges and universities how to do things. How would an Academic Bill of Rights be enforceable? In the courts? Just what we need: more lawsuits."

Even as conservatives decry liberal bias in the academy, some observers detect a timeworn theme in such complaints. That's the view of John Chandler B.D. '52, Ph.D. '54, who arrived at Williams College as a young faculty member shortly after earning his doctorate at Duke. (He later became president of the college and of the Association of American Universities.) "President [James Phinney] Baxter, the president of Williams at the time, was having to defend the faculty, several of whom were being hauled up before the various congressional committees and accused of being Communists and so forth," he recalls. "I remember that President Baxter was always trotting out the geology department as an example of the diversity of the Williams faculty. And he would say, 'The geology department is made up almost entirely of rock-ribbed Republicans.'

"And, of course, back in the 1960s and '70s, it was the same kind of thing. There was a big push among some conservatives to get economics departments to teach more about free-market capitalism back when departments were bringing in Marxists. I do think some changes in faculty attitudes took place in the 1960s; advocacy in the classroom, perhaps, became more pronounced after that. But I don't see a great deal that's really new."

If there is something new, Chandler says, it's that students tend to push back more than they once might have. A couple of years ago, he assigned columns by The New York Times' Paul Krugman. "One student came after me after I had handed out the syllabus and said, 'What in the world are you assigning Krugman for? He's just a propagandist; he's not objective.' And I was a little startled because I had never before been challenged on the grounds of the appropriateness of an assignment."

There's nothing startling about the academy's ideological leanings, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, who is far removed from his colleague Krugman on the political spectrum. But he says campuses suffused with liberal thinking aren't good for the academy, or the culture. Brooks, who calls himself "sort of a John McCain/Rudy Giuliani conservative," is teaching this fall in Duke's Sanford Institute. (His course is "Policy Wars: Liberalism and Conservatism in America.")

Brooks graduated from the University of Chicago. "Chicago has this conservative reputation, but I didn't know any conservatives while I was there," he says. "I was in the history department, and they were all New Dealers, pretty much." Shortly after graduating, he took a job at The National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr. At one point Brooks ran into one of his former philosophy professors who, he recalls, "told me he had failed as a professor if I was working at National Review." As it happens, he notes, the professor's assignment of Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century British statesman and political philosopher who was a critic of the French Revolution and a supporter of the American Revolution, started him on his path as a conservative thinker.

Indoctrination accusation: at Duke, conservative activist Horowitz railed against the "intellectual corruption" of American universities, while a cohort of dissenters made their own opinions known

Indoctrination accusation: at Duke, conservative activist Horowitz railed against the "intellectual corruption" of American universities, while a cohort of dissenters made their own opinions known. Bernard Thomas/The Herald-Sun

"I feel alienated from campus atmospheres," says Brooks. "When I'm on campuses, people assume I know every other conservative, like we're a little club and we all think the same. My parents are academics, and I thought I would be an academic. But you just don't want to be the only conservative on campus. It just wouldn't be fun." The students he encounters on college campuses tend to look on their professors as "sort of charming eccentrics who have retreated from the real world," he says. That's a consequence, in part, of specialization. But it also reflects a sense that those professors are out of the mainstream, that the academic conversation is distant from the wider cultural conversation.

If there is such a gap, Brooks says, the implications are unfortunate for society and not just for the academy. Because of the dearth of ideas flowing from campuses, "The public debate has gotten a lot stupider," he says.

The relatively few conservatives on those campuses--notably Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield, a critic of political correctness, affirmative action, feminism, and grade inflation--"become incredibly aggressive in fighting back against this throng," Brooks says. "So smart people who may have wanted to become academics say, 'God, I don't want to be in that atmosphere.' "

For his part, Chandler, as a former college president, says the liberal skewing of the academy reflects the nature of the academic enterprise. "Arts and sciences faculties deal to a large extent with social institutions and social change. Their perspectives tend to be critical and questioning rather than affirming. This is particularly true of social scientists. And, of course, much of the great literature that interests scholars in the humanities also raises critical questions about social justice and social issues generally." It is likely that "a lot of self-selection is involved in decisions about where people gravitate professionally," he says. Bankers tend to be Republican and conservative; the military services tend to be Republican and conservative. Academics tend to be Democratic and liberal.

Brooks contends that it's "a crude stereotype" that identifies social critics with liberalism. "Social criticism can come in all forms," he says, pointing to Mansfield's Manliness, a book that argues for the traditional gender roles feminist thinkers would like to erase.

And he takes offense at suggestions that conservatives veer away from the academy in search of better-paying careers. A former Duke academic administrator has been quoted as saying that if salaries for professors rivaled salaries for CEOs, "we would see more Republicans teaching French." Says Brooks, "Frankly, that's the kind of self-righteous attitude you get among people who never meet Republicans. I think the number of Republicans who are ministers is very high, and ministers' salaries are much lower than academic salaries. The salary of a legislative assistant is much lower than an academic salary. And most of the jobs at a think tank are filled by people who wanted to be academics. I suspect they'd want campus jobs, if they thought that would be a place where they could feel at home."

