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Liberals, Liberal Professors, and Conservatives

April 5, 2013

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen has authored a smart review Neil Gross’s new book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?. As Ratner-Rosenhagen notes, the title of the book ought to be Are Professors Liberal? In answering either/both questions Gross offers a number of interesting findings (bolds mine):

Despite the prominence of claims that the university is awash in tenured radicals, only 8 percent of the professoriate identifies as “radical.” The “gotcha” factor with such a number is mitigated by the fact that 8 percent of American faculty members are distinctly un-radical business professors, and business is currently the most popular major in American universities.

Gross determines that there is something to the charges of a liberal professoriate. “By my calculations,” he concludes, “between 50% and 60% of professors today can reasonably be described as leftist or liberal, at a time when only 17% of Americans fall into that category.”

What Gross’s historically grounded approach does remind us is that the university’s liberal reputation dates back over a century. …Because academic work has for so long been regarded as a “liberal pursuit,” it draws in young liberals who recognize the selves they want to become in their professors. Gross refers to this as “political self-selection,” which may sound circular—and indeed it is. But the phenomenon is no less probable because of it.

And, perhaps the most important point Gross’s study (bolds mine):

Gross’s evidence suggests that professors are mindful about the relationship between their political views and their work. Many of the humanists and social scientists surveyed believe that objectivity is more often fetishized than achieved, but almost all strive in some way to adopt practices of self-reflexivity, transparency, and impartiality in their research and teaching.

E-x-a-c-t-l-y.

Conservatives will likewise find themselves aggrieved [by this book]. Gross is restrained and fair-minded. He challenges the strength of conservative arguments in the most neutral and unflowery of language. This doesn’t make for a gripping read, but the payoff is better: balanced, well-researched, accessible scholarship that in the end helps inoculate the academy against the criticism of liberal bias the book takes as its centerpiece.

Finally, the payoff:

Gross’s subtler challenges to the caricatures of higher education—as stronghold of liberal ideology or as some kind of bulwark against late capitalism—are welcome, though not revelatory for those on the inside. Quite the opposite. Universities have become ever more adept at accommodating outside pressures—adopting corporate structures of accountability, standardized grading rubrics, and assessments for teaching efficacy; accepting departmental mergers and the parceling of educational positions, libraries, and research institutes into big-business-sponsored platoons. Higher education has become a perfectly hospitable habitat for a student population comfortable with a naturalized view of “free choice,” “supply and demand,” and of themselves as “customers.”

Indeed.

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