by Phillip Magness
College professors have long positioned themselves to the political left of the American public. The progressive skew in higher education used to be a stable plurality though. Beginning with the earliest survey data in the 1960s, self-identified left-liberals consistently comprised, on average, about 43 percent of all college professors in the United States. Self-described “moderate” and “conservative” faculty members split the remainder for the next three decades.
Then something changed around the year 2001. The percentage of faculty who identify with the political left began to skyrocket. In the course of under 15 years, left-leaning faculty rose to an outright majority of 60 percent of the professoriate.
The leftward tilt of the university is depicted in the chart below, which includes the recently released results of the 2016-17 faculty survey from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA. The latest results confirm and extend earlier observations about the same ideological skew.
The three lines are unfortunately limited by the category choices, but include “liberal” and “Far Left” (blue), “moderate” (red), and “conservative” and “Far Right” (grey). They nonetheless provide a clear illustration that the progressive turn is now the new normal in higher education.
Political skews in higher education are nothing new, and taken alone may not even be a problem if they reflected a stable long-term pattern. But the recent sharp leftward turn of the professoriate after 2001 is a clear break from historical norms.
It also carries implications for faculty who fall outside of the university system’s progressive majority. Faculty who identify to the right of center have taken the greatest hit, dropping from 28 percent in the late 1960s and 22 percent as recent as 1995 to only 12 percent today.
A closer look at the data reveals that the shift does not reflect subtle changes in the U.S. political mainstream. Rather, it appears to be driven by a sharp rise in the subset of “liberal” faculty who identify as “Far Left.” As the chart below illustrates, this number more than doubled between 2001 and 2010 and now sits at near parity with the total number of conservatives in the academy.