High Bias: It's Time to Bring Some Intellectual Diversity to America's Colleges and Universities

January 2005

Much of this election year was taken up by a debate over media bias, with charges and countercharges flying over how CBS, the New York Times, Fox News Channel and National Public Radio covered the campaign. Now a series of studies may shift the debate to another form of bias: the lack of intellectual diversity on university campuses, whose faculties are overwhelmingly liberal.

Some moderate voices are raising the alarm over the problem. A Nov. 9 staff-written editorial in the Columbia Spectator, the mainstream student newspaper at New York's Columbia University, called for a greater range of views on campus. "In all other areas of campus life, students do not hesitate to call for diversity," the editorial said in pointing out the complete absence of conservatives from history, philosophy and humanities departments. "It should be self-evident that a faculty that speaks with unanimity on some of the most divisive issues of the day is not fulfilling its duty. Students across the ideological spectrum must demand that Columbia address this need."

The Spectator editorial comes at a time when several Jewish students are charging that they have been intimidated by anti-Israel professors. Several of the students told their stories in a new 25-minute film, "Columbia Unbecoming," produced by the Boston-based David Project. Student Ariel Berry says that Prof. Joseph Massad told students that "the Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi." Columbia alumna Lindsay Shrier said Prof. George Saliba told her, "You have no claim to the land of Israel. You have no voice in this debate. You have green eyes. You're not a Semite. I have brown eyes. I am a Semite."

Such incidents have led both the New York Sun and Rep. Andrew Weiner, a Brooklyn Democrat, to call for dramatic reforms on Columbia's campus. This month, Lee Bollinger, Columbia's president, asked the university's provost to investigate the claims made in the film, partially backpedaling from a statement he had made in May supporting the findings of a university committee that found no evidence of "systematic bias" in Columbia classrooms.

Conservatives contend that assurances by liberals that the professional ethics of professors will keep them having their politics dominate the classroom and smothering alternative views just doesn't pass muster. A forthcoming study by Stanley Rothman of Smith College looked at a random sample of more than 1,600 undergraduate faculty members from 183 institutions of higher learning. He found that across all faculty departments, including business and engineering, academics were over five times as likely to be liberals as conservatives.

Mr. Rothman used statistical analysis to determine what factors explained how academics ended up working at elite universities. Marital status, sexual orientation and race didn't play a statistically significant role. Academic excellence, as measured by papers published and awards conferred, did. But the next best predictor was whether the professor was a liberal. To critics that argue his methodology is flawed, Mr. Rothman points out that he used the same research tools long used in courts by liberal faculty members to prove race and sex bias at universities. Liberals criticizing his methods may find themselves hoisted by their own petard.

Furthermore, a new national study by Swedish sociologist Charlotta Stern and Santa Clara University economist Daniel Klein found that in a random national sample of 1,678 responses from university professors, Democratic professors outnumber Repu-blicans 3 to 1 in economics, 28 to 1 in sociology and 30 to 1 in anthropology. Their findings will be published in Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.

A separate study by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles, run by conservative activist David Horowitz, looked at voter registration records of faculty members in six academic departments in 32 top schools. It found there were 10 Democrats for every Republican. Mr. Klein says a second study he co-authored looked at voter registration records for faculty at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. It found that among assistant and associate professors, there were 183 Democrats and only six Republicans. Since many of the Republicans were full professors close to retirement, Mr. Klein concluded that "in the coming decade the lopsidedness must become even more extreme. At Berkeley and Stanford, the Republican is an endangered species."

Robert Brandon, a Duke University philosophy professor, is one liberal who has at least made an effort to explain why conservatives are seldom seen in academia. "We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill's analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican Party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia."

But Mr. Klein says a better explanation of liberal dominance is the theory of "groupthink," which holds that insular groups tend to adopt a set of uniform beliefs and then act to exclude anyone who doesn't hold those views.

One way to combat groupthink would be if donors to universities and regents began pressuring faculties to adopt an Academic Bill of Rights that would forbid university faculties from hiring, firing, and granting or denying promotion or tenure on the basis of political beliefs. When Mr. Horowitz suggested the idea be adopted at Colorado's public universities, he was accused of advocating "quotas" and "McCarthyism." He calmly explained that his plan eschews quotas and only requires universities to judge professors on their merits, not ideology. After several legislative hearings, Colorado university officials voluntarily adopted a variation of his Academic Bill of Rights to ward off a more muscular one the Legislature was considering.

Colorado has also gone further and adopted a reform that could serve as a model for how to make higher education more accountable to students and the taxpayers which pay its bills. Starting next year, the state will start shifting its higher-ed dollars from direct payments to universities to vouchers that will go directly to students. The idea is hardly radical. It is taken from the GI Bill of Rights, which is widely credited with giving returning veterans a chance at college through a program that won universal acclaim.

Debating such reforms is perfectly legitimate given that about half of the budget of public university systems come from taxpayers. Private universities derive about 35% of their budgets from public money, largely research grants. In addition, much of the student loan and grant money used to pay college tuition flows from taxpayer sources.

Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University, argues that its time to scale back taxpayer subsidies to universities and move towards a voucher plan so that schools would have to compete for students as paying customers. That might also end the punishing double-digit tuition increases many schools have been imposing. Our colleges and universities would benefit not only from some intellectual diversity, but also some diversity and competition in how they pay their bills and how students and taxpayers hold them to account.