In The New York Times’ Gray Matter section on July 3rd, I had the chance to elaborate on earlier work shared on the Heterodox Academy site where I first showed that faculty members in our colleges and universities have shifted ideologically to the left since the 1990s.  Figure 1 presents another view of that trend but this time presents the ratio of liberal faculty to conservative faculty. While liberal faculty have always outnumbered conservative faculty, the figure makes it clear that since 1995, the relative number of liberals on campuses has been increasing. The liberal-conservative ratio among faculty was roughly 2 to 1 in 1995. By 2004 that figure jumped to almost 3 to 1. While seemingly insignificant, that represents a 50% decline in conservative identifiers on campuses. After 2004, the ratio changed even more dramatically and by 2010, was close to 5 to 1 nationally. This shows that political diversity declined rapidly in our nation’s centers for learning and social change.

Comparing the faculty change on college campuses as I did in my earlier post with national trends only makes academia’s hard turn to the left more clear. In Figure 1, I also present data from Gallup on the ideology of the general public.  Because the ideology items coded and queried by Gallup are identical to those asked of the faculty it is similar to the data to in my earlier post. Once again, I present the ratio of liberals to conservatives and what is immediately clear in the figure is that the 25 year trend is for the American polity essentially flat. There has been virtually no change in the ratio whatsoever among the general public, compared to a 150% increase on the faculty side. Moreover, given that the average ratio over the 25 years is about .52, the trend makes the point that liberal identifiers are lower than conservative identifiers and that the relative number has not shifted much as the slope of the line has remained flat over the past decades. The minor variations over the 25 year period for Americans despite the changing definitions of ideology and partisan sorting among the electorate as a whole suggest that the transformation is very real on the faculty side.

Figure 1. The Ideology of the American Professoriate and Polity Compared: 1989 – 2014

Abrams - Fig 1

Source: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA; Gallup and CBS News/NYTimes

Thinking about the national trend in Figure 1 compared to faculty, one could argue that in aggregate, I did not account for increasing liberalism present in those Americans who hold a graduate degree. According to the General Social Survey from 2014, of those who have a graduate degree of some sort, 30% identify as liberal or extremely liberal and 17% are conservative or extremely conservative. This is a liberal: conservative ratio of 1.8 – a far cry from 5 among college professors. Additionally, in contrast to graduate degree holders, those Americans who have a high school degree or less, 13% identify as liberal or extremely liberal and 20% identify as are conservative or extremely conservative – a figure more in line with the national average. So, even if definitions of partisanship and ideology have shifted over time, Figure 1 makes it very clear that in the aggregate those who shape the minds of many in college are liberal and the shift is nontrivial. It seems reasonable to conclude that it is academics who shifted, as there is no equivalent movement among the masses whatsoever over the past 25 years.

In addition to the national trend presented here, I also found and reported in The New York Times that the leftward shift was not uniform. I looked at factors such as the differences between tenured faculty compared to untenured, income and salaries, school type and selectivity, departmental affiliation and age – all factors which have been known to impact one’s political ideology – and the data was muddy. So, I began digging more deeply.

Surprisingly, the factor that had the greatest impact on the ideological leanings of college professors was where they lived and worked- namely, their region of the country. Figure 2 presents liberal: conservative ratios for the 8 regions in the data that were included in the original survey data. While 7 of the regions move up and down over the decades, 7 regions have clearly shifted to the left and one – the Rocky Mountain region – has shifted slightly to the right. The huge outlier is the stark leftward move of those college and university faculty in New England – those who work in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont – is truly pronounced.

Figure 2. Regional Ideological Variations of Americas Professors: 1989 – 2014

Abrams - Fig 2

Source: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA

Figure 3 presents the same data in a slightly different way. Here, I have plotted New England as its own region and collapsed the remaining seven regions into one category and included the national trend line from Figure 1 as well. This enables us to see just how great the change has been in New England over the past two decades. As stated in the New York Times, what is so remarkable here is that those faculty who reside in New England are far more liberal than anywhere else in the nation, even controlling for discipline and institution type (i.e. Christian college vs. large public university).

Figure 3. New England and American Ideologies Compared: 1989 – 2014

Abrams - Fig 3

Finally, the question of why New England and its professors are so far left compared to the rest mentioned “inertia” in The New York Times and that requires some elaboration.

Many New England institutions of higher education have long been models for the county as sacred places – often with explicit religious connections when they were established – where students and faculty study the liberal arts and humanities without much concern for practical applications. Harvard College students, for instance, famously head to MIT to take courses in finance and accounting. Yale’s student body complained about the abstract and academic nature of its computer science department which did not offer basic courses in programming and development. Yale now imports a popular programming course, ironically, from Harvard.

The Harvard and Yale examples differ from the Rocky Mountain schools and are in direct opposition to many land/sea/space-grant colleges which were charted to explicitly engage in practical and useful pursuits. The Colorado School of Mines famously developed a teaching and research curriculum “geared towards responsible stewardship of the earth and its resources… [such that the institution has] broad expertise in resource exploration, extraction, production, and utilization.”  The University of Montana states that is capitalizes on its strengths to offer “programs and services responsive to the needs of Montanans” – a stark contrast to Amherst, for instance, which asserts that, “Since 1821, we’ve been helping our students find their own voices, discover their own truths and forge their own paths in the world.” Amherst, a selective liberal arts college located in rural Massachusetts in New England, explicitly makes that case that the school is centered on inward self-discovery while the University of Montana is just the opposite and focuses on the larger community. Whiles these cases are just a few examples, it does appear that the very rationale behind New England schools and their goals are different from those in other parts of the United States. While I make no value judgement here, the divergent outlooks could absolutely inform ideological thinking and hiring practices which could lead to New England moving so far to the left.  

We also have to consider the principle of homophily. As someone who has been involved in many faculty searches as a committee member and as a vetter for other institutions, professors like to hire people that are close to their own ideas and training as these colleagues could last a lifetime. Minimizing friction and dissent makes life much easier. While many fields deal with non-political content, politics is pervasive outside the classroom and political questions are hard to ignore even in fields like engineering and bio-physics as funding has become politicized.

Faculty on college campuses have been shifting left for two decades, with those in New England shifting much faster. I cannot explain why. What I can say, however, is this: if you want to be exposed to a wide range of viewpoints and avoid uniformly left-wing faculties, you should probably focus your search on schools outside of New England.

Key Takeaways:

  • There has been virtually no change in the liberal to conservative ratio whatsoever among the general public, compared to a 150% increase on the faculty side.
  • The factor that had the greatest impact on the ideological leanings of college professors was where they lived and worked- namely, their region of the country.
    • New England leads the way toward the left in academia.