Triptych image: Robert Barry, “It can be...,” 1971
AT LEAST SINCE THE CULTURE WARS first flared in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we’ve been hearing about the “liberal bias” of professors. In books and op-eds by conservative pundits such as Roger Kimball, Dinesh D’Souza, and George Will (who asserted in 1991 that Lynne Cheney, then Director of the NEH, had a more important job than her husband, then Secretary of Defense), we heard the charges again and again: that the radicals of the ’60s had ascended to positions of influence and power in our nation’s universities, and were busy indoctrinating our children with leftist social and cultural ideas.
At the same time, American higher education was changing radically, but not in the way conservatives like Kimball, D’Souza, and Will worried about. Over the last four decades, universities have undergone pronounced changes in funding and orientation, turning toward progressively higher tuitions and private sources as public support shrank, toward commercialization of research and other aspects of the academic multiplex, and toward more corporate-style management. Whatever the bearing of academic discourse, these changes reflect what we might call the “neoliberal bias,” dispensing with the liberal policies of the post-World War II years, when higher education flourished under the auspices of strong state and federal support. The neoliberal mantra holds that the best inducement to human activity is competition, so public services should be privatized and put on a market basis; accordingly, higher education has morphed to “the corporate university,” “academic capitalism,” or, as I have dubbed it elsewhere, “the post-welfare state university.”
Think of college student loan debt. It can seem, particularly in the wake of the Occupy movement, as if student debt is a new economic problem prompted by the financial crisis of 2007–08. But the current situation actually arose as a deliberate implementation of neoliberal policy in the 1980s. Before then, under the auspices of the post-World War II welfare state, culminating in Johnson’s Great Society, university tuitions were low, largely subsidized by public sources, and student loans, when taken, were relatively small. In 1982, the average federal student loan debt for a graduating senior was about $2,000 — not negligible, but a relatively modest amount (about $4,650 adjusted to 2012 dollars). By 1992, the average jumped to $9,000 ($14,500 in 2012 dollars), in 2002 to $19,000 ($24,050), and in 2012, by my estimate, to about $28,000. (That doesn’t include private loans, which have risen exponentially over the last decade.) This ascent resulted from the deregulation of loans begun in the Reagan era alongside the defunding of public entitlements. Rather than the cost of college being carried by the state — by our collective payment in taxes — it has been privatized, the cost borne by each individual. This has also created lucrative new financial markets, with high profits for Sallie Mae and other student loan holders. (Sallie Mae had been a governmental body but was privatized through the late 1990s, seeing strong profits since.) The precipitous rise in college student loan debt is neoliberalism in action.
Other elements of the neoliberal bias in higher education include the push for research to bring in corporate funds or lead directly to commercial patents, the morphing of administration to a CEO class detached rather than arising from faculty, the casualization of a majority of faculty in part-time, adjunct, or term positions, and the pressure on students, working long hours as well as taking loans to pay tuition. Given these changes, there’s a strange disconnect between the rhetoric about liberal professors and the material reality of higher education.
In his new book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, the sociologist Neil Gross tries to settle the debate over liberal bias in academia. Using data, interviews, and his own experimental test, he confirms that, yes, professors identify as liberal more often than they do conservative, but the asymmetry is not as extreme as rightwing critics claim, and it has relatively little effect on their teaching. Gross adduces that professors lean left more often than they lean right by about two to one. In data from 2006, about 9 percent identify as radical (meaning they call for the redistribution of wealth), 31 percent as progressive (less about wealth but keen on social and cultural issues), 14 percent as center-left, 19 percent as moderate, 4 percent as economic (but not cultural) conservative, and 23 percent as strongly conservative.
However, Gross also finds, from a set of extensive interviews as well as data and previous sociological studies, that the radical left has declined over the past 30 years, and that professors’ politics don’t usually affect their teaching, with most professors declaring that they cultivate neutrality. In addition, Gross performed a slightly sneaky but intriguing experiment, sending dummy letters to graduate programs asking for information, in some noting that the prospective student had worked for the McCain campaign, in some the Obama campaign, and in some no mention of political leaning. From the responses, he detects no bias at all: most graduate programs are happy to take all applicants, regardless of party affiliation. He concludes that “the study should count as reasonably strong evidence that most [professors] work hard to keep their political feelings and opinions from interfering with their evaluations of academic personnel.”
