Of course it’s not surprising news at all: there are many more liberals than conservatives in the universities. But this reality has become an inconvenient truth refusing to stay under the rug. The New York Times reports a finding by University of Virginia social psychology professor Jonathan Haidt: 80% of social psychologists openly admit a liberal preference. Haidt confronted his peers with this disproportion between liberals and conservatives at the Social Psychology conference in San Antonio last month. While any other major disproportions (age, sex, race) in the discipline would raise unanimous outrage, Haidt pointed out to his colleagues that this statistic has hardly engendered a shrug.
But this liberal domination is not limited to social psychology. Though a 2009 Gallup Poll shows that 40% of Americans identify themselves as Conservatives and only 20% as Liberals, the story in the universities is much different. Across all campuses in America Democrats outnumber Republicans 5:1. In the “soft liberal-arts,” the ratio jumps up to 8:1.
Though there is an obvious imbalance in higher education, this does not necessarily mean that every professor uses the classroom as a soapbox. That said, Haidt’s research does point to several instances where graduate students in the field of social psychology have been marginalized for their political values. The Heritage Foundation’s president Ed Feulner has also brought attention a wave of conservative students who have suffered discrimination at the hands of a liberal professor. But setting aside these abuses of power, the real danger is the narrowing of viewpoints that might accompany a skewed political representation.
Haidt’s solution to this problem is to enact “Diversity Initiatives” on behalf of conservatives in higher education. He calls for a minimum 10% conservative membership rate in social psychology. If only this could deal with the root problem. The concern is not the numbers or percentages, so the solution is not filing a lawsuit or demanding equal representation in the universities.
Pluralism of viewpoints does not mean that students should be compelled to consider every harebrained idea or theory. As the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) explains, “intellectual diversity might best be described as a crucial component of academic integrity—one in which education means exposing students to a wide range of recognized scholarly viewpoints and equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to evaluate, compare, and choose among those viewpoints.”
Intellectual diversity cannot simply be an attractive phrase without substance. It ought to be a reality for all students. In order to bring this about, ACTA suggests “10 Best Practices” for universities looking to encourage true intellectual diversity. For example, a university might encourage visiting scholar and guest lectures programs. Changes like these are the steps that can refocus universities and generate an environment that promotes a free exchange of ideas. Maybe the makeup of the university faculty would change in such an atmosphere. Maybe.
Leslie Grimard is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm