Anyone with a degree from a British university, especially if it is in a subject that impinges on political matters (such as sociology or philosophy), will probably have noticed that most of his lecturers were on the left of the political spectrum. In early March, I wrote a report for the Adam Smith Institute examining this phenomenon. My report sought to do four main things: first, document the extent of left-liberal overrepresentation; second, outline possible explanations for it; third, review possible consequences it may have had; and fourth, suggest suitable remedies.
What is the extent of left-liberal overrepresentation? In my report, I cited a recent Times Higher Education poll, which found that less than 12% of British academics support the Conservatives or UKIP. In addition, I compared these figures to older ones collated by the sociologist A.H. Halsey, and concluded that the academy’s left-liberal skew may have increased since the 1960s. Note that just such a trend has been observed in American academia: between 1990 and 2014, the proportion of American academics identifying as ‘far left’ or ‘liberal’ increased by 20 percentage points.
I found that intelligence cannot be the primary explanation. In the UK, the distribution of party support within the top 5% of IQ is relatively similar to the distribution of party support within the general population.
Surprisingly, this was the element of my report that, in the weeks following its publication, received by far the most censure. (I say ‘surprisingly’ because the skew is so large as to be almost too obvious to report.) Nonetheless, my critics’ main bone of contention was that the THE poll I cited was self-selecting (a fact I had acknowledged in the report itself). The reason this matters is that if academics with certain political views are more likely to respond to polls, then the distribution of party support uncovered by a self-selecting poll might be biased. However, Chris Hanretty analysed data from a completely different source, and observed a substantial left-liberal skew in the distribution of party support. Furthermore, in a new unpublished paper, I confirm that the political attitudes of British academics are both more left-wing and more socially liberal than those of the general population.
Why is there a left-liberal skew in British academia? I found that intelligence cannot be the primary explanation. In the UK, the distribution of party support within the top 5% of IQ is relatively similar to the distribution of party support within the general population. On the other hand, I found that the left-liberal skew might be partly explained by personality. Previous studies have found that individuals who score highly on openness to experience (one of the so-called Big Five traits) tend to pursue intellectually stimulating careers like academia. And within the top 5% of IQ, openness to experience predicts support for left-wing parties.
However, differences in personality and interests are almost certainly not capable of explaining the entire skew. Rather, what seems likely is that a small, initial skew was amplified over time by three main processes: social homophily, the tendency for individuals with left-liberal views to preferentially self-select into the profession; individual conformity, the tendency for individuals to reorient their views towards the left-liberal majority viewpoint over time; and discrimination, the tendency for individuals with conservative or right-wing views to be treated disparately in the domains of funding, hiring and promotion. While it is difficult to say exactly how much each of these processes contributed to the sizable skew we observe today, all three have probably played some role.
Universities are supposed to be places where perspectives are challenged, arguments are picked apart, and all ideas are up for discussion. Yet this ideal is very difficult to achieve when the vast majority of scholars adhere to the same ideological precepts.
What consequences has the British academy’s left-liberal skew had? I reviewed evidence from the scholarly literature, and concluded that it may have had three major, adverse consequences. The first of these is systematic biases in scholarship within the social sciences and humanities. For example, theories have become imbued with left-liberal values (e.g., “white privilege” as an explanation for racial disparities), and areas of research deemed politically unpalatable (e.g., IQ or sex differences) have been ignored, mischaracterised or even angrily expostulated. The second adverse consequence of the academy’s left-liberal skew is the trend toward increasing curtailments of free speech on university campuses. As Sam Abrams points out, signatories to a letter denouncing Charles Murray’s recent visit to Middlebury College were drawn disproportionately from the most left-liberal disciplines (e.g., sociology and media studies). The third adverse consequence of the academy’s left-liberal skew is that it may have influenced attempts by right-wing arguments to cut funding for academic research. While research that really is biased or partisan arguably should be defunded, indiscriminate cuts could make society worse off if basic knowledge is a public good.
What, if anything, should be done about the British academy’s left-liberal skew? Quotas are, in the present author’s opinion, highly undesirable. For one thing, they wouldn’t work, since any candidate sitting in a job interview could simply claim to be a conservative, regardless of her actual political views. Instead, I suggest the following: raising awareness; being alert to double standards; encouraging adversarial collaborations; and emphasising the benefits of ideological heterogeneity, which include greater public trust in scholarly expertise and a bulwark against groupthink. As I have already noted, universities are supposed to be places where perspectives are challenged, arguments are picked apart, and all ideas are up for discussion. Yet this ideal is very difficult to achieve when the vast majority of scholars adhere to the same ideological precepts.