Study Finds Academia May Favor Liberals

Harvard’s facetious moniker, “The Kremlin on the Charles,” may be more accurate than previously speculated, according to a report released last week.

The study, published in The Forum, an online social science journal, concluded that discrimination may account for a reported dearth of conservatives in academia.

According to the study, 72 percent of professors at U.S. universities identify themselves as liberal and just 15 percent as conservative.

At elite schools, the gap was more pronounced, with 87 percent of faculty self-identifying as liberal and only 13 percent as conservative.

The study was based on a 1999 survey of 1,643 full-time faculty at 183 four-year schools. The survey asked professors to identify their political beliefs on a 10-point scale, ranging from

“very conservative” to “very liberal.”

Stanley Rothman, professor emeritus of government at Smith College and one of the co-authors of the study, said that discrimination against conservatives could occur in either the hiring or tenure processes.

Rothman, who has written previously on affirmative action in academia and media bias, said he observed such discrimination in his own department.

“When you get into a discussion with people whose views you disagree with, you’ll see them as idiots or bad people,” Rothman said. “There is a natural tendency to do that, whether you’re conservative or liberal. Liberals are just the ones that call the tune more. It is very difficult to overcome this tendency.”

Rothman said that he was guilty of this very bias in his left-leaning youth, but has become more conservative with age.

Rothman co-authored the study with Neil Nevitte, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, and S. Robert Lichter, the president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which is affiliated with George Mason University and, according to the Washington Post, is supported by conservative foundations.

Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 says he is not surprised by the report’s findings.

“Conservatives have a hard time in academia,” Mansfield said. “Just look at my department. There are fifty professors, and two or three are Republicans. How is that possible?”

But Graduate School of Education professor Julie A. Reuben, who had not fully examined the study, said she was skeptical of the argument that discrimination is to blame for the weak conservative voice on campus.

“I would have assumed that there is a high degree of self-selection rather than discrimination,” Reuben said.

Reuben also said that she believed the abundance of liberals in academia could be due to the fact that as people become more educated, they tend to become more liberal.

Mansfield, however, said he rejects the “liberals are smarter” hypothesis.

“That is ridiculous,” Manfield said. “All that would mean is that fewer conservatives go to graduate school­, because there are no [academic] jobs for them.”

Mansfield offered another hypothesis for the bluish tint to the ivory tower.

“Multiculturalism crowds out conservatives,” Mansfield said. “They think they’ve done their duty by promoting women and minorities. Once they’re done doing that, they have nothing left for conservatives.”

Rothman said he had not given much thought to Mansfield’s indictment of multiculturalism, but he said that it could “certainly play a role.”

Rothman did not speculate on the political impact this would have on universities, but he said that he hoped to show that unconscious biases may exist in hiring and tenure practices.

“If they can understand that, they can be more self conscious and therefore more fair,” Rothman said.

—Staff writer Sarah E.F. Milov can be reached at milov@fas.harvard.edu.