With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Daniel Pipes: Conservative Professors, an Endangered Species

Daniel Pipes, in the NY Sun (4-12-05):

In a surprisingly fine editorial last week about the crisis at Columbia University, the New York Times wrote that a university report investigating student complaints about Middle East studies"is deeply unsatisfactory" because it was"so limited." The"Ad Hoc Grievance Committee Report," the paper observed, focused on faculty intimidation of students, ignoring that the students primarily resented"stridently pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias on the part of several professors."

That the Columbia administration preferred to deal with bad classroom habits rather than the deeper question of faculty bias was an obvious self-protective gambit. The former can be dealt with by rapping some knuckles. The latter requires a systemic review of university practices, taking up such delicate issues as the exclusion of diverse points of view and possible political bias in hiring.

These larger issues arise because, as surveys consistently find, the Arab-Israeli conflict is but one facet of the larger left-right debate. Simply put, the left consistently bristles with hostility to Israel and the right sympathizes with it.

The Columbia report should have dealt instead with the rapid and wholesale shift of its faculty – including Middle East specialists – to the left.

By coincidence, this leftward surge is the topic of a just-published investigation,"Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty." Ponderous title aside, this rigorous and important study contains much of interest.

Using such methodologies as cross-tabulating political self-descriptions and multiple regression analysis, the co-authors - an emeritus professor of government at Smith College, Stanley Rothman; a professor of communication at George Mason University, S. Robert Lichter, and a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, Neil Nevitte - answer two questions:

  • How do American faculty see politics? When professors are asked about their political outlook, they call themselves liberal about four times more often than the general public. In some departments (English literature most of all, followed by philosophy, political science, and religious studies), more than 80% of the faculty calls itself liberal and less than 5% calls itself conservative. This disparity has prompted"a substantial shift to the left" since the mid-1980s, and is still increasing.

  • Why are faculties so liberal? Conservatives complain of endemic political bias. Liberals retort that conservatives are dumb. In the words of Robert Brandon, chairman of Duke University's philosophy department,"We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire."

Which side is correct? The conservatives are.

Mr. Rothman, et al., find that, even when professional accomplishments are equal, a more liberal outlook predicts"a significantly higher quality of institutional affiliation." They even assign a number to this liberal edge:"The ideological orientations of professors are about one-fifth as important as their professional achievements in determining the quality of the school" for which they work. This means, Robert Lichter said,"Republicans get worse jobs than Democrats."

Conservative complaints about"liberal homogeneity in academia deserve to be taken seriously," the authors conclude. They also state that their findings"suggest strongly that a leftward shift has occurred on college campuses in recent years, to the extent that political conservatives have become an endangered species in some departments."

Endangered species? In the more pungent observation by David Horowitz,"Universities are a left wing monolith these days. A conservative professor, or a Republican or evangelical Christian professor, is as rare as a unicorn." A Harvard Crimson article acknowledges that the Rothman study implies that"Kremlin on the Charles [River]" might in fact be accurate when applied to Harvard.

The Rothman team's work is not likely to receive much of a hearing on campus. The executive director of the Modern Language Association, Rosemary G. Feal, responded to its findings with predictable outrage:"It boggles my mind the degree to which this is rubbish."

Assuming that Ms. Feal's reaction will be the predominant one, the job of creating political balance at Columbia and other universities will require more than nicely asking professors to hire conservatives. It will take a concentrated and protracted effort by stakeholders – alumni, students, parents of students, legislators - to reclaim an institution that has become a fortress for the left.