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Academe is Overrun by Liberals. Here’s Why that Should Disturb You

by Matthew Woessner, Lee Jussim, and Jarret Crawford

We are indebted to Professor Russell Jacoby for his article “Academe is Overrun by Liberals. So What?” published in the April 1, 2016 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Although the article was intended to critique the inclusion of ideology as one element of higher education’s commitment to diversity, the piece inadvertently highlights the need for more political diversity on America’s college campuses.

We should begin by disclosing that as a conservative, a libertarian and a liberal academic, we reflect a cross-section of faculty who promote the mission of Heterodox Academy. Our view is that Jacoby repeatedly gets the facts wrong in ways that reveal just how much the academy needs political diversity.

This starts with Professor Jacoby’s sincere but inaccurate assessment of our mission that demonstrates how even well-meaning scholars can distort the views of those with whom they disagree. Whereas Professor Jacoby states that Heterodox Academy’s mission to increase political diversity “… means adding more conservatives” we view the organization’s mission quite differently. Advocates of ideological diversity strive to improve intellectual discourse and debate by ensuring that colleges are inclusive and permit a broad range of political perspectives to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

Jacoby recounts how in 40 years, the belief that diversity is an inherent virtue has gone from a “marginal idea” to a normative belief. Whereas diversity was once confined to promoting racial integration and cultural understandings, Jacoby correctly notes that, more recently, scholars have turned to the benefits of ideological diversity as a potential social good. Just as being exposed to divergent cultures, races and ethnicities broadens students’ minds, so too can students benefit from being exposed to competing ideological worldviews.

Without directly criticizing higher education’s embrace of ethnic, racial and cultural diversity, Jacoby expresses considerable skepticism about it, referring to it as “the diversity beast” and “the cult of diversity.” He raises skeptical questions such as, “Are race, poverty, and Asian-Americanhood equally diverse? What about language, religion, age, sexual orientation, income, and appearance?” We share Jacoby’s skepticism about the benefits of many types of diversity. However, we also believe there is overwhelming evidence that the academy’s ideological monoculture produces all sorts of dysfunctions.

Professor Jacoby revealed his ignorance of that evidence when he wrote: “The relationship between political diversity and intellectual diversity is, at best, tenuous. Presumably, … a balance of conservative and liberal professors would lead to better teaching and research. Conversely, having fewer conservatives on campus damages the educational enterprise. But is there evidence for that belief? Virtually none.”

This reflects a striking blindness to the substantial and growing bodies of evidence showing that the faculty’s leftist slant distorts scholarship and teaching. With respect to scholarship:

  1. Well-established biological, evolutionary, and genetic influences on almost any aspect of human social or psychological functioning are railed against and stigmatized by radical leftist scholars as racist, sexist, social Darwinist, or as eugenics (see, e.g., Pinker’s (2002) The Blank Slate).
  2. Conservatism is characterized as a mental illness in “scholarly” literature (as a “syndrome”). The Oxford English Dictionary defines “syndrome” as “a group of symptoms that consistently occur together” and “symptoms” as “a physical or mental feature that is regarded as indicating a condition of disease.”
  3. The leftist egalitarianism that pervades the social sciences has contributed to the widespread but empirically invalid conclusion that laypeople’s stereotypes are inaccurate. Certainly, there is a pervasive presence of caricatures in movies, advertisements, and political cartoons, and these are undoubtedly inaccurate. Such images, however, say nothing about what laypeople actually believe. Yet, academics routinely declare that laypeople’s stereotypes are rigid, irrational, and that they presume genetic differences between groups and lead people to ignore individual differences without evidence. Empirical evidence shows that laypeople’s generalizations are often accurate, and they do not preclude average citizens from judging fellow citizens as individuals. Yet, for nearly 100 years, there has been a social science consensus advancing a scientifically unjustified claim.
  4. Those raising doubts or criticism about the meaning or validity of any aspect of global warming research or common environmentalist positions risk being tagged as a “denier” (a la “Holocaust denier”). To be sure, vested corporate interests have opposed environmental regulations; and people who believe the Earth has not gotten warmer hold beliefs disconnected from mountains of evidence. This does not mean every claim advanced by every environmentalist is true. The paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences that Jacoby criticized offers another extreme case, published in a prominent psychology journal, in which people were tagged as “denying environmental realities” when they agreed with statements such as “The Earth has plenty of resources if we just learn how to develop them.” Referring to this as “climate denial” was, apparently, a reasonable conclusion, not merely to the paper’s authors, but also to the editor and reviewers. It is not a reasonable conclusion, because: 1. One can agree the Earth has lots of resources without “denying” climate science; and 2. The statement is so vague that agreeing with it cannot constitute “denial” of anything. Such attempts to stigmatize those who disagree do not usually characterize scientific debates that lack moral/political overtones (e.g., biologists disagree about how to define “species,” without being stigmatized as “species denialists”).

