It is often said that the academy is dominated by the left. There is certainly a sense in which that is true. In terms of ideological self-identification, for instance, students, faculty and administrators trend decisively left (in ascending order of political homogeneity).
However, this narrative is also a bit simplistic.
First, because ideological self-identification is often unreliable. Conservatives often overestimate how conservative they are, liberals (especially highly-educated liberals) tend to overestimate how left-leaning they are. In general, American views on most issues are a mishmash that does not cleanly line up with the political labels they assign to themselves.
It is also a bit vague.
What may be more precise would be to say that institutions of higher learning are dominated by some very particular strains of social and political ideology that are popular among native-born, relatively well-off, urban and suburban secular, coastal whites (who represent the demographic plurality within the academy). While reasonably attributable to the left, these approaches are far from the only (or best) ways to go about leftist politics or social activism.
Indeed, outside elite academic, media and particular corporate fields, these strains of ideology hold very little purchase – but within these institutions, they often do dominate, in a parochial way. And it is often racial, ethnic and other minorities whose views are frozen out in the process.
Party Affiliation, Ideological Leanings and Group Identity
Most within academia seem to associate black and Hispanic Americans with the left. This is understandable in a sense: Black voters have gone Democrat by roughly a 9: 1 margin for some time now. Hispanics have consistently sided with Democrats at a ratio of 2:1 in national elections as well. Yet party affiliation is very different from ideology.
Indeed, Democratic-voting blacks and Hispanics are significantly less likely than their white peers to identify as “liberal” – despite the fact that members of both groups are more likely, on average, to vote “blue” than whites.
Blacks and Hispanics also tend to be more socially conservative and religious on average than whites (e.g. here, here, here, here). This helps explain the frequently-identified “cultural mismatch” first-generation and minority students often face when they enter universities (e.g. here, here, here):
U.S. institutions of higher learning are dominated by white, protestant, bourgeois norms of independence, meritocracy and a focus on the self. First-gen and minority students often struggle to adapt, flourish or feel they ‘belong’ in these spaces in part because their own cultures, values and priorities tend to stress duties to others, mutual aid and interdependence – and are generally less *self* oriented (perspectives strongly associated with conservativism and religion).
For those hailing from outside the U.S. and Western Europe, whether we’re talking about people who’ve immigrated here or international students, many hold religious, social and political views that aren’t necessarily even within the mainstream U.S. Overton Window, let alone falling to the left of the American spectrum.
As a consequence, an environment that is hostile towards socially conservative, religious, or non-left views more broadly will actually tend to affect — and exclude – African Americans, Hispanics, immigrants, and international students more than whites.
A similar pattern holds with other underrepresented populations – for instance, should we consider socioeconomic groups that struggle to gain access to higher education, or underserved geographical regions. Across the board, the people who have been less able to access college up to now tend to be far more religious and socially conservative than the relatively well-off, urban and suburban, whites who have been, and continue to be, overrepresented within institutions of higher learning.
‘Curated Diversity’ and its Discontents
As Natasha Warikoo put it in The Diversity Bargain, many from the dominant group are eager to support diversity in a self-interested and instrumental way – for instance, because they think it enhances their own learning — or because people of color can legitimize socio-political claims others are staking ostensibly on our behalf (although the positions of relatively well-off, highly-educated, liberal whites tend to be significantly out of step with most blacks and Hispanics, including on racial issues, more on that soon).
Yet, few seem interested in actually listening to or engaging with underrepresented populations on their own terms, for their own sake. Instead, diversity is “curated” to avoid meaningful challenges to the social position, priorities or worldview of the people at the top. Indeed, as Warikoo shows, people from the dominant group tend to sour on diversity quickly when it doesn’t seem to clearly advance their own preexisting aims, commitments and priorities.
This reality is not lost on many people of color, and people of other underrepresented groups in the academy: our continued social capital is in many ways contingent on playing a certain role here. Students from underrepresented backgrounds often describe how they are expected both to speak on behalf of their entire minority group – and also conform to a very particular set of expectations about what they are supposed to believe, or what their interests are supposed to be, on the basis of their group identity.
Those who challenge the preferred narratives too fiercely find themselves marginalized (even further). Meanwhile, those who give the dominant class what it is hungry for — whether because they are true believers in the prevailing ideology or are just trying to get ahead (or get along) — they are celebrated as the ‘authentic’ representation of their group (despite often being demonstrably unrepresentative), with all the socio-cultural benefits entailed thereby.
When we try to understand why it is that so many students of color, low-income students, and/ or first-generation students feel as though they don’t ‘belong’ in our institutions of higher learning – this is likely a big, and underexplored, part of the story.
And when we consider all those ‘missing’ students from underrepresented groups: black and Hispanic youth, young people from small towns, post-industrial or rural areas, or less advantaged financial backgrounds – when we think about the social, political and religious perspectives they are likely to bring with them if they were folded in to our institutions – it becomes clear that expanding access to higher education will have to go hand-in-hand with accommodating a wider range of views than we currently have.
