University faculty ranks have long been thought of as bastions of the political left, and with good reason: sizable majorities of professors self-identify as modern liberal or left-leaning in their politics. This trend dates back to the first comprehensive faculty survey on political leanings in 1969.

The leftward tilt of college professors used to be more static than it is today. Between 1969 and 1998, self-identified liberals consistently made up between 40 and 45% of faculty in American colleges and universities, but they did not waver much from this range. While these totals outnumbered conservatives and moderates, all three groups were relatively stable in size. In fact, several academic studies published between the 1970s and 1990s pointed to this stable pattern as evidence that long-running conservative grievances about “faculty bias” were overblown.

Then something changed.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the number of college professors who self-identified as conservatives or even moderates began to rapidly decline. In 1998, moderates made up 37% of the academy and conservatives made up 18%. In the most recent survey from 2013, moderates and conservatives dropped to 27% and 12% respectively. Meanwhile, self-identified liberals exploded in number. They sat at 45% in 1998, and have grown to 60% in the most recent survey. That’s a shift of over 15 percentage points away from conservatives and moderates and toward self-identified liberals.

The chart below depicts this trend using the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) faculty survey (1989-present) combined with its predecessor, the Carnegie Commission Higher Education Survey (1969, 1975, 1984). The once-disputed leftward shift in academia is now unambiguously attested in recent data.

FacultySurvey (1).jpg

But why has this shift occurred after several decades of stability? By turning to other measures we may catch a glimpse of the answer. It has to do with faculty composition, as well acute leftward biases in specific academic disciplines.

As a recent article by political scientist Sam Abrams documented, some disciplines skew substantially further to the left than academia as a whole. While roughly 60% of all professors self-identify as liberals, that number tops 80% among English professors. History, political science, fine arts, and the other humanities and social sciences are all substantially more liberal than the academy as a whole. They have also shifted further left with the overall trends seen in the chart above.

The leftward skew of the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences matters because these disciplines have also exhibited faster growth in faculty employment than the rest of academia, despite having notoriously saturated job markets in many cases (note that job market saturation does not mean the total number of humanities jobs are declining – it means that the number humanities job seekers continues to outpace the growth in humanities jobs).

We can see this pattern in a second chart from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, depicting the percentage of university faculty who work in each academic field:


By taking a closer look at the trend lines, we may see how left-leaning areas of the academy have grown faster than the rest in the past decade. For our purposes, set aside the dashed line representing “Health Sciences,” which is actually a result of the boom in nursing and other healthcare professional degrees in recent years.

Among the remaining disciplines, the biggest gains in faculty shares are fine arts (1.82 percentage points), humanities (1.01), and social sciences (0.83). By comparison, the two biggest declines in percentage points were the natural sciences (-1.79) and engineering (-0.87).

The pattern becomes even more visible when we group together all of the disciplines that skew further to the left of the academy. Humanities, fine arts, and social science faculty all lean further left than academia as a whole. Jointly, they posted a 3.66 percentage point gain in their overall share of faculty. When combined together, the much-discussed STEM disciplines lost 2.65 percentage points from their early 2000s faculty share over the last decade.  Note that while self-identified liberals are still the largest group within the STEM discipline faculty as well, they tend to be less left-leaning than faculty as a whole.

What this basically means is that the most politically skewed disciplines — the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences — have grown their faculty at a faster rate than other less politicized disciplines. This skewed growth pattern has increased their footprint on campus relative to other faculty, and it has done so at a time of an additional leftward shift in their own ranks. The cumulative effect is to pull the university system as a whole even further to the left, yielding the overall pattern we have seen in the faculty survey at a time when the American public at large has maintained a fairly stable liberal/conservative divide.

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  1. Yes WHY?
    Maybe society as a whole has shifted so much to the right in economics and politics that this is a counter-reaction. Wealth gap, internet (i.e. available info), leading to spreading of fake news. I assume universities teach critical thinking, neutralizing alternative media, leading to questioning authority.

    Tolerance for people in general via the LGBT-movement might play a part.

    But inequality is really a big factor. Rich get richer, poor live on the streets without access to healthcare. Empathy for your fellow citizen instead of chasing an unachievable dream.

    1. I think it is not so much a reaction as a division of power: neoliberalist capitalism rules the economy and leaves a pseudo-left IdPol playground at the universities, so people there can feel comfortable in their bubble, shaming ‘privileged’ groups instead of really fighting the ones in power.

  2. This is also supported by AEI’s “The Politically Correct University” (http://www.aei.org/publication/the-politically-correct-university/) blaming this shift partly on ideological nepotism. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt (also affiliated with AEI) supports the idea of political differences arising from evolutionary and biological differences, identifying differences in living patterns such as conservatives prefer to live in quiet rural areas, and liberals in busy cosmopolitan urban centres (where universities tend to congregate). Haidt created the organisation Heterodox Academy to even out the playing field in universities, but I think vocational schools, online certifications and testing through degrees will steal academia’s thunder.

  3. It seems deeply disingenuous to say that the ideological balance of the social-sciences and humanities is balanced out by the existence of ‘conservatives’ (whatever that means) in mathematics.

  4. With an employment profile so heavily skewed to the left, can social sciences department be sued for employment discrimination?

    First and foremost, is there a legal case in requiring that social science departments have to hire professors holding non progressive views?

  5. A piece that makes no attempt to define fuzzy terms like ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ has an uphill battle to make a case about anything. The new, regressive left looks utterly illiberal to me. It is a true embodiment of conservatism.

  6. It would be a blessing in disguise for the left if more conservative professors were hired. Now the ‘left-wing’ theories teached on these facukties often have a frighteningly low level: dogmatic identity politics and gender studies. When forced to debate with other opinions, these teachers and disciplines might improve their logical and empirical basis and come to some left wing theory that is really worthwhile.

  7. It seems to me this report does a good job of describing HOW faculty composition has shifted — ie in what disciplines — but not WHY. WHY is it that the humanities seem to be able to add to their relative numbers, and STEM disciplines not?. Do the humanities faculties carry particular weight in hiring decisions on campuses? That would seem odd given that I don’t believe those departments tend to be the large draws in terms of bringing funding to campuses, but rather the STEM disciplines would tend to be those bringing in research funding. It seems to me the WHY question remains.

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