In a recent essay, Samuel J. Abrams reports that liberals outnumber conservatives on college campuses by wide margins. This is hardly news to most Americans. Still, it may be noteworthy that Mr. Abrams’ piece was published in the newspaper of liberal record, the New York Times. Even the liberal establishment now acknowledges that universities trend heavily left. The appalling level of ideological uniformity on our campuses is put in stark terms by the simple statistics Mr. Abrams reports. Sadly, he seems to gloss over the fact that the professorate has been overwhelmingly dominated by leftists for decades and is now in many places achieving full leftist uniformity. And what does this mean for students? Mr. Abrams does not tell us, but it is a topic well worth considering.
Mr. Abrams does provide some refreshing honesty. He notes, for example, that where he teaches (Sarah Lawrence College, $51,000 per year tuition, plus room and board) being a political moderate means “I might as well [be] Ted Cruz.” He then provides some interesting statistics, care of the Higher Education Research Institute. Most surprising, to those who have not been paying attention, is that the ratio of liberals to conservatives among faculty members at New England colleges in 2014 was 28 to 1. Yes, you read that right: 28 to 1. This means that, at a tony school like Sarah Lawrence, with 107 full-time faculty members, there would, on average, be about four conservative professors. Such a “high” number is extremely unlikely at a place like Sarah Lawrence, however, because the overall statistic includes faculty at “lesser” schools more likely than those in the smug upper tiers to feel constrained to hire the occasional conservative.
From here, Mr. Abrams seeks to show that the national trend is not so radical as it appears. His statistics indicate, for example, that the liberal-conservative ratio in the far west is “only” 6 to 1, whereas in the Plains and Southeast it is a mere 3 to 1. Most surprising of all, Mr. Abrams found one region of the country—the Rocky Mountain West—in which the liberal-conservative ratio actually has decreased, to 3 to 2. Of course, when business and engineering programs there are factored out (a calculation Mr. Abrams does not make for other regions) even the Rocky Mountain schools have a 3 to 1 liberal-conservative ratio.
What do these numbers actually mean for students and their educations? To begin with, the numbers do not separate out the very few conservative colleges (e.g. Liberty and Regent Universities) where the bulk of faculty are conservative, meaning that the number of conservatives at most schools is even lower than it looks. So even in the Rocky Mountain West the leftist skewing is greater than it appears. But one should be able to imagine what having at most four conservative faculty members on a campus like Sarah Lawrence, with 1,600 students and more than 100 total full-time faculty members, would mean for the educational experience. Students easily could go through their entire college career without ever hearing from a professor whose politics are to the right of Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders for that matter).
We also should keep in mind what these figures mean in regard to the political leanings of teachers in particular departments. As Mr. Abrams suggests, most conservatives are to be found in engineering and business schools, kept safely away from discussion of most political, social, and economic issues (business courses are more about finance, marketing, and management than public policy or economic theory). Many departments in social sciences and the humanities nationwide have zero conservatives. Yes, zero. I have been on many campuses where this is the case. And departments that do have a token “right-winger” or two (generally at the less prestigious schools) see those persons as exactly that—token representatives of a bizarre, fringe species not long for this world.
This is not a matter of a few angry right-wingers having trouble finding someone to join them for lunch. As Mr. Abrams points out, moderates count as crazy right-wingers on liberal campuses. Indeed, it says quite a bit that Ted Cruz, a popular Senator in his own state and recent contender for the presidential nomination of one of our two major parties, is considered “fringe” on the vast majority of American campuses. Here, the mainstream reaches from Bernie Sanders to Black Lives Matter. It is easy to make fun of the politics at the “fair trade” campus co-op, but its members seldom laugh and are determined to eliminate ideological competition. Small wonder conservative speakers so often find their campus talks disrupted and shut down by crybullies. Students are so accustomed to hearing only about how evil conservatives are that they cannot fathom the possibility that any of them might have something interesting or useful to say.
Since the 1980s, when liberals already outnumbered conservatives on our faculties by 2 to 1, courses and texts have moved sharply to the left, of course. And during these decades of increasing leftist uniformity the materials assigned and the “theories” used to interpret them have moved even more sharply leftward. History, for example, has come to be taught out of books like the Marxist Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States—which the author proudly described as “biased” in its determination to paint capitalism and the United States itself as enemies to all good things. At the same time, actual historical documents were tossed into the dustbin. There simply were not and are not sufficient numbers of professors left who believe that there is a set of factual materials worth discussing in a reasoned manner in history, economics, or political science to maintain concern with standards of reasoned discourse. Instead, students are fed politically convenient distortions in the name of “social justice.” And so we have seen two generations of college graduates indoctrinated into a set of political myths meant to undermine “capitalism” and “imperialism,” as well as, of course “racism, sexism, and homophobia.”
The problem goes much deeper than what even some on the left now recognize as a lack of “ideological diversity.” What most campuses lack is any reality check. Man-shaming indoctrination sessions rooted in the dangerous and debilitating fantasy that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college. Re-segregation in the name of racial “justice.” “Diversity training” that has been shown to increase racial tensions. One could continue listing the ham-fisted programs tearing apart our social fabric to the detriment of education, social relations, and the characters of our people. But almost no one is willing to speak out against these long-failed policies, in large part because too few faculty members exist who oppose them.
It is difficult for adults to realize how college indoctrination works without taking into account the fact that most students live as wards of the university. Clubs must be “recognized,” dormitories are ruled by university-trained leaders. Healthcare is dispensed, in the first instance, by university employees—along with birth control and heaps of politically correct “guidance.” Students generally eat at common messes and join together more often than not only in university approved settings. This is why large state universities can actually be less damaging to students than their more rigorous counterparts—they afford students the opportunity to opt-out of campus culture altogether, by simply going to class, then going home to associate with family and friends from church or other local associations. Otherwise, students are literally immersed in political correctness, with banners, lectures, mandatory sessions, and posters above the urinals preaching the official line on race, sex, and “social justice.”
And there is nothing such sane members of the faculty as may exist can do about it. I well remember my first teaching job at a radical chic liberal arts college on the west coast. Several students had suffered drug overdoses. A resolution was presented to the faculty to express sympathy, and also to deplore such self-destructive and sometimes fatal behavior. The resolution went down to overwhelming defeat as “too judgmental.” The rare conservatives on campus know that speaking up at such times risks their chances of having a job come next year. As important, on campuses run by unchecked leftist ideology, there simply are too many outrageous, destructive, and simply silly acts going on to leave time or energy for teaching and research if one were to engage in self-evidently fruitless opposition. So the conservatives withdraw, become pariahs, or “grow in office.” Small wonder, then, that we have gone from 2 to 1 to 28 to 1. Small wonder the very character of our educated classes has become infantilized as well as radicalized. Reform and renewal will be extremely difficult, if possible at all. But it must begin with a realization of just how bad things have gotten.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.