RALEIGH — Election season may not be the best time to go looking for sober reflection or respectful dialogue. For example, consider what happened recently when professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill got wind of a new project on campus, created and funded by state legislators, to provide technical assistance on environmental matters.
The North Carolina Policy Collaboratory will receive $1 million in initial funding plus another $3.5 million in state appropriations if UNC-Chapel Hill raises matching funds from other sources. Its stated purpose is to study the “environmental and economic components” of natural resources management and “new technologies for habitat, environmental, and water quality improvement.”
As soon as they heard about the project, some professors were skeptical. Once they heard the rumor that Dr. Jeff Warren, currently a science-policy advisor for N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, might be in the running for a job with the project, the professors’ skepticism turned into active opposition. They encouraged media outlets to run stories about Warren, whose political background and policy views they find objectionable. In response to Berger’s complaint that the existing faculty was wildly imbalanced in favor of liberal Democrats, a UNC-CH neurologist even wrote an op-ed for the Raleigh and Charlotte newspapers arguing, in part, that the imbalance reflected an “anti-science attitude” on the part of conservatives and Republicans. Other professors argued that Berger’s imbalance claim was fictitious.
I’m not going to argue in favor of the N.C. Policy Collaboratory itself, because I don’t know enough about its origins. But the Left’s response to it illustrates precisely the nature and significance of the diversity problem that Sen. Berger described.
It’s not just him, by the way. Many commentators across the political spectrum have discussed the fact — and it is a well-established fact — that the faculties of UNC-Chapel Hill and most other universities are far more liberal and Democratic than the general population is. In fact, university professors are far more liberal and Democratic than are other voters with similar educational backgrounds.
In the 2012 election, for example, North Carolinians opted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by two percentage points. You may find it surprising that there wasn’t a large difference between voters with college degrees (50 percent Obama, 49 percent Romney) and those without college degrees (52 percent Romney, 47 percent Obama). More to the point, voters with graduate degrees — 15 percent of the state’s electorate — went 51 percent for Obama and 48 percent for Romney. Again, nothing to write home about.
Although the direct evidence for how the faculty voted isn’t as readily available — that’s not a category tested in exit polls — other surveys and voter-registration data suggest that professors have voted overwhelmingly for Obama and other Democrats. Credible estimates range from 5-to-1 to 9-to-1. Professors are also far more likely to identify as “left” or “liberal” than they were a generation ago.
It varies quite a bit by discipline, however. Sociology, anthropology, ethnic studies, and English departments tend to be the most leftist. Disparities are smaller in the hard sciences, engineering, medicine, and economics. The greatest political diversity is usually found in business administration, finance, accounting, and nursing.
Although anecdotal evidence suggests some of the imbalance on campuses may reflect explicit or (more likely) implicit bias in hiring and promotion, I think it is mostly due to self-selection. Intellectually inclined young people have choices. Generally speaking, those with liberal leanings find academia more attractive as a career than do those with conservative leanings, who are more likely to pursue graduate degrees so they can become doctors, attorneys, engineers, or managers in the private sector.
Lack of intellectual diversity on campus is a real problem, whatever its cause. Among students, the biggest losers are liberal students, who despite the best efforts of well-meaning liberal professors are simply less likely to have their preconceived notions challenged — which is an indispensable element of a real education.
But it’s hard to have a serious talk about this during election season. It’ll have to wait.