Neil Gross is a sociologist at the University of British Columbia who previously held posts at the University of Southern California and Harvard, has a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, and received undergraduate training at Berkeley. He edits Sociological Theory and has written a book on the liberal philosopher Richard Rorty.
He has all the markers of an academic on the left, and Gross confesses in his introduction to this study of faculty politics that he has “very liberal social attitudes” and that his views on the economy and law are center-left. Nevertheless, he registers clearly the overwhelming ideological slant of higher education. Reviewing survey and voter registration data, he concludes that “the professoriate either contains the highest proportion of liberals of any occupation in the United States for the period 1996-2010 or is right behind another famously liberal occupational group, authors and journalists.”
It’s a galling situation for people on the right, and the response by people on the left only makes it worse. If the underrepresented group were a favored one, liberal observers would invoke disparate-impact theory, which holds that any situation that is demographically disproportionate signifies bias at work and needs public intervention. But in this case, the excluded group is conservatives, which makes the imbalance the conservatives’ own fault.Gross examines and debunks various hypotheses which are frequently put forward to explain or excuse this phenomenon before coming to this conclusion:
Why is academia liberal, then? Gross’s data indicate that it isn’t because liberals and conservatives have different values or mental habits, or that liberals discriminate against right-leaning graduate students and job candidates. Rather, it is because academia has a reputation for liberalism, and conservative undergraduates decide on their own not to continue in the field.
The key moment, Gross maintains, is the decision whether or not to go to graduate school. Young conservatives may not know all that much about academia at the faculty level, but popular stereotypes and a few off-putting experiences in class can sufficiently discourage them from pursuing academia as a site for success. A freshman orientation session that divides white males from everyone else, incessant talk about diversity, multiculturalist reading assignments, and so on may not bother them that much (and they can always find safe spaces such as College Republicans), but such things do convince young conservatives that staying on campus as a career move is foolish. An English major who reveres Great Books needs only one occasion of a teaching assistant ridiculing him for a dead-white-male fixation to decide, “I don’t need this.”I've often wondered how conservatism survives considering the absolute dominance of liberals in elementary, secondary and post-secondary education. I think it's probably because a lot of young people become conservatives when they start earning a living and they realize for the first time how much the tentacles of the state slither into their paychecks and their personal lives. Freedom is a powerful instinct.