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CATHY YOUNG

Liberal bias in the ivory tower

YET ANOTHER study has come out documenting what most conservatives consider to be blindingly obvious: the leftward tilt of the American professoriate. The latest report, by political scientist Stanley Rothman of Smith College, communications professor S. Robert Lichter of George Mason University, and Canadian polling expert Neil Nevitte, published in the online journal Forum, paints a stark picture of a politically skewed academy. Nearly three quarters of the professors in a 1999 survey of college faculty identified themselves as left/liberal, only 15 percent as right/conservative; 50 percent were Democrats and 11 percent Republicans.

A typical reaction to such studies from the left has been to shoot the messenger without denying the basic facts of the message. Thus, on his website, Michael Bérubé, a professor of literature and cultural studies at Penn State who has often locked horns with conservative critics of the academy, challenges the study's sample size and points out that it was financed by a conservative foundation. Then he cites a 2001 survey by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute which yielded fairly similar results: 5.3 percent of faculty members were classified as ''far left," 42.3 percent as ''liberal," 34.3 percent as ''middle of the road," 17.7 percent as ''conservative," and 0.3 percent as ''far right." ''Yep," concedes Bérubé, ''we're a pretty liberal bunch."

Once that point is conceded, the next argument is that political imbalance in colleges and universities (1) does not reflect bias against conservatives and (2) does not pose any real problem.

Some academic liberals earnestly explain that conservatives are scarce in the universities because -- well, they're just not good enough. George P. Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley, has told The New York Times that liberals go into the academy because, ''unlike conservatives, they believe in working for the public good and social justice, as well as knowledge and art for their own sake." Another variation on this theme is that liberals are better suited to academic life because, unlike those closed-minded, intolerant conservatives, they are open-minded and willing to allow the free expression of ideas they find disagreeable.

Sure. Unless, of course, the upsetting idea is that racial preferences in college admissions are a bad policy (Ward Connerly, the African-American businessman who espouses this heresy, has been repeatedly shouted down when appearing on college campuses). Or that the shortage of women among top scientists may be partly due to innate differences between the sexes (just ask Harvard President Lawrence Summers about liberal tolerance on this issue).

It is true, of course, that statistical imbalances don't automatically prove discrimination (as conservatives usually argue when it comes to racial and gender disparities). Like-minded people, just like people of similar ethnic background, can gravitate to the same profession for a variety of reasons -- including the desire to work with people like themselves. But bias, perhaps unconscious, may play a role: Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte found evidence that Republican and conservative professors tend to be employed at lower-quality institutions than their similarly qualified liberal and Democratic colleagues.

Whatever its cause, is this imbalance a cause for concern? Liberals wryly point out that no one complains about the dominance of Republicans in business. But universities are different: ideas are their lifeblood, and a lack of intellectual diversity endangers the very purpose of the academy. In a recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni nearly half of the students at America's top 50 universities and colleges complained of ''totally one-sided" presentations and readings on controversial topics.

On a subtler level, there is on many campuses a climate in which a ''normal" person is presumed to be liberal. A young woman who is a graduate student at a Midwestern university and a liberal Democrat told me in a recent e-mail exchange that after the 2004 election, the unanimous opinion among the professors was that Americans who voted for Bush were ''either too stupid to know they 'should' vote for Kerry, or a bunch of right-wing bigots." She was open-minded enough to read some pro-Bush Internet sites and find a lot of Bush voters who bore no resemblance to this caricature. But she is convinced that if she were to share her observations with anyone in her department, the consequence would be social and professional ostracism.

Some conservatives want a political solution: legislation that would not only protect the rights of dissenting students but penalize professors who use the classroom to push a political agenda. Many professors are appalled, understandably, by the idea of legislative intervention in the classroom. The best way to avoid such intervention is for the academy to make a good-faith effort to recognize and correct its intellectual diversity problem.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.


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