What is the cause of the academy’s partisan imbalance? One popular view is that dynamics in hiring and promotion preferentially select for liberal and Democratic faculty over conservative and Republican ones. Others point to graduate school training, where right-of-center viewpoints supposedly face strong discrimination. And still others argue that a process of self-selection is at work, one in which political conservatives choose never to enter the student-to-faculty pipeline in the first place.
There is probably an element of truth to all these explanations, and part of the mission at Heterodox Academy has been to figure out the extent of each. But something is missing. All of these theories are focused on the academy, and therefore view the larger communities in which the academy is lodged as relatively neutral. But they are not neutral. They are, by and large, profoundly liberal.
Using a sample of the sixty top-ranked research universities and liberal arts colleges (thirty of each), I analyzed the partisan lean of their surrounding communities, including both their congressional district and the state as a whole. To do so, I used the 2016 Cook Partisan Voter Index (PVI), which measures how much more Democratic or Republican a population voted during the 2016 election, relative to the nation as a whole. Top-ranked institutions were identified using the 2014 U.S. News & World Report rankings.
The findings are stark. The average liberal arts college is located in a state with a PVI score of D+6.4 (meaning that the Democratic Party vote share there was 6.4 percentage points greater than in nation as a whole) and in a congressional district of D+6. Even more striking, the average research university is in a state with a PVI score of D+4.1 and in a congressional district of D+16.6. In other words, the leading institutions in higher education – especially those that train future faculty – are located in places far more Democratic (and probably far more liberal) than the nation as a whole.
This will hardly be news to many people, but it is worth thinking through its implications for viewpoint diversity, or the lack thereof, in academia. After all, 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 particular, two potential mechanisms may be at work: 1) exit, in which conservative or Republican graduate students/faculty feel so out of place in heavily liberal or Democratic communities that they choose to either avoid or move away from the country’s top colleges and universities; and 2) conversion, in which graduate students/faculty who would otherwise be conservative or Republican shift their political identities leftward due to community socialization. Evidence exists for both mechanisms within the broader population, though I know of no studies that examine the academic labor market in particular.
Of course, 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, this is extremely unlikely. There are approximately 711,000 people per congressional district. By contrast, even the top-ranking university with the largest combined faculty and administrative staff (UCLA) barely breaks 30,000, and obviously many of them do not vote Democratic or do not vote at all. One would have to add the entire UCLA student body (approximately 45,000) in order to arrive at a significant number, and even then we would have to assume that they all live in the same congressional district, voted in the 2016 election, and chose to support the same candidates. Like I said: unlikely.
For those concerned by the lack of academic viewpoint diversity, these findings represent both good and bad news. On the one hand, they suggest that the academy itself may not be entirely responsible for its own political imbalance. Discrimination and self-censorship on campus could indeed be important factors, but the academy may be doing less wrong than is commonly thought. On the other hand, this would mean that the problem may also be more intractable than is commonly thought. To the extent that the lack of viewpoint diversity is due to the political lean of the larger community, there is that much less that organizations like Heterodox Academy can do about it. And given the recent acceleration of ongoing trends (e.g. the leftward polarization of cities, cuts to higher education in Republican-controlled states and congressional districts), we should then expect the liberal/Democratic imbalance in academia to grow.