Oreskes & Tyson Present a Dishonest Picture of College Faculty Bias

In their recent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Reactionary Propaganda Rides Again,” scholars Naomi Oreskes and Charlie Tyson take issue with my own analysis of faculty political ideology in the Chronicle (“Tenured Radicals are Real,” September 24, 2020). Unfortunately, most of their essay resorts to conspiratorial ad hominem attacks on me personally over my own institutional affiliation and, more bizarrely, the fact that I have previously written a few short editorials on unrelated topics for the Foundation for Economic Education. Consistent with recent political activist talking points, they disparagingly characterize both as “neoliberal” institutions, as if that somehow discredits the substance of not only their own published work but also any scholar who affiliates with them in any capacity. Setting aside the vacuousness of their chosen moniker, this argument is both professionally unbecoming and logically incoherent. Rigorous social scientific analysis suffers when disagreeing scholars cannot even debate the underlying empirical evidence without one of the parties descending into the gutters of guilt-by-association smears against their interlocutor’s employer.

I write today, however, to correct Oreskes and Tyson’s continued misrepresentations of the empirical evidence on faculty political ideology, and particularly their claim that the Higher Education Research Institute faculty survey “is not a scientific study designed to understand faculty politics.” This gratuitous swipe at the well-regarded HERI survey and its predecessors from the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education smacks of Oreskes and Tyson’s disdain for the long-term patterns these data reveal rather than the quality of the source. The HERI/Carnegie surveys have been used to track and study patterns in faculty political identification for almost 50 years, producing a literature that spans dozens of reputable journals across  the social sciences. Although interpretations of these data differ, they contain the only consistent measure of faculty ideological shift over time. Furthermore, they are particularly useful for comparative empirical analysis because they directly parallel the questions asked in similar surveys of (1) student political beliefs, also conducted by HERI, and (2) the general American public, as measured by Gallup and similar polling organizations.

But therein lies the rub. Oreskes and Tyson would rather obscure the unambiguous political shift within the professoriate over the last two decades, and instead rely upon their own stretched reinterpretations of Neil Gross and Solon Simmons single-year study of faculty political ideology. The 2006 Gross & Simmons survey certainly contains a detailed glimpse of political beliefs, but it is still only a snapshot from one year around the beginning of the recent leftward political shift revealed by the HERI survey. It is now 15 years out of date, and yet Oreskes and Tyson attempt to employ its findings to advance unsupported claims about the distribution of faculty political beliefs in the present day. Their approach is akin to taking survey data from the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential contest and using it to project which states Donald Trump and Joe Biden each carried in 2020, ignoring that several states have shifted between “red” and “blue” in the intervening years.

Curiously, Oreskes and Tyson suggest that Gross & Simmons is superior for using a 7-point scale to measure the intensity of beliefs across the political spectrum, whereas HERI and its predecessors “only” use a 5 point scale of left-to-right. Those two extra points on the Gross & Simmons scale are doing some very heavy lifting for their argument – particularly given that the HERI survey actually does allow finer-grained analysis of faculty beliefs on the “far left” and “far right” in addition to centrist iterations of each. As I documented in my previous article (although the point was ignored by Oreskes and Tyson), the single largest driver of the recent leftward shift in faculty political opinion was not a redefinition of the term “moderate” or the political center, as they maintain, but rather a sharp and historically unprecedented increase in faculty who self-identify on the “far left.” This measure blossomed from just over 4% of all faculty in the early 1990s to almost 12% today. The expansion of faculty on the far left alone accordingly accounts for half of the overall 16 percentage point “liberal” gains in the same period. Furthermore, those gains took place through the displacement of conservative faculty, who dropped from 22% of the professoriate in the early 1990s to 12% today.

Although the point unintentionally contradicts Oreskes and Tyson’s overall depiction of academia as a politically centrist or moderately center-left institution, they also contend that the diminished share of non-left faculty today arises from a shrinking pool of conservative PhD candidates and job applicants in several fields. There may be some truth to the applicant decline, however a closer look also reveals an unsettling reason behind this pattern. Non-left faculty job-seekers face increasingly intense ideological discrimination in the academic hiring and promotion processes – a sad reality that is attested to by several recent empirical analyses of faculty political opinion in the same left-leaning disciplines.

A 2018 comparative study of law school hiring patterns found that conservative and libertarian faculty hires ended up at schools ranked, on average, 12 to 13 spots below their counterparts who identify on the political left, despite having comparable publication records and credentials. A 2012 survey of 800 psychology faculty revealed widespread ideological discrimination against non-left faculty in paper reviews, grant applications, and hiring decisions. Another survey from earlier this year found identical practices in philosophy – a discipline where a full 75% of faculty identify on the political left, and a “significant minority displayed an explicit willingness to discriminate against colleagues with the opposite ideology” in hiring and promotion decisions. Given that English, fine arts, history, and many other humanities exhibit comparably extreme political skews in the 70 to 80% range, it is not unreasonable to expect that ideological discrimination runs rampant in these disciplines as well. Since ideological discrimination discourages non-left