To explain why professors gravitate to the left, Gross turns to social psychology, speculating that the process works through self-selection, similar to the process that results in most nurses or elementary school teachers being women. If you are left-leaning, you are more likely to consider going to graduate school and becoming a professor — especially in the humanities and in social sciences like anthropology and sociology. (Engineering and business tend rightward.) This logic seems circular — the stereotype reproduces the stereotype — but its significance is to dispel the charge that people experience ideological indoctrination in college. Rather, most people develop their political orientation during adolescence, and then gravitate to a profession according to their predisposition.
The liberal reputation of the professoriate stems from the late 19th and early 20th century, according to Gross, when the research university first emerged in the United States. Professors in the early American college customarily were ministers, but after the Civil War they increasingly became secular men of science and some were affiliated with progressivism. This new breed of scholar prompted the first occurrence, according to a Google Ngram search that Gross relies on, of the label “liberal professor,” creating “an enduring social characteristic” or “imprint” that continues today. Gross’s development of the concept of imprinting is his contribution to the sociology of professions, and he theorizes that we choose professions based on such imprints.
There are a number of other professions that tack left, such as writers, artists, and social workers. (Medical doctors and clergy tend right — clergy by about two and one-half times more than ordinary Americans, so I’m waiting for the scandal to break in the news that clergy are trying to indoctrinate us politically.) But conservatives have used college professors, over any other profession, as emblems to discredit liberalism since its height in the 1950s. The last section of Why Are Professors Liberal examines this rather single-minded attention to faculty, and here Gross looks to the formation of the contemporary conservative movement, particularly to William F. Buckley Jr. and his 1955 founding of the National Review. Drawing on archival material, he shows how Buckley, himself “only sometimes populist,” deliberately tapped into populist rhetoric against cultural elites to forge “a strong collective identity” for conservatives. Gross aims to dispel the idea that the rightwing attack is a grand conspiracy, controlled by powerful puppet-masters; rather, if not exactly bottom-up, it arises from "mid-level moral entrepreneurs,” like Buckley or David Horowitz, who are invested “in a war of ideas.”
The value of Gross’s book is, as I’ve suggested, to leaven overwrought charges about professors. It also develops several key sociological concepts, such as “imprinting,” in order to answer the more general question of how people select professions. It is a polished piece of work, leading us through the wilds of data and theory in a plainspoken style for a general audience — not a popular audience, but an educated one versed in the rudiments of academic fields who would be likely to care about such debates. Sometimes we call this kind of work a “crossover” book, although the crossover is usually to those in different academic fields rather than those who might read books on a bestseller list. It’s clear that the book is Gross’s bid to become a public commentator about intellectual matters and politics.
Yet for all the book’s various insights, its blindness is to the actual conditions of higher education. It takes politics entirely as a matter of discourse and exemplifies the disconnect I mentioned above, between the purportedly liberal views of professors and the neoliberal policies and practices that, over the course of the last 40 years, have remade the institutions of higher education they inhabit. Gross seems to take professors’ political views at face value, but one might wonder whether those views are in fact a façade, abandoned when push comes to shove (for instance, during the graduate student strike at Yale, when many self-proclaimed leftist professors threw the union overboard and sided with the administration), or a form of false consciousness, in which academics misrecognize their true position (as many critics in the 1960s claimed of professors’ complicity with the war state).
Another possibility is that the kind of liberalism that contemporary professors espouse — a liberalism that focuses largely on cultural diversity and sensitivity to racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual difference, and not so much on economic equality and the redistribution of wealth — goes hand-in-hand with neoliberal policies. In other words, professors tend to be what David Brooks calls “bourgeois bohemians,” adopting the culturally liberal attitudes of the counterculture while remaining comfortably bourgeois, if not economically conservative, themselves. The trend away from radical views in the academy over the past few decades would seem to support this explanation.
Regardless of their views, the fundamental fact is that college professors are disappearing, and the kinds of positions they hold have dramatically altered over the past 40 years. The real issue, in other words, is not what political views professors express, or even their rights to express them, but how politics have reconstituted their jobs and careers. In 1970, the overwhelming majority of faculty had full-time professorial jobs, whereas now their labor has been largely casualized, with a stunning three-quarters holding impermanent positions (as a new American Association of University Professors study reports). Gross only mentions part-time faculty in passing (noting that they poll slightly less liberal than regular professors), and speaks about professors as if they constitute a fairly continuous cohort over time. Moreover, he does not take account of the fact that, rather than professors, the cohort now dominating higher education is administrators. According to Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty (2011), the proportion of administrative professionals in American colleges and universities has grown from roughly half that of faculty 40 years ago to a majority now. In short, professors no longer constitute the core of the university, as the classic image typically has it: they are more commonly service providers for-hire, with the central figures being the managers of the academic multiplex who assure the experience of the student consumer.
The midcentury history of American higher education, I believe, provides a better account of the political reputation of professors. Gross underscores a direct line from the late 19th century, when professors became more secular, but while this might be one link in their evolution, it is surely a distant one. It’s also questionable how liberal “liberal professors” actually were during that period (a Google search for occurrences of the phrase hardly seems definitive to me). The much more substantial historical shift took place in the period after World War II, during the great expansion of American universities. A professor was a rare species of professional a century ago, only numbering about 24,000 in 1900 and 40,000 in 1920, about one-fifth the number of lawyers, but in the postwar era it became a common one, with over 300,000 by 1960 and 686,000 in 1980, about the same as lawyers. The postwar boom also changed the composition of the professoriate, opening it to a much wider demographic mix than in the early part of the century, when professors were typically WASPs hailing from the comfortable classes (there were few Jewish professors, for instance, before World War II). This suggests a better explanation for the right’s attention to professors: they represent the flourishing of postwar liberalism and the success of the new welfare state. Higher education was a form of social welfare that affected a wide swath of Americans and made the case for liberalism in a positive way, not just as a safety net in hard times but as a bridge to a better society, or at least a ladder to help one ascend the class structure. If there is a contemporary “imprint” of professors today, it more likely derives from their apotheosis in this period than it does from the post-Civil War era.
The culture wars of the 1980s were a delayed reaction to the triumph of liberalism. The same conservatives who went after professors for “liberal bias” also sought to delegitimize the legacy of the postwar welfare state during the Reagan-Bush years. Gross largely elides both this postwar history and the ensuing culture wars, and I think it shows the chief limitation of his approach. The editor of the journal Sociological Theory, he gravitates toward the theoretical explanation of an imprint, which, once established, is an “enduring characteristic” if not Platonic idea, rather than paying attention to the contingent and uneven texture of history. (He also emphasizes theory in his first book, Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher, published by University of Chicago Press in 2008, which is an excellent and rich biography overladen with a theory of “self-concept,” not unrelated to his ideas in the new book on self-selection.) It creates a gap in this book (it is amazing to me that, in a book on “liberal bias,” there is no mention of D’Souza’s Illiberal Education  or similar texts) that abridges the actual history of the contemporary American university.
To me, it seems obvious that the recent spike of the phrase “liberal bias” is an echo of the culture wars, whereas Gross emphasizes it as a discrete event peaking in 2005 (from a LexisNexis search). This perhaps reflects a difference of generational as well as disciplinary perspective, but it is also related to his effort to distance his account from criticism that attributes attacks on liberal professors to a right-wing conspiracy. In his introduction, Gross recalls his chagrin, as an assistant professor at Harvard, at the 2005 controversy over Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, who raised the issue of whether men and women have different mathematical abilities, spurring calls for his removal and his subsequent resignation. This provided a catalyst for the spike in complaints about “liberal bias” in academia, and Gross fixes on it. Later, his research on Buckley is intended to debunk the idea of a conservative conspiracy; rather, the attacks appeared frankly in the pages of the National Review. However, while charges of liberal bias might not result from a Parallax View–style scenario, they do often come from a small and concerted ring of conservative foundations and think tanks. For instance, American Crossroads, founded by Karl Rove, is funded by a small contingent of the superrich and supplies unprecedented amounts of money to conservative Republican campaigns. Such organizations might not finally win an election, but they do tilt the table, and let’s not mistake their politics: they are plutocratic, not democratic.
By now, it feels as if the obsession with liberal bias in academia is a tired debate, occurring in an echo chamber. Gross tries to lend some reasonableness to the debate, with new data and analysis, but I don’t think he leaves the echo chamber, and he effectively splits the difference, finding the charges of bias to be exaggerated as well as charges of conspiracy to be overblown. I doubt this will either settle the debate or help improve the conditions of higher education. What we need instead, I think, is a study of neoliberal bias in the university, particularly since the rhetoric of neoliberalism has now become ubiquitous, the lingua franca of administrators and even many faculty. In the 1990s Bill Readings observed that the new rationale of the university was the amorphous, technocratic one of “excellence,” rather than the traditional ones of disciplinary reason or national culture. The incantation of “excellence” no longer has quite the same currency; the new neoliberal mantra includes the buzzwords “disruption,” “innovation,” and “choice.” Part of their force is that they seem self-evident goods: who would be against innovation or choice? But I think that they sidestep some of the crucial problems of higher education, especially regarding equality. According to all the statistical markers, college is subject to a steeper class divide than it was 40 years ago, and academic jobs show a sharper stratification. This violates the best hope of the American university. What good is innovation if it brings us a more inequitable world?
Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University.