Sean Stevens is Heterodox Academy’s Research Director. He has a PhD in social psychology from Rutgers University.
Previous blog posts at Heterodox Academy have discussed the rising homogeneity of political identities among professors at universities within the United States. Sam Abrams explored how the left-to-right ratio has increased over the past 25 years, particularly at colleges and universities in New England. I have also reviewed work by Honeycutt and Freberg (2016) which suggested that conservatives experience a more hostile climate in academia than moderates or progressives. Recently, Mitchell Langbert, Anthony Quain, and Daniel Klein published their findings on faculty voter registration in the fields of economics, history, journalism, law, and psychology. Their work is now the most recent snapshot we have of the politics of American professors. This blog post briefly summarizes their methodology, findings, and conclusions.
To explore the politics of faculty members in the United States, Langbert, Quain, and Klein obtained the voter registrations of all faculty in five kinds of departments at 40 leading universities. Voter registration is public information and was obtained in this study through the Aristotle database. Due to differences in state policy over the storage of voter registration in a database such as Aristotle, their analysis was limited to universities within 30 states.
The 20 states not included were: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Virginia
• Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the academic departments of Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology. In most cases the discrepancies were higher than previously reported (see Klein & Stern, 2005; Klein & Stern, 2009a).
• The discrepancy was lowest for Economics departments (4.5:1) and highest for History departments (33.5:1).
• A good number of departments have no registered Republicans.
• Discrepancies are higher at more prestigious universities.
• Assistant professors are least likely to be Republicans, thus discrepancies are lower among older professors and among higher-ranked professors.
• Consistent with the findings of Abrams, discrepancies were higher at universities in New England.
• The overall ratio across all departments was roughly 10 Democrats to 1 Republican.
• In total, Langbert et al. looked up the voter registration of 7,243 professors. They found 3,623 registered Democrats and 314 Republicans
Langbert et al. note that the overall ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans has increased over time, from roughly 3.5:1 in 1970 (Klein & Stern, 2005; Klein & Stern, 2009a) to roughly 8:1 in 2004 (Klein & Stern, 2005; Klein & Stern, 2009a) to roughly 10:1 in 2016. They further suggest that one of the reasons for this increased discrepancy may be due to 3 specific mechanisms present in academia:
1. Sacred values are likely to impact a given professor’s political outlook. Typically, these values cannot be divorced from that professor’s scholarship and may impact what is considered a worthy topic of study, what methods to employ in one’s investigation, and how one interprets their findings. The role of sacred values makes groupthink theory (Janis, 1982) applicable to the professoriate (Klein & Stern, 2009b).
2. Academia is made up of distinct disciplinary pyramids that are sustained as departments within a university. The apex of these pyramids consist of the top departments for a given discipline. These departments typically produce most of the Ph.D.’s and then subsequently place those Ph.D.’s in other top departments.
3. The success of an individual research career is linked to one’s department. The members of a department vote on who to hire, how much to pay that hire, and ultimately whether that new hire, if they accept the job, will be promoted and receive tenure.
The presence of these 3 mechanisms continues to increase the discrepancy between Democrats and Republicans at American Universities:
“Once the apex of the disciplinary pyramid becomes predominantly left leaning, it will sweep left-leaners into positions throughout the pyramid (or, at least, it will exclude vibrant dissenters). At the micro level of a particular university department – no matter where in the pyramid – once it has a majority of left leaners, it will, in serving, enjoying, protecting, advancing, and purifying sacred values, tend to hire more left leaners (or at least not vibrant dissenters)” (Langbert et al., 2016, p. 428).
We add a fourth mechanism that several commentators have pointed out: The two parties were “purifying” gradually between the 1970s and 2000s, so that what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat has been changing. As the Republican Party became more consistently conservative, and the Democratic Party more consistently progressive, this might have contributed to the rising ratio of Democrats to Republicans. But that still leaves unanswered the question as to why, by other measures, the number of conservatives has been dropping, and is now so low.
The increasing sweep of left-leaners into positions throughout the pyramid is evident when, on the one hand, one considers that only 10 universities had an overall ratio of Democrat to Republican of less than 9:1*:
|Case Western University||3.1:1|
|The Ohio State University||3.2:1|
|Pennsylvania State University||6:1|
|Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute||6:1|
|University of Pennsylvania||6.4:1|
|Wake Forest University||7.6:1|
|University of California – Los Angeles||8.8:1|
|University of California – Santa Barbara||8.9:1|
*= Worcester Polytechnic Institute had a D:R ratio of 9:0, it is not included in this table because there are no registered Republicans among the faculty.
On the other hand, 14 universities had an overall ratio of Democrat to Republican of greater than 20:1:
|Johns Hopkins University||35:1|
|University of Maryland||26:1|
|University of California – Davis||26:1|
|University of Southern California||26:1|
|University of North Carolina||23:1|
The discrepancies reported by Langbert et al., between registered Democrats and Republicans at many of these major universities are fairly extreme. When such discrepancies occur in the domains of race/ethnicity or gender, they are often considered evidence of discrimination and disparate (or adverse) impact. While some of this discrepancy may be the result of registered Republicans, and other conservatives, self-selecting out of academia, the sheer size of the discrepancy suggests that self-selection may not be the only factor producing an increasingly left-leaning professoriate.
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