New Study May Underestimate Left-Wing Preponderance in Academia:

A new UCLA study finds that 56% of academics consider themselves to be "liberal" (47%) or "far left" (9%), compared to only 16% who say they are "conservative" (15.2%) or "far right" (0.7%). This result is consistent with numerous previous surveys showing that academics are overwhelmingly left of center.

The new survey may actually underestimate the degree of left-wing dominance. In the UCLA study, 28% of respondents say that they are "middle of the road." However, earlier research suggests that self-described academic "moderates" are likely to be well to the left of moderates in the general population. They may be "moderate" relative to their fellow academics, but liberal relative to the general population. Second, the UCLA study probably understates the proportion of academics who are on the extreme left, as opposed to mainstream liberals. The study gives respondents the option of calling themselves "liberal" or "far left" (as well as "conservative" or "far right" on the opposite end of the spectrum). However, "far left" and "far right" are pejorative terms that many people will not want to use to describe themselves, even if such a description might be accurate. Most people don't like to think of themselves as extremists. I suspect that a larger fraction of academics than the 9% who are willing to embrace "far left" would be willing to adopt a more neutral-sounding term such as "very liberal" or perhaps "radical."

The same may be true of academics on the right side of the spectrum (where only 0.7% say they are "far right"). But because there are so many fewer right-wing scholars than left-wing ones, this factor probably doesn't skew the results as much as the use of "far left" does.

There is, however, one aspect of the survey that may lead to underestimation of the proportion of right of center academics: the lack of a "libertarian" option. Many right of center academics are libertarians rather than conservatives, and a large proportion of the former may not want to describe themselves as "conservative" or "far right." In the UCLA survey, such libertarian academics might have chosen "middle of the road" or "liberal" or simply refused to answer the ideology question.

Ideological imbalance in academia isn't objectionable in and of itself. However, it does tend to influence research agendas and the content of classroom instruction, and is therefore worrisome for those reasons.

UPDATE: In the Chronicle of Higher Education article discussing the UCLA study, sociologist Neil Gross is quoted as claiming that liberal dominance in academia merely reflects the leftward movement of general public opinion in recent years. This is highly unlikely for several reasons. First, the UCLA results are similar to those reached in other surveys going back several decades. Second, general public opinion remains far to the right of that of academics. For example, 2008 election exit poll data shows that 34% of the general public call themselves "conservative," compared to 22% who say they are "liberal" and 44% "moderate." Thus, the proportion of academic liberals is at least 2.5 times greater than that in the general public.

UPDATE #2: Neil Gross e-mailed to point out that he meant to say that trends in general public opinion only explain why academic opinion is slightly more liberal than it was a few years ago, rather than the massive overall disparity between academics' ideology and that of the general public. This distinction was not, in my view, clear in the linked article. But I am happy to correct the mistake nonetheless.

UPDATE #3: I have corrected the flawed link to the UCLA study in the first sentence of the post. Sorry it took so long. I was out of town and not checking these matters as promptly as I normally would.

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