Whether or not conservative professors feel at home at Duke, the latest controversy over ideology came to life in February of 2004, when the Duke Conservative Union published an advertisement in The Chronicle. The advertisement listed the number of registered Democrats and Republicans in eight humanities and social-science departments. All of the departments had more Democrats than Republicans; some had no registered Republicans at all.

Indoctrination accusation: at Duke, conservative activist Horowitz railed against the "intellectual corruption" of American universities, while a cohort of dissenters made their own opinions known

Indoctrination accusation: at Duke, conservative activist Horowitz railed against the "intellectual corruption" of American universities, while a cohort of dissenters made their own opinions known

Bernard Thomas/The Herald-Sun

Shortly after the ad appeared, producing a flurry of letters in the paper, the Provost's Office sponsored a campus forum on academic freedom and partisanship. Peter Lange, the provost, led the discussion with a broad statement of principle: "Professors, no matter what their personal views, including but certainly not restricted to partisan ones on the topics under discussion in their classes, need to assure that students are exposed to a wide range of conflicting views on subjects for which that is appropriate." He added that "the development of active knowledge and intelligence requires the opportunity for contestation, for debate and disagreement."

The "neutral" or opinion-free classroom is "not the best environment for active learning," he said. "Instead it is the open classroom with high standards of debate and strong expectations that all will strive for those standards, regardless of the professor's, or the student's, viewpoint."

At the forum, the conservative-leaning political-science chair, Michael Munger, talked about attending a party for new faculty members. When it was time to sit down, he recalled, "We were all told, 'Since you've been hired at Duke, I'm sure that none of you is so foolish as to be conservative. So, please, spread yourselves liberally around the tables.'" He wasn't offended by the joke, he told the forum audience, but it illustrates the teaching climate on campus. "It's always unofficial; it's not a statement of policy. I don't think that there is any policy.... It's just an expectation. The policy is for openness. The actual expectation is that we'll generally hire liberals."

A year later, Lange was asked in the Academic Council, the faculty senate, about a student complaint concerning a Chinese-history class. The student had found it "insulting" and irrelevant that the professor had used class time to criticize the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Lange said the complaint was hard to address. "I can, for instance, certainly remember times when I was taking courses including Thucydides' The Peloponnesian Wars or de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and faculty members would 'digress' into discussions of contemporary events, digressions that both illuminated and brought to life the class material being presented and also helped me think more profoundly about life, politics, and the society around me."

Individual students' sensitivities vary substantially, Lange told the Academic Council, as do their expectations for their classes and for the roles of their professors in their overall learning experience. He said that excessive politeness or deference in how professors and students communicate with one another can be constraining; the more important goal is a climate of mutual respect.

The main sponsor of last spring's Horowitz event was the Duke chapter of Students for Academic Freedom, whose president is Stephen Miller, now a senior. "There are many courses that somehow incorporate Marxism or Marxist ideology or other left-wing doctrines," Miller says. That, in his view, reflects the tendency of professors to identify more readily with Marxism than conservatism. David Brooks makes a similar point, observing that there are certain intellectual areas, like diplomatic history and even the American Revolution, that are bound to attract conservatives but that are barely covered on campuses. Such fields "just aren't hot," he says, and their practitioners, unlike scholars steeped in race and gender themes, probably wouldn't draw the attention of hiring committees.

Demonstrably at Duke, the history department has seen a skewing toward social history--history from the vantage point of the non-elites--and the history of once-neglected regions. "The 1960s" looks at the civil-rights and women's-rights movements; "Freedom Stories" examines race and storytelling in the South. Other courses cover the Caribbean from the arrival of Columbus to the emergence of sugar and slavery, Africa before and since European encounters, ancient and early-modern Japan, and Islamic civilization. At the same time, the department teaches the writings of Adam Smith.

Such areas are being given wide exposure, professors say, because they're intellectually lively. The academy, as they see it, rewards fresh scholarship and not a particular line of thought.

"There is not a single class at Duke University that is devoted to the study of conservative thought," Miller says. "Not one single, solitary course." According to Munger, the political scientist, Miller is correct, strictly speaking. "There is not a course devoted exclusively to conservative thought. I can't imagine why you'd want one, though. I would hope we would teach students to think, not to think like liberals or conservatives." He says he doesn't see much liberal bias in the classroom. But, he adds, even if some faculty members consider it their role to create a leftist intelligentsia--as Duke literature professor Fredric Jameson once famously declared--"I would say, get rid of liberal bias rather than balance it with conservative bias." And an array of political-science course offerings this fall address the enduring themes of freedom and democracy: "Comparative Democratic Development," "Theory of Liberal Democracy," "The American Political System," "The Nature of Freedom," and "American Constitutional Development."

Ideological diversity on the faculty is an educational imperative, Miller says. "If it wasn't affecting the kinds of courses that would be offered, the way those courses were being taught, then we wouldn't even be discussing it. The truth of the matter is that a Duke student is being denied an education by virtue of an ideological slant on our campus." He says his intent isn't to force diversity by mandating the hiring of more conservatives. "All we're trying to do is to hold hiring practices to a certain standard and to hold the teaching to a certain standard, which would, by its very nature, lead to diversity, because diversity is a natural state of affairs."

