Are Professors Too Liberal?

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Are college professors too liberal? Do we need more conservative professors? Has a lack of political diversity turned campuses into centers of liberal indoctrination?

These are legitimate questions, but I think the answers are "no," "no," and "no." Censorship and indoctrination are indeed serious problems on campus, but I don't think the solution is to have fewer liberal professors or more conservatives. On the contrary, the problem is that professors are not liberal enough.

Yes, you read that right: College professors should be more liberal, not less. But notice I didn't say there should be more liberals. One can be liberal in the sense relevant to liberal education without being comprehensively liberal in some political sense. Professors should be liberal in the academic sense, regardless of their political views.

Colleges and universities have been devoted since the 19th century to liberal education, which assumes and promotes the intellectual autonomy of human minds, including respect for rational collaboration, disciplinary methodologies, and rigorous research. This entails taking the results of research seriously, even when these conflict with traditional beliefs, values, and practices.

It is not surprising that liberal education, which is rooted in liberal principles of individual liberty and rational autonomy, disproportionately attracts and produces liberals. Liberals and conservatives differ in ways that make liberal education more attractive to liberals than to conservatives. And involvement in education, even if it doesn't turn people into liberals, often makes them more liberal in the academic sense.

Over the past two centuries, for example, liberals have generally accepted scientific conclusions on matters such as the age of the earth, the evolution of species, the reality of global warming, and the role of human activity in climate change. Conservatives, in contrast, have a long history of resisting scientific consensus on conclusions threatening to religious tradition or corporate profits.

What, then, is the problem? One concern is that lack of intellectual diversity will hinder research and education. But the sort of intellectual diversity relevant to academic work is diversity with respect to ongoing theoretical controversies, and there is no reason to think this is lacking. Biologists, for example, hold and teach a variety of views about the process of evolution; there is no need for concern about their political or religious beliefs.

Even with respect to political diversity the professoriate includes liberals, socialists, Marxists, moderates, pragmatists, libertarians, and (yes) conservatives, with many faculty claiming more than one of these categories, adding categories of their own, or rejecting any system of political categories. Those concerned about diversity of political views on campus need not worry. There is plenty of it.

Perhaps the problem is that the range of diversity on campus is skewed to the left compared to the range among the public at large. Conservatives are underrepresented and far-left viewpoints overrepresented. But there is no reason a political ideology should be represented in the professoriate in proportion to its current popularity. Universities should hire on the basis of academic merit alone and let the political chips fall where they may.

Rather than focus on the political views of professors, we should keep our focus on campus censorship and indoctrination, which are antithetical to liberal education. Professors should teach what they are hired to teach and should recognize their students' rational autonomy by providing evidence and arguments, not just conclusions, and by encouraging students to think for themselves, seek new evidence, and reach their own conclusions.

As for the particular concern about liberal indoctrination, there's nothing liberal about censorship or indoctrination. It may be possible to indoctrinate someone in particular liberal ideas and restrict exposure to alternative ideas but it is illiberal to do that. To reduce indoctrination we need more liberalism, not less.

But that doesn't mean more liberals. Professors should be hired on the basis of their teaching and research without regard to their political views or activities. We needn't worry about the representation of various political ideologies in the professoriate. Our focus should be on reminding all professors, regardless of their political views, that liberal education requires them to respect the intellectual freedom of all their colleagues and all their students.