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University Faculty Are Just Like the Rest of Us: Intolerant

New research suggests conservatives do face hostility in academia. But their attitudes toward liberals are just as negative.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In an ideal world, universities are places of intellectual diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance. They provide a forum for robust ideological debates that lead to greater understanding, and sometimes even produce creative solutions.

In the real world, things are rather different. Faculties are overwhelmingly left-leaning (on social if not economic matters), and a 2012 paper, which focused on research psychologists, found many were willing to discriminate against conservative colleagues.

A new study that looked at four California State University campuses reports this tendency extends far beyond the psychology department. It reveals that same stated willingness to discriminate against those with a different ideology is found in a wide range of disciplines.

And, importantly, it isn’t confined to liberals.

“As the U.S. public has grown more politically polarized, leading to growing antagonism and hostility … academia has arguably acted in tandem,” write Nathan Honeycutt of Rutgers University and Laura Freberg of California Polytechnic State University–San Luis Obispo. “These findings reflect a significant threat to ideological and political diversity on university campuses.”

Their study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, is a replication and extension of that much-discussed 2012 paper. They made two major changes: They surveyed faculty members teaching a wide range of subjects, from chemistry to criminal justice. And they asked conservatives as well as liberals about their willingness to discriminate against their ideological opponents.

“As the U.S. public has grown more politically polarized, leading to growing antagonism and hostility … academia has arguably acted in tandem.”

The researchers emailed every faculty member at the California State campuses of Humboldt, Monterey Bay, Stanislaus, and San Luis Obispo. The final sample consisted of 618 academics representing 76 disciplines.

Not surprisingly, a large majority (80 percent) labeled themselves as liberals on social issues. However, only 55 percent called themselves liberal on economic matters.

Overall, 71.1 percent reported they were liberals, 15 percent moderates, and 13.8 percent conservatives. This overall pattern held true for every academic discipline except agriculture, “where conservatives were a plurality, but not a majority.”

“The more conservative respondents reported experiencing a more hostile environment,” the researchers report — which also is not surprising given their minority status. More troubling are responses to the issue of whether they would take ideology into account when reviewing a paper or grant, inviting an expert to a symposium, or “selecting a job candidate between two otherwise qualified individuals.”

In each of these areas, “the more liberal the participant, the more willing they were to explicitly discriminate against conservatives,” Honeycutt and Freberg write. “Conversely, the more conservative a participant, the more likely they were to explicitly discriminate against liberals.”

What’s more, the researchers found “sizable percentages of participants in each of the academic areas indicated an explicit willingness to discriminate.” Specifically, “in agriculture, 45.5 percent of conservatives indicated they were somewhat to very willing to discriminate against a liberal job candidate, while in education, 45.5 percent of liberals indicated they were somewhat to very likely to discriminate against a conservative job candidate.”

“Many respondents noted that political ideology was irrelevant in their field,” the researchers note, “yet their answers to the quantitative questions showed that they cared very much indeed about the political ideology of the people with whom they work.”

The negative implications of all this are obvious. “An ideologically unbalanced professoriate — or a professoriate that lacks respect for differing perspectives — contradicts the foundational principle of universities being a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ and therefore does a disservice to students,” Honeycutt and Freberg conclude.

Sure, we’re more comfortable around like-minded people, but members of a university faculty — of all people — should understand the value of ideological diversity.