Put another way, if we care about demographic diversity and inclusion – whether we’re talking about race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, class, geography, etc. – we also must care about ideological (political, religious, etc.) diversity and inclusion.
To the extent that we attempt to pursue one to the exclusion (or at the expense) of the other – we are setting ourselves up for failure. And really, we’re mostly failing our students and faculty from historically underrepresented and marginalized groups, who bear the brunt of the cost for the partisan polarization around higher ed.
Displaced Costs for Polarization Around Higher Ed
Most of the major blowups, conflicts, shout-downs, disinvitations tend to happen at elite private institutions or the so-called “public Ivies.” These are also the schools where programming around things like microaggressions, trigger warnings and safe spaces is most aggressively implemented — and these are among the universities the most restrictive speech codes, etc.
Excesses at these schools are then distorted and blown out of proportion by a right-aligned outrage industry – and held up as typical of the academy overall. Indeed, in the public imagination these elite schools and their idiosyncrasies are what people often seem to have in mind when they talk about higher ed institutions – despite the reality that they tend to be highly unrepresentative of most other colleges and universities nationwide.
To the extent that dynamics at elite schools generate antipathy towards higher ed among Republicans, conservatives, etc. — it is public universities that pay the cost. It is schools like my alma mater, University of Arizona, that see their budgets slashed by lawmakers attempting to rile up their base.
This matters because these public universities are much more likely to employ faculty of color and women than the elite institutions. They are also much more likely to serve students of color, lower incomes students, people from small towns, post-industrial regions, rural areas, etc.
Social research fields are often singled out for special scorn in these assaults — in part because the political imbalance in these disciplines is especially pronounced (and people tend to disinvest from institutions they do not find themselves represented in).
Here again, it is people from historically marginalized and disadvantaged groups who pay the cost: relative to the academy overall, these fields disproportionately hire faculty of color and women, and disproportionately serve racial and ethnic minorities, women and LGBTQ students as well. Indeed, a good deal of the research that is being defunded through these measures is about race, gender, sexuality and mitigating inequality.
In short, the main people who are suffering from the current politicization of higher ed are students and faculty from groups that have been historically marginalized or excluded from the academic enterprise. Again, those who care about demographic (racial, gender, socioeconomic, geographical) diversity should be championing ideological diversity as well.
Against Selective Outrage
However, the relationship between demographic and ideological diversity cuts both ways.
Just as it is incoherent for some on the left to be outright hostile towards socially conservative or religious perspectives and then ask, ‘where are all the people of color?’ — it doesn’t make sense for some on the right to be intensely concerned about the lack of religious and socially conservative perspectives, but at the same time to be disdainful of efforts to increase diversity and inclusion along racial and ethnic or other dimensions.
In fact, those who are upset about the dearth of political or religious diversity in the academy should be at the forefront of championing demographic diversity and inclusion — and expanding education access, as well. As Avi Woolf aptly put it:
“Ever since the rise of modernity in the form of the French Revolution, conservative thinkers of all stripes and across the globe argued fiercely for the diversity and variety of human life against the pulverizing flattening of modernity and of progressive thinking.
Edmund Burke famously railed against the French destruction of its local traditions and regional identities in favor of mathematical départements. British conservatives fought for local variety in their country in the nineteenth century against the utilitarians seeking to flatten everything based on mathematical formulas. America’s own conservative movement in the ‘50s arose against the crushing political conformity of that era. All throughout, conservatives everywhere celebrated or at least tolerated a degree of human variety as a bulwark against uniformity and as an expression of human wonder and growth…
Traditional conservatives are interested in variety not (only) as a means to correct previous injustices but because they see wisdom and value in the existence and interplay of different human groups from different times, places, and origins as such. Sometimes the differences can be understood and explained—such as differences in religion or language—and sometimes they are more instinctive, such as habits or superstitions…
Conservative groups can seek out those minority students and student groups (and many exist throughout America’s campuses) who seek many of the same things conservatives care about—not just free markets and limited government, but virtue, tradition, and human enrichment, as well as the building or rebuilding of forgotten communities and associations.”
Indeed, rather than trying to bring in the same ‘types’ of people and hoping a larger share of them will somehow hold different social and political views, it would be far more effective to demand that we incorporate a broader range of U.S. society and culture among our faculty, staff and students.
If we get more people of color, more immigrants and international students, more low-income and first generation students, more students from rural areas, post-industrial regions and small towns – they will bring with them a much wider range of viewpoints than we currently have, including with respect to politics and religion.
Again, the challenges related to demographic diversity and ideological diversity are intimately interrelated — and they are best addressed in tandem.
This essay was originally delivered as a talk at the 2019 conference for the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE).