The independent news organization of Duke University

Does it matter if my professor’s a Democrat?

ways and means

This June, The Chronicle published an astounding report revealing that there are nearly 13 times more registered Democrats than registered Republicans on Duke’s faculty.

That kind of gap sounds improbable—if not impossible—and yet, here we are.

And if, for whatever unholy reason, you keep up with national higher education trends, you know that this discrepancy fits the norm. The disparity between liberal and conservative professors is large, and growing; national statistics showed a 6:1 ratio between the two. In New England, the ratio was found to be 28:1.

As is clear through The Chronicle’s reporting, different fields appear to be affected differently. At Duke, Pratt has the least amount of disparity. Although its faculty is left-leaning, Pratt had the largest percent share of Republicans (and the lowest percentage of party alignment of any of the disciplines studied). And while the natural sciences leaned Democratic, almost all of their departments have some share of Republicans. It is the Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines that seem to lack conservative professors. Most of the departments in these disciplines lack any conservatives. The Social Sciences do have some Republicans, but they are focused in a few select fields (like economics and political science).

How did we get here? Some might assume this to be the natural state of academia; there have always been more liberals than conservatives, right? Not at all. This trend has only become prevalent over the past twenty-five years. 

In the face of such glaring imbalance, it’s easy to make claims of discrimination. The reason there are so few conservative professors is that administrators are part of a nefarious Communist agenda to take over the universities. But, of course, correlation does not equal causation. 

There have been anecdotal reports of discrimination against conservatives in graduate admissions, but a nationwide experiment found no significant evidence of bias. There are many reasons why such a disparity could have been created. For one, liberal-leaning students generally consider graduate school more often than their conservative counterparts. Conservatives also tend to gravitate towards professional work

Conservative politicians have used the trend of left-leaning faculties to accuse universities of indoctrinating students and propagating a liberal agenda. What does this really mean, though? Universities have two major functions: to share knowledge and to create knowledge. The first is accomplished through teaching. The second is accomplished through research, peer review, and debate.

Is teaching corrupted by a liberal-leaning faculty? Not really. Students don’t passively accept the opinions and arguments of their professors. Conservative students, apparently, cannot be programmed by their professors. Despite the fears of conservative politicians, indoctrination is not so easy.

It does seem, however, that the creation of knowledge is threatened by a homogenous professoriate. In a lecture given at Duke, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the importance of viewpoint diversity.

As individuals, we regularly use motivated reasoning to confirm our beliefs. Even when we look at the evidence, we resist conclusions we dislike and actively work to find what we want. A university setting is built to remove these biases by pitting biases against each other. Haidt calls this institutionalized disconfirmation. Scholars are forced to prune their biases out of their work before submitting it. If not, they get called out by their colleagues. For this reason, the reputation of a discipline is predicated on how well it peer reviews the knowledge it produces.

Journalism is a strong example of this principle. In recent years, public trust in journalism and mainstream media has sharply decreased. Inaccuracy and bias are stated as the leading reasons for distrusting journalists. This perception comes from faulty and hasty reporting by newspapers caused by a lack of proper editing and peer review (usually due to a rushed deadline).

Universities have—by and large—maintained their respectability as a result of the rigorous debate they encourage. But, Haidt notes, debate is weakened when there is a lack of different viewpoints. When an orthodox position is created (in this case due to a certain political leaning), it is less likely to be debated rigorously. Those who hold the position accept it strongly but adopt weak arguments with which to defend it. This creates a certain intellectual fragility where the orthodox idea can be broken easily—but isn’t—because of a bias in the group.

Rigorous debate isn’t just damaged between academics, it’s also lost between students. This is seen in national data regarding debate among university students. Conservatives and libertarians are far less likely to share their beliefs and are more likely to receive poor treatment due to their politics. A majority of students in a 2017 survey stated that their university did not encourage intellectual diversity. How can knowledge be created when you’re too scared to speak?

Where is knowledge creation being influenced? Left-leaning bias probably won’t matter in most departments. A biologist will not lose their ability to research bacterial DNA because they believe in universal healthcare.

In general, it is the social sciences that are most affected by political bias. Whether it is economics, political science, gender studies, or sociology, these fields produce politically engaged work. Trying to objectively measure the success or failure of Reaganomics is made more difficult if you voted for or against it. The best way to ensure that you do is to have someone of the opposite persuasion looking over your work.

It is critical that the social sciences remain impartial in the pursuit of knowledge—these fields regularly influence government policy and public opinion. The public needs to know that when they read about sociological studies they are receiving unbiased and meaningful information. 

Let’s take history for example. The History Department has no registered Republicans; its faculty is almost 75 percent Democratic. What does this mean for coverage of Republican Party history, or even the history of conservatism in the United States? The problem isn’t that professors are scheming to get their viewpoints supported. As stated before, humans have an innate difficulty in fairly defending and recognizing positions they disagree with.

But… why should historians care? In fact, why should liberals care? If they’re winning the debate stage, why cater to conservative complaints? Haidt uses a quote from John Stuart Mill to answer this question.

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”

Without an intellectual sparring partner to oppose them, liberal arguments become weaker. They are less truthful, less meaningful, and less useful in the pursuit of knowledge. Everyone is harmed by these trends.

There are definite problems when the professoriate has a political leaning. The cries of apocalypse by conservative politicians, however, are moot. Students aren’t being indoctrinated and many conservative professors are content with their careers. In fact, most of the concerns of a crisis are coming from older Republicans. As in, the ones who are not actually in school. But, does there need to be a response?

Well… yes and no. Yes, we need to study the effects of bias more. We need to know the result of having a 13:1 Democrat-Republican ratio. But also, no. How much can we do? Purposefully hire more Republican-leaning professors? That’s actual discrimination (not to mention an impossible hiring metric). Creating that kind of ideological barrier to entry for a professorship would be mayhem.

We need more data, more research, and more debate about this topic itself. Letting liberals ignore it won’t solve anything; we also can’t let conservatives bemoan political bias without proper research. Journalism succumbed to a lack of public trust—let’s save universities from that fate. 

Akshaj Turebylu is a Trinity first-year. His column, “ways and means,” runs on alternate Fridays.


Share and discuss “Does it matter if my professor’s a Democrat?” on social media.