Study examines politics of professors

Nearly everyone who has gone to university can remember a prof who’s definitely more James Dean than Mr. Chips. In the case of this writer, it was an English professor who favoured a black leather biker jacket and opening the “doors of perception” à la Aldous Huxley.

It appears that these types of images contribute to who ends up teaching at universities. UBC sociologist Neil Gross argues in a recent paper that job typecasting may be one of the main reasons why professors tend to lean left. It’s a case of like attracting like.

“Over the past 35 years, the professoriate has developed a reputation as people with broadly liberal sensibilities,” says Gross, an associate professor in the Dept. of Sociology. “The political typecasting of some occupations as liberal or conservative factors into people’s career aspirations.”

His research shows that liberal and left-leaning moderates make up more than 80 per cent of professors on U.S. campuses.

While previous research about professors and politics drew heavily on anecdotal evidence, this is the first study to analyze quantitative and statistical data to assess theories on the liberalism of U.S. academics, among them higher levels of IQ and a greater commitment to class struggle.

In 2006, Gross surveyed more than 1,400 American professors focusing on their religious and political views. The results will appear in a forthcoming edited volume of work with co-author Solon Simmons of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia.

With co-author Ethan Fosse, a Harvard PhD student, Gross also compared the social characteristics of professors to other Americans, and linked these to politics. Their study used data from the General Social Survey of opinions and social behaviours collected between 1974 and 2008.

Their results indicate that professors are more liberal than other Americans because a higher proportion possess advanced educational credentials, identify as Jewish, non-religious or non-theologically conservative Protestant and express greater tolerance for controversial ideas. Fosse and Gross speculate that underlying these findings is the fact that liberals and atheists are more likely to pursue advanced degrees as well as careers as professors.

Gross first became intrigued about the politics of professors in 2006 when he joined the faculty at Harvard. Shortly after arriving, Gross was pulled into countless meetings about the freedom of academic debate.

In 2006, then-Harvard University President Lawrence Summers resigned his position following a “lack of confidence” motion by the faculty prompted by his comment that women might be underrepresented in science and math because of innate differences in cognitive abilities. Summers’ departure was a “flashpoint” for larger political tensions, says Gross.

He explains that there has been growing scrutiny on the influence of professors on youth. This is not surprising given that higher education in the U.S. is vast with a work force of about 1.2 million teaching at more than 4,000 institutions. As opinion leaders, academics help to shape agendas and as a political force, they can prove a valuable linchpin. “For example, educators contributed more to Obama’s presidential campaign than any other occupational group except lawyers.

“I really didn’t enter this issue as a partisan,” says Gross, a San Francisco Bay Area native who has also taught at the University of Southern California. “Conservatives were claiming that the Summers case showed how much ‘political correctness’ there was on campus, that the issue of gender and cognitive ability couldn’t even be raised. I wanted to see if the whole debate could serve as an opening for reconsidering some longstanding sociological questions about intellectuals and politics.”

A recent New York Times story discussed the findings by Gross and Fosse, triggering indignant responses across the political spectrum.

“I’ve been as criticized by those on the left as on the right,” says Gross. “For many, to be even asking why professors are liberal is to suggest somehow that conservatives’ arguments have validity. Conservatives take our results to confirm suspicions about discrimination, that liberals have a lock on who gets hired.”

Although Gross has not gathered any data on Canadian professors and politics, he observes that, “the whole issue has less intensity here than in the States, in part because the broader Canadian conservative movement is a very different beast than its American counterpart.”

He says the vehement American debate over the influence of professors reflects the polarized politics between Democrats and Republicans and a particular American view of college as not merely a means to earn credentials, but an important rite of passage.

“Our study shows that the most elite research schools in the U.S. are also the most liberal,” says Gross. “So when conservative parents in the U.S. send their offspring to top-ranked institutions, their children may well receive an education at odds with their worldview, prompting fears of indoctrination and undue influence.”

To read the working paper “Why Professors are Liberal” by Fosse and Gross, visit: