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Small Fish, Big Pond

By Crystal Bartolovich

Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? By Neil Gross. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Anyone likely to be reading these words in this venue hardly needs to be reminded that the US university system has suffered many blows of late. Increased casualization of its instructional staff, decreased state financial support, depletion of endowments, and erosion of faculty governance have been wide-reaching in their effects, touching virtually all campuses to some degree. Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University, which chronicles the devastation of the University of California system, offers just one notable recent account. These trends could seem counterintuitive, emerging as they do at the same time as pundits all along the political spectrum repeatedly point out the “value” of a college degree for graduates (by which they mean earning power, as charted by influential College Board reports). Yet attacks on colleges and universities— their cost, their curricula, and, in particular, their professors— are widespread and strident, with state legislatures increasing oversight while slashing budgets and conservative commentators loudly denouncing the supposed “liberal bias” of campuses.

Neil Gross’s Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? presents research that confirms the conservative characterization of college and university faculties as disproportionately liberal. Analyzing national data sets, including his own surveys, and drawing on interviews, Gross concludes that between 50 and 60 percent of faculty members are left-leaning politically “at a time when only 17% of Americans fall into that category.” There seems little doubt that college and university teaching is among the most “liberal”-oriented professions in the United States and that this orientation puts it at odds with the larger political climate.

Gross further argues that none of the usual reasons given to explain why the professoriate is liberal—such as the claim of some conservatives that liberal professors discriminate against them in hiring or the insistence of some liberals that conservatives are too closed-minded to become professors—hold up under scrutiny. He suggests, alternatively, that US colleges and universities are liberal because liberals choose to work there and conservatives, for the most part, do not. Drawing an analogy to nursing and its overwhelmingly female ranks, he proposes that in the university politics serves as a job-typing attribute. That is, just as nursing developed a reputation as a “female” profession over time, the university developed a reputation for being “liberal.” Conservative politicians then capitalized on this phenomenon strategically to bolster their populist appeal, adopting an anti-professor posture that probably does as much to augment the liberal reputation of the university as any other cause—perhaps further discouraging academically inclined conservatives from pursuing PhDs. In any case, Gross asserts that liberal bias in the hiring of professors cannot be an important factor in maintaining a liberal university faculty given that the vast majority of candidates for such positions are already liberal (only 18 percent of graduate students identify themselves as conservative).

How did this politically lopsided enrollment in graduate education arise? For Gross, the formation of the AAUP in 1915 was a decisive moment: the debate over academic freedom made manifest that at least some professors held views that might require protection, even if their number was very small. Once established, the public impression that professors were a liberal lot was, he claims, reinforced through a series of highly visible public controversies, such as McCarthy’s anticommunist campaign, in which professors, like actors, were prominent targets. He concludes, “The story of American professorial liberalism over the course of the twentieth century is in large part one of endogenous reproduction based on patterns initially set during the Progressive era, achieved through self-selection around academia’s political reputation.” Two aspects of the way Gross makes this case should be underscored: first, he considers the situation he describes to be one of “historical contingency”; and, second, he insists that the replication of “liberalism” in the university is “endogenous”—an effect of internal mechanisms without influence from outside (with the notable exception, of course, of the “liberal” reputation of the university in the first place).

It is tough to dispute Gross’s contention that most people pursuing PhDs in the United States hold at least vaguely liberal politics. However, his claims that liberal political orientation in the academy is the effect of “historical contingency” and that it has been reproduced “endogenously” are more doubtful. These are odd arguments given Gross’s attempt to analogize politics in the university to gender or race typing in other workplaces—phenomena rarely interpreted as either accidental or endogenous. To the contrary, studies of employment segregation typically point to the benefits gained by elites and the systemic usefulness of such typing to, for example, keeping wages in certain sectors low, or discouraging women and other disadvantaged groups from competing for positions favored groups would prefer to keep to themselves. If it were correct, Gross’s claim that politics is an identity category analogous to gender or race could reasonably be used by conservatives to give credence to demands for affirmative action to rectify historical “political imbalance” in the universities—something that Bill O’Reilly has actually called for. But we don’t choose gender or race in the same way we choose political affiliation. If, instead of viewing politics as a lifestyle choice, then, as Gross does, we focus on current structural reinforcement of the liberal university, we would have to ask why, in a context in which the attitudinal profile of the professoriate is so discordant with the general population, the liberal university exists at all.

To propose an answer to this question, a brief detour through the fate of politics over the course of the twentieth century in the United States is useful. Stewart Ewen’s well-known All Consuming Images traces the development of advertising and public-relations industries and their impact on politics. Specifically, Ewen describes a shift in mainstream understanding of “democracy” from the aspiration to substantive equality of citizens to the aspiration for the appearance of equality among consumers, as cheap mass-produced goods—and various debt instruments—ostensibly offered the semblance of “middle-class” life to all. Pressure to “perform” class identity displaces and diffuses class struggle into consumption, with structurally reinforcing effects for capitalism, both in terms of sales figures and worker quiescence. This shift encourages the widespread tendency among Americans to think of class primarily in terms of taste instead of as relations of exploitation. Extending Frankfurt School arguments, cultural historian Thomas Frank shows that this trend made it possible over time for even radical politics to become commodified, especially in the post-1960s period, as corporations demonstrated their eagerness not only to offer “lifestyle” commodities to former flower children but also to incorporate members of the counterculture into their own ranks, all the better to design and sell “rebellious” T-shirts, coffee mugs, and sports cars.

Similarly, colleges don’t merely employ liberal faculty; they market liberalism. Browse web pages and catalogs and you will find ubiquitous claims of service learning, green credentials, and the like. Even religious institutions like the University of Notre Dame underscore that though they are “traditional,” they are “open to change.” This pervasive “progressive” ethos coexists with the transformation of higher education into big business. As Gross himself rightly emphasizes: “Colleges and universities are linchpin institutions in American society. In the United States today there are more than 4,400 schools offering post-secondary instruction to nearly 20 million students. . . . Higher education is now a multibillion-dollar industry. It provides direct or indirect employment to millions of Americans and is connected to most other sectors of the economy.” Gross’s important observation here points to a fundamental flaw in his “self-selection” thesis: no institution becomes—and remains—a “linchpin” as an effect of “historical contingency” alone, nor can the university’s connection to “most other sectors of the economy” be seen as the result of merely “endogenous” trends. When Gross severs from consideration the forces that make the concentration of liberals in the university structurally possible—even desirable—within a predominantly conservative milieu, he leaves too much to contingency and choice.

Women and people of color who have struggled to break into workplaces (or through glass ceilings) against type might be surprised to learn that choice has such magical power in academia—power it seems to lack in other contexts, where gender or race are at work. Gross fails to consider the problems with his analogy in part because he tends to analyze “organizational ecology” narrowly, accounting only for relations within a particular sector—such as conservative anti-university groups competing among themselves for visibility and funding—rather than the struggles and accommodations among all institutions within a social totality. He uses this narrow approach to insist that passionate single-issue conservatives, without any conspiratorial direction from corporate and political elites, lead the campaigns against professors. Another way of putting this point, though, is that a remarkably large number of corporate and foundation elites manifestly have no interest in rightwing critics of professors like David Horowitz. Gross notes, for example, that the Wall Street Journal published an editorial against Horowitz’s so-called “Academic Bill of Rights.” He also cites an anonymous “observer of the Washington scene” who protested that “if the conservatives really believed that liberal terrorists were running the leading universities, damaging everyone they can, would they send their kids there?” Whether or not Gross is right in his explicit point about the “decentralization” of conservative anti-professor groups, then, it is worth pausing over his implicit point that the dramatic tactics of a handful of conservatives such as David Horowitz might have distracted us from the remarkable lack of support for their efforts among many corporate and foundation elites, who continue to send their children (and large checks) to “liberal” universities, serve on their boards, and openly speak of their college days with nostalgia.

Indeed, surveys of CEOs show that many of them majored in the liberal arts—the very majors in which, Gross’s data indicate, the most “radical” university faculty are concentrated. One Bloomberg Businessweek article, for example, quotes Michael Useem, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School whose research concludes that top-level corporate success requires “a general understanding of how everything works” even more than the business basics typically taught to business majors in college. He explains: “For larger companies and senior positions, an understanding of history, art, and how societies operate are assets. To be effective in the higher reaches of the private sector, some combination of liberal arts and a business degree is the sweet spot.” Reinforcing such claims, business leaders typically assert that critical thinking and strong communication skills are the attributes that they most want college graduates to have. Business majors, however, are among the least likely to acquire such skills, according to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s widely publicized study Academically Adrift. Such skills are much more successfully developed, their research shows, in traditional liberal arts majors.

Such facts could hardly have escaped the notice of corporate recruiters. Capitalism, after all, demands novelty and growth for its reproduction; conservative politicians emphasize a need for stability and preservation that conflicts strikingly with entrepreneurial imperatives as much as “scientific” ones. In their calls for well-honed communication skills and critical thinking, business leaders implicitly acknowledge the formative importance of liberal arts, even though university professors who teach such subjects are the most likely to direct “critical thinking” at corporations. These challenges can be turned to advantage by future CEOs, however, because the skills promoted in the liberal arts classroom serve as spurs to “think outside the box” (as business jargon urges) as long as the biggest box of all, the systemic imperative of capitalism, remains intact.

By focusing on the relation of conservatives to one another, and examining faculty political orientation as an identity category instead of in terms of the broader political-economic field of the university’s relationship to “other sectors of the economy,” Gross misses a big part of the story of why the liberal university might persist despite so much outrage on the part of some highly vocal and visible conservatives. Horowitz and his ilk may bellyache about the liberal university, but the fact remains that capitalism requires innovation, the capacity for stretching beyond the status quo—though within systemic constraints. Hence, Michael Eisner among many other CEOs effectively leveraged their liberal arts majors into billions. Indeed, a slightly liberal university offers compelling advantages to business, so long as it is firmly contained within a larger conservative milieu. And a slightly liberal university system in a largely conservative political-economic and cultural milieu is exactly what the United States has.

I underscore “slightly.” One of the more striking aspects of Gross’s book is just how low the “liberal” bar is set. Gross lumps together “radicals, progressives, and center-lefters” as the “left-liberal flank” of US universities and concludes that 54 percent of the professoriate belongs there. Of this group, less than 10 percent are self-identified “radicals,” clustered almost entirely in a few humanities and social science fields. A somewhat larger contingent, 14 percent of the “left-liberal flank,” are described by Gross as “center-left,” a group that includes those who typically vote Democratic but may oppose abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, or affirmative action and favor the death penalty. A “liberal” tent this large suggests that party affiliation, essential to Gross’s data analysis, is a rather weak indicator of “politics” in a country that has only two parties, practically speaking.

My conclusions are thus quite different from Gross’s. The question of professorial politics cannot be separated from the larger political ecology of the United States and how a liberal university can be made congruent with the interests of corporate elites even when the content of the challenges posed by individual professors is incongruent. Neither functionalism nor conspiracy theory are required to explain how dissidence might be hegemonized by dominant culture, as Frank and others have shown. Hegemonization also explains why the economic challenges to the university have, in general, been so much more successful than the overtly political ones: the elite hegemonic imperative is to limit the liberal university, not to destroy it. For this reason—and certainly this won’t come as news to most readers— our politics cannot remain within the university only, where it is effectively contained.

While a third of Americans now have BAs, most people— disproportionately the poor and people of color—do not. In any case, before they get to college, students are already ideologically saturated. The omnipresence of advertising, media, and other formative institutions illustrates why it matters so little that professors are liberal: corporations have a much bigger soapbox. Subjected to tutelage of breakfast cereal icons and branded peer pressure throughout their lives, students are rarely going to be transformed into revolutionaries in fifteen weeks, no matter how “radical” their English or sociology professors may be. Nevertheless, coming out of a generally conservative climate into the liberal university, bright students can develop their “critical-thinking” skills in ways useful to business and government so long as they don’t think too critically for too long—something that corporate elites do not appear to be concerned will happen. They know that professors are small fish in a very big pond.


Crystal Bartolovich is associate professor of English at Syracuse University. She is author of Marx and Freud: The Great Shakespeareans (with Jean Howard and David Hillman) and numerous essays on early modern literature and contemporary culture published in venues such as PMLA, Cultural Critique, and New Formations. Her e-mail address is

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