In opinion columns and display ads in The Chronicle, Miller and Students for Academic Freedom have published a series of student "testimonies" to "professional misconduct." A typical one, pointing to a literature course, referred to "one-sided, anti-capitalist rants" on the part of the professor, who "never lets anyone seriously present alternative viewpoints."

The viewpoint that seems to define most Duke students is moderate to liberal. Duke regularly surveys the attitudes of freshmen shortly after they come to campus. In the past five years, only small percentages have identified themselves as "far right" or "far left." The percentage of self-identified liberals beat out conservatives 36.3 percent to 22.2 percent, averaged over five years. The highest percentage, 36.7 percent, pegged themselves as middle-of-the-road. Politically active Duke students with Republican sympathies tend to talk about themselves, and their peers, in terms that are more libertarian than hard-core conservative.

One student who thinks ideological extremism would be hard to find is Remington Kendall, a senior, who is president of Duke's chapter of the College Republicans. He says, "I personally have not witnessed an explicitly liberal bias" on the part of professors. A study-abroad experience in New Zealand presented him with a much more strident liberalism in the classroom, he adds.

Reflecting on his Duke experiences, he mentions Evan Charney, who teaches in political science and public policy. (When Charney joined the faculty in the fall of 1999, his dissertation was described as "a defense of a form of liberalism that can accommodate deep-value pluralism while upholding certain basic liberal-democratic principles.") Kendall recalls that in a course on multiculturalism--a politically charged topic--Charney worked hard to present issues from all sides and to encourage his students to reach their own conclusions.

Historical perspective: former Williams College president Chandler says debates about faculty members' political leanings are nothing new

Historical perspective: former Williams College president Chandler says debates about faculty members' political leanings are nothing new. Thomas W. Bleezarde/Williams College

Kendall acknowledges that his political outlook may have changed over his Duke years. But he attributes that less to his professors than to immersing himself in world events through class assignments, including reading The New York Times. He also points to the influence of his fellow students, particularly those he's met through Common Ground. Organized by Duke's Center for Race Relations, Common Ground is a fall-break retreat geared to exploring and fostering diversity. Kendall says that the multiple student perspectives he's encountered have moderated his social conservatism.

In a Chronicle column inspired by the Horowitz appearance, Oliver Sherouse, now a sophomore, wrote, "It doesn't bother me in the least that most of my professors are liberals." Active with both the College Republicans and the Duke Political Union, Sherouse says he's not interested in taking a class that only affirms his own views. Students "don't need to be told what we already believe," as he puts it. "I think it's a good part of the college experience that you get challenged and you have to think out why you believe something. I think it's a decided advantage to have professors who are going to probe you and challenge you."

Like Kendall, Sherouse says that, even after a single year at Duke, his political views have shifted somewhat--and, again, not primarily from classroom influences. He points to a campus talk by Ron Paul M.D. '61, a member of Congress from Texas, sponsored by the College Republicans. Paul impressed him with stances that he considers more classically libertarian than current-day Republican. Sherouse started reading libertarian thinkers Paul recommended, particularly Frèdèric Bastiat, a nineteenth-century French economist, and found himself admiring them for ideological consistency. "Duke students tend to come in thinking that they know more than they do, and I count myself among them," he says. "But I think there's a lot of opportunity to find out about other ways of looking at the world that can be valuable."

Sherouse also says he can't imagine feeling so intimidated in class that he wouldn't be comfortable expressing a viewpoint. A friend of his saw a writing professor as being "very strongly a feminist," he says. "When he wrote one of his papers, he slanted it from her view, or what he took to be her view." When the paper was returned, it had the professor's observation that it didn't ring true to the student's beliefs. So he rewrote it with a more authentic, and contentious, voice, and earned an A-minus, which, Sherouse observes, "was pretty good for that class."

When it comes to assessing higher education in general, there's enduring disagreement. In June, the AAUP released survey results that showed, among other things, that "the high cost of college tuition" easily trumps political bias in the classroom as an issue of public concern. But it also showed that 49 percent of self-described "conservative Republicans" considered political bias a problem in colleges and universities, compared with just 27 percent of "liberal Democrats." Less than a third of the conservatives surveyed expressed "a lot of confidence" in colleges and universities, compared with more than half of the liberals. A similar liberal-conservative divergence appeared around the question of whether the job of a college professor is "very prestigious."

Still, the survey didn't suggest a readiness to assault the ivory tower. Respondents agreed overwhelmingly, for example, that "most professors are respectful when students voice political opinions that differ from their own." And around the time of the survey's release, David Brooks, in a Times column, "Our World Cup Edge," was musing on soccer as a metaphor for university systems around the world. American universities are dynamic, he wrote, because they're separate from state authority, while in Europe, state authority stultifies academic initiative. 

One letter in response to Brooks' column came from a retired engineering professor from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. The professor, A. David Wunsch, observed that conservative critics don't question the standing of America's universities as the best in the world--the same "outstanding schools" that are "so often dominated by political liberals." He added, "The liberal minds are there, but the result--the great American university system--should give these critics pause."