In Defense of the ‘Liberal Professor’

By Brett R. O’Bannon, Instructor of Political Science-DePauw University

(This op-ed originally appeared in the Indianapolis Star on August 27, 2003)

It must be time to go back to college. The August days are still pleasantly warm here in the heartland, but there is a hint of a cool nip in the air. Columnists are revisiting the matter of the pesky liberal professor — apparently that least endangered of species.

I noticed it again as a student and I flew home after collaborating on a student-faculty summer research project in West Africa. My student and I had just discussed what makes a good professor when she handed me a national newspaper with another op-ed article arguing that colleges need to diversify their faculties by hiring more conservatives. It is one of several articles printed recently around the country.

This banal assault on the American academy should be beneath today’s conservatives. For one, it would seem that we liberals haven’t permanently scarred the hordes of book publishing and op-ed writing opponents of the universities. In spite of our best efforts, they seem to be well trained.

Nevertheless, a crop of future critics of their alma maters is already in the making, as I learned from a student writing last fall in our college paper. After only seven weeks in college, he was already feeling put upon. We must, he wrote, “determine the extent to which professors apply their personal viewpoints to the classroom, and we must determine the extent to which we, as students, are affected by this bias.”

And there is something particularly rude about the way so many in this country are suspicious of and even hostile toward those of us who have chosen to enter the teaching/research profession. The assertion is clear. Because I am a college educator who happens also to be a liberal, critics assume I will perform unethically. It’s curious that none of these critics suspect that conservative faculty members would suffer from the same ethical challenges.

Here’s the deal: You can’t have it both ways. You can’t get taught by Ph.D.s and be assured that their views will match your own. That’s because (and why) education matters.

At the risk of sounding both academic and liberal, let’s consider some data. Analysis of the Bush-Gore National Election Survey once again shows the strong correlation between education and ideology. Of the population with less than a high school diploma, there are none who identify themselves as liberal (much less extremely liberal). On the other hand, 26 percent of high school dropouts see themselves as conservative.

If your interest is to avoid liberals or simply maintain conservative beliefs, your safest bet is to drop out of high school. That’s because completing the 12th year of schooling has a demonstrably liberalizing effect on the population. Through, perhaps, self selection or as a result of exposure to new ideas, 20 percent of those who finish the 12th grade see themselves as either slightly or moderately liberal (though well less than 1 percent identify as “extremely liberal”). But conservatism still reigns at this level; 37 percent of those with only 12 years of schooling are among the ranks of the conservative.

Thus, apparently, high school teachers merit a measure of suspicion as well, for college simply furthers high school’s effect on the attitudinal distribution. It is only among the college educated, however, that we identify a significant liberal population. Of those with a college diploma, 25 percent self-locate left of center. While 7 percent of high school grads see themselves as extremely conservative, only 3 percent of college grads do.

Interestingly, the percentage of liberals falls slightly at the post-graduate level. This is largely explained, however, by the incomes associated with the variation in post-graduate education. If you account for income — for example, the difference between Ph.D.s who teach and MBAs or M.D.s who earn comparatively enormous sums in the private sector — the strong positive relationship between education and liberalism reappears.

The problem lies, therefore, not with university hiring practices and certainly not with the evil machinations of liberals bent on ruining our youth. In fact, there is no problem here. The absence of larger numbers of conservative faculty members is, to a great extent, explained by the very correlation between education and ideology. Other explanations might relate to the different choices that liberals and conservatives, especially those with advanced degrees, make about education, careers and income.

Simply put, more conservatives with a bent for higher education are going to have to opt for smaller salaries if their presence in the academy is to grow.

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