With respect to teaching, it is, perhaps, instructive to consider the petition advanced by students at UMass Amherst to increase the political diversity of their faculty. The full text is available online. Here are a few excerpts:

“Students must be exposed to multiple framings of our history, our economic life, our moral life, and our political life if they are to become thoughtful citizens of the United States, and of the world.” “The professors … do not expose students to a diverse range of intellectual achievements and schools of thought. At UMass Amherst, we have many academic departments that are explicitly committed to only one ideology.” Professors often preach their anti-American judgments to students as final “truths”– such as the view that all major world problems, from poverty in Africa to ISIS, stem from American capitalism and imperialism. Professors represent their views and ideologies in ways that make it seemingly impossible for any reasonable person to disagree with. “Dissenters from Left-Liberal thought on campus are considered ignorant, intolerant, and uneducated.”

Although we are not aware of any systematic survey on this topic, accumulating anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that this experience is common at universities across the country. Diminished critical discourse,in academia surrounds a plethora of sacred cows and taboo topics, including but not restricted to biological or evolutionary bases for group differences, ongoing discrimination in the present as the sole source of racial/ethnic and gender gaps (in contrast, to, e.g., longterm effects of social, cultural or historical differences between groups, including histories of discrimination), critical evaluations of feminist scholarship, and the (in)effectiveness of affirmative action programs. The rising calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces also functions largely to limit speech, especially speech advocating nonleftist positions. More nonleftists would puncture the majoritarian conformity that restricts vigorous debate and would create a larger constituency resisting leftist attempts to restrict speech and stigmatize debatable ideas that threaten leftist sacred cows. Thus, Jacoby is wrong in declaring there is virtually no evidence to indicate that greater political diversity would improve scholarship and teaching.

Ironically, even as Jacoby asserts that higher education’s leftism has little if any impact on teaching and scholarship, he then blatantly manifests exactly one such impact by branding Republicans as anti-science..

“That there are many serious and responsible conservative thinkers cannot be doubted, but an anti-science, anti-evolution, and anti-climate-change ethos increasingly characterizes the Republican Party. Any study of the “shifting” political allegiances of the professoriate that ignores these larger shifts cannot be taken seriously.”

Jacoby is again wrong; he presents a caricature. The label “anti-science” is a catch-all aspersion, popular among and readily applied by leftist faculty to Republicans largely because they tend to be more skeptical of evolution and global warming. However, the left/right differences on these issues are less extreme than Jacoby implies. According to a 2012 study by Gallup, 58% of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years; so did 41% of Democrats. A 2015 poll found that most Democrats want government action on climate change, and so do a majority of Republicans (albeit a smaller majority than among Democrats). Jacoby’s caricature of the differences between Democrats and Republicans reflects exactly the type ofdysfunction that results from an ideological monoculture, where the paucity of faculty aware of how wrong such claims are, stifles scholarly self-correction and vigorous debate.

The magnitude of Jacoby’s distortion gets worse as one examines the politics of “science denial” more closely. As Berezow and Campbell note in their book Science Left Behind, critics bent on disparaging the Democratic Party could readily label its members as anti-science because a disproportionate number of its members shun genetically modified foods, animal testing, and embrace alternative medicine. Indeed, a 2013 article published in Scientific American was titled The Liberals’ War on Science. The very fact that Jacoby casually dismisses the Republican Party as anti-science, anti-evolution, and anti-climate-change without considering the Democratic Party’s own intellectual baggage reveals exactly the type of double standards and blind spots Heterodox Academy was created to address. Self-correction is often hailed as one of the hallmarks of “true sciences.” Heterodox is sorely needed to provide exactly the type of self-correction required by the repeated caricatures and errors of fact in Jacoby’s article.

Jacoby then goes on to argue that “Perhaps psychologists have not changed, but the political landscape has” and suggests that one should not ignore “larger shifts.” In contrast to his undocumented assertions about such shifts, here is data from the Higher Education Research Institute, based on a survey of college faculty conducted every other year since 1989, plotted by Sam Abrams:

Jacoby argued that “Republicans have moved sharply to the right.” This could explain why fewer faculty identify as Republicans but: 1) it predicts an increase in self-identified moderates fleeing the supposedly rightward shifting Republicans, which did not happen; 2) it could not explain why so many more faculty now identify as liberals. From 1990 to the present there has been a dramatic shift to the left among faculty. The academy haschanged.

Jacoby’s final argument is that “The demand is not to stop exclusion, but to require inclusion – with politics added to the mix.” We have no idea to whom he is referring as demanding or requiring inclusion (we have not made this claim, and no sources were provided for it). We do, however, strongly endorse stopping the exclusion of individuals and ideas that contest leftwing sacred cows and cherished values.

We have found two common responses to our views among our (overwhelmingly) leftwing colleagues. One response is denial. “So what?” “Who cares?” “Where’s the evidence” (asked rhetorically to imply there is no evidence, when, in fact, there is quite a lot and the mere asking of this question reflects the asker’s ignorance). Denial (on either side of the political spectrum) is anathema to scholarship.

But there is a second response to our critique, which we hope will grow more common. For some earnest scholars, it opens their eyes to ways that their own and their colleagues’ politics might distort their teaching and scholarship, and ways in which they might be unintentionally creating a hostile environment to nonleftist students and faculty. They then proceed to at least attempt to embrace practices limiting such bias. That is all one can ask.


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