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Heterodox Academy
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Town and Gown Relationship
July 26, 2019+Musa al-Gharbi
+Public Policy

For Better or Worse, Universities Help Shape Local and Regional Politics

In a previous HxA post, I demonstrated that there seems to be a longstanding relationship between the ideological skew of colleges and universities, and the political leanings of the communities they are embedded in. Over the last 30 years, university faculty have shifted dramatically leftward – and so have the communities hosting elite private universities, the “public Ivies” and most other R1 universities.

This raises the question: are the schools being dragged left by the broader political milieu they are surrounded by? Or, are the universities themselves helping to pull their surrounding communities leftward?

In a preceding essay on the Heterodox Academy blog, Jeffrey Sachs argued that the former seemed more plausible:

“Graduate students and professors do not spend all of their time in the library or laboratory, though it can often feel that way. They are also members of the larger community. They are neighbors, worshippers, and volunteers. They join the PTA, watch the local news, and use local services. It seems implausible to think that they are not affected, ideologically or in terms of partisan identity, by these interactions.”

In a related post for Niskanen, Sachs analyzed the uptick in campus blowups and illiberal moves by some students from 2015-2017. He concluded that the surge was likely the product of passions running high as a result of the extraordinary 2016 U.S. presidential race, rather than marking an enduring change in values among new cohorts of students – as evidenced by the steep decline in incidents as we have moved farther from that election cycle. Once again, in his telling, campus politics are primarily being driven by external politics, rather than working the other way around.

Nonetheless, in the conclusion to his HxA post Sachs noted, “It is also possible that the causal path runs in the opposite direction and a community’s Democratic PVI is due to the liberal lean of its college or university.” However, he believed this to be “extremely unlikely.”

Here, I will present some reasons to believe that the casual path may, in fact, cut the other direction: universities might actually be driving political trends in their local communities — and in the country as a whole — rather than (or in addition to) being shaped by them.

Local and Regional Impact

I grew up in a military family, in a military town near the U.S.-Mexico border — a background which predisposes me to the following analogy:

Military bases have a massive impact on local economies. Each base directly employs (tens of) thousands of soldiers, Department of Defense civil servants and military contractors whose work is directly related to national defense (and/ or the operation and maintenance of facilities for those whose work is directly related to national defense). However, they also indirectly sustain hundreds of local businesses, large and small, who cater to active employees, veterans and their families (and then still more business who provide goods and services to these workers and business owners).

Like academia, the military has its own culture(s) — (increasingly) distinct from the general U.S. population — based on a shared purpose and set of experiences, as well as the values, priorities and challenges that they hold in common (and in contradistinction with the broader society) — complete with its own markers of social prestige, and its own language which is often not understood by the uninitiated.

As with academics, the political positions of active duty military and veterans also tend to vary systematically from the general population. Military communities typically trend in the same direction as their soldiers. To subvert Sachs’ quote above, soldiers do not spend all of their time on the base, interacting with other military people. They are also members of the larger community. They are neighbors, worshippers, and volunteers. They often date and marry civilians; their children often attend local schools. They use local services and patronize local businesses. The people they engage with seem to be affected, ideologically and in terms of partisan identity, by these interactions.

Indeed, U.S. military bases often dramatically influence local politics, shaping the priorities and policies of local politicians – both domestically and abroad.

As with military bases, universities also dramatically shape their local economies – even (like the military) bringing in massive amounts of jobs and investment. Like the military, academia has its own culture, with everything from its language to its politics varying in systematic ways from the general population. Indeed, most of what one could say about the impact of military bases (especially on military towns) would also seem to hold for universities (especially for college towns).

An example:

Yale University has nearly 14k faculty or staff, and around 13k undergrad, graduate and professional students. This means more than 1 out of every 5 people in New Haven, CT (pop. 129,779) is a faculty, staff or student at Yale University. The Yale New Haven Health System is the largest employer in the entire state of Connecticut. Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that the university dominates local politics. Indeed, the impact of schools like Yale extends far beyond its surrounding community, or even the broader region.

National Impact

Elite schools strongly shape public perceptions about students and universities. Because other schools look to them as models, they also shape policies and procedures for universities nationwide. They produce a radically disproportionate share of all tenured professors in the United States, and their scholars set the dominant analytic frames and research agendas.

Journalists – especially at flagship publications — hail overwhelmingly from elite universities (and largely mirror their politics and biases).

Among U.S. political leaders, the vast majority (70%) have completed a graduate or professional degree. For comparison, in the general population, less than one in three U.S. adults has completed even a bachelor’s degree (and only about a third of those who attain a B.A. – i.e. just over 10% of the overall population – go on to attain a graduate degree). That is, political leaders are much more steeped in academia than the general public. Top party officials hail, almost unanimously, from elite schools – and the political positions of these party elites play an outsized (and increasing) role in shaping how voters fall on various issues.

That is, while many universities have a significant impact on their communities and their politics, elite schools take it a step further, helping drive the national (and international) conversation — both on campus and off — for better or worse.

A Causal Loop?

Nonetheless, Sachs is right to point out that universities are, themselves, subject to broader cultural, social, economic forces.

For instance, many of the same economic currents that are leaving behind large swaths of the country are also forcing many schools in these areas to close or restructure (giving rise to ‘education deserts’ and reinforcing ‘brain drain’ in the affected regions).

Many state schools have been forced into painful austerity in the wake of partisan defunding initiatives – hitting the humanities and social sciences especially hard. Others have redoubled efforts to secure large donations – often conceding too much to major donors in order to secure their (continued) patronage. Many more have attempted to increase tuition in order to compensate for the loss of funds.

Virtually all schools find themselves under immense pressure to keep enrollments up — and to attract and retain students from relatively well-off backgrounds — and international students— who can pay full tuition. This is a major factor behind the increasing commodification of higher ed(where students are increasingly viewed as ‘consumers’ and these customers are held to be ‘the boss’) – prompting many schools to bend over backwards to ensure students’ material and emotional comfort:

Administrators bend the rules to help students classify themselves as disabled due to mental illness — thereby entitling them to additional accommodations — and then try to avoid or squash controversy in order to protect these ‘vulnerable‘ students.

Many instructors inflate grades because entitled students will flood their inboxes with protests and appeals, dock them on course evaluations, and even get the bureaucrats involved, if they do not get their preferred scores. Others have pre-emptively lowered their standards and workloads in order to ensure customers get their expected return (i.e. marketable credentials) on their financial investments (i.e. tuition).

This ‘commodification’ of higher education severely constrains open inquiry and viewpoint diversity on campus. However, bids to accommodate more privileged and international students – both those from universities themselves and (especially) those from local business owners – have a profound effect on local communities and their politics as well.

In short, universities significantly shape the politics of the communities they are embedded in. However, they are also shaped by these areas and their politics in turn.

To return to our initial question: Are universities pushing certain regions to the left as a result of increasing ideological parochialism within the academy? Or are institutions of higher learning being dragged leftward by their surrounding communities (which would have grown significantly “bluer” in recent decades even if these universities were located elsewhere)? The most likely story seems to be “both/ and” rather than “either/ or.”


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