Campus conservatives aren't under siege — but there's more to the story

If academics truly believe in education through diversity, they should want to ensure that students are exposed to a broad range of political views.
Middlebury College students turn their backs on conservative speaker Charles Murray (unseen) during his lecture on March 2, 2017.
Middlebury College students turn their backs on conservative speaker Charles Murray (unseen) during his lecture on March 2, 2017.Lisa Rathke / AP file
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By Matthew Woessner, associate professor of political science at Penn State-Harrisburg and Robert Maranto, 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas

As far back as 1958, scholars have known that higher education tilts leftward. Since that year’s landmark publication on “The Academic Mind,” dozens of books and articles have documented academia’s affinity for leftist causes. But does it really matter that colleges are dominated by the left? Do faculty transmit their political views to students? Does leftist ideology affect academia’s research agenda and, in turn, slant the contemporary debates on social and economic policies?

Because left-leaning students rarely have professors who provide them with thoughtful conservative perspectives, their education is often incomplete.

As professors who have investigated these questions for almost two decades, we find ourselves caught between two warring factions, each with its own opposing narrative. Conservatives are convinced that higher education is a hotbed of leftist ideological indoctrination and intimidation, with conservative students consistently marginalized by far-left faculty and administrators. Progressives typically believe that the leftist domination of academia has no impact on students since (they argue) faculty strive for objectivity or, alternatively, the exposure to liberal viewpoints broadens students’ minds and makes them better world citizens. Both sides have missed the mark, in part, by oversimplifying the impact that the left’s dominance has on college campuses.

Despite being lifelong Republicans, we sincerely try to examine these issues scientifically, embracing the conclusions supported by the empirical evidence. Surveys of professors from the early 2000s show Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly 3 to 1 in conservative fields like economics, 6 to 1 in moderate fields such as political science and STEM majors, and by more than 10 to 1 in other liberal arts and social sciences, while Americans are split fairly equally between the parties. No one thinks academia has grown more centrist since.

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To the consternation of conservatives, though, our body of research generally contradicts the notion that these imbalances mean right-leaning students are routinely under siege on college campuses. We do not deny incidents of political correctness run amuck. Fox News gleefully provides examples of leftist mobs driving controversial speakers off campus, actions posing serious challenges to universities’ very purpose of educating and instilling critical thinking.

Yet our studies provide evidence that these types of incidents don’t impact typical students at nonelite campuses, where few students grapple with real ideological conflict. One 2018 study found that, in contrast to their professors, 22 percent of college freshmen consider themselves conservative or far-right, while 36 identify as liberal or far-left. Yet most non-leftist students attend classes, take their exams and generally graduate satisfied with the quality of their undergraduate experience. Our findings, largely favorable to academia, have been highlighted by mainstream news outlets including The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Guardian, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

We have had less success blunting leftist narratives suggesting that, because most conservatives are not beleaguered, higher education’s ideological imbalance has no negative consequences. In the realm of research, for instance, academia has largely avoided topics of interest to conservatives such as how family breakdown tends to increase economic inequality, how school choice may increase class mobility, or how the Reagan doctrine likely contributed to the successful conclusion of the Cold War.

Regarding teaching, conservative students often have their views challenged by leftist professors, while liberal students rarely face corresponding challenges from the right. Because left-leaning students rarely have professors who provide them with thoughtful conservative perspectives, their education is often incomplete. Since leftist faculty are especially dominant at elite colleges and universities, we are particularly concerned about how a one-sided worldview might arrest the intellectual development of America’s best students.

If academics truly embrace education through diversity, they should recognize the importance of ensuring that college campuses represent the rich ideological diversity of their society. Unfortunately, our criticisms of academia’s intellectual insularity are rarely noted by traditional (left-leaning) media outlets.

The tendency to promote our critiques of the right while downplaying those of the left is illustrated by the response to our most recent working paper, written with Amanda Thompson. Holding all else equal, we ask whether student grades are correlated with students’ ideological disposition or their views on contemporary social policies. The paper has already attracted interest from media commentators, who then interpret our results as confirming their preexisting views.

Right-leaning articles (including an excellent piece by Joy Pullmann in The Federalist) correctly report that, even controlling for demographics and standardized test scores, conservative students see a slightly steeper decline in their grades from high school to college as compared to their liberal counterparts. Consistent with what we might expect if these differences were the result of ideological bias, the gap was most pronounced where faculty are furthest to the left (i.e. in the social sciences and humanities, and among elite institutions).

Left-leaning stories (including a thoughtful article by David Perry in Pacific Standard) correctly report that despite these findings, SAT scores were far better predictors of college grades than was ideology. In other words, the vast majority of variations in grades are linked to merit, rather than politics. Further, a small correlation between ideology and grades is not proof of discrimination. Many factors might explain the modest difference between liberals and conservatives, only one of which is ideological bias. Perhaps most significantly, students on the right tend to be equally (if not more) satisfied with their education.

Despite the interest from the press, to date this paper has been rejected by eight journals. In our experience, we rarely circulate articles to more than four journals before they are accepted for publication. Though we addressed some of the early reviewers’ methodological concerns, later reviewers argued that the modest connection between student ideology and grades must be the consequence of some shortcoming in our analysis, like missing a variable, or unreliable measures of student grades.

When we undertake research where the results of a study may support a conservative critique, we encounter stiff resistance in the peer review process.

In our experience, when we undertake research where the results of a study may support a conservative critique, we encounter stiff resistance in the peer review process. While our difficulties in getting the paper published are far from proof of ideological discrimination -- indeed, we acknowledge and discuss the limitations of the data in the paper -- shouldn’t the possibility that academia’s leftward tilt affects student grades inspire curiosity? We suspect that, being human, reviewers are more guarded about scientific findings that could open higher education up to scrutiny, especially from the right.

While we believe that the evidence still supports our long-standing claims that American colleges and universities are not cauldrons of ideological conflict, the left’s dominance in higher education does present problems that should be acknowledged. It is unfortunate that liberal students often do not have their views challenged in the classroom, while conservative students, sensing the ideological climate on campus, often don’t feel they have the freedom to speak out in class.

It may be unreasonable to expect that college faculty will reflect the ideological diversity of the larger society. But academia needs to find ways to broaden the dialogue on college campuses so that students, both on the left and the right, understand politics from more than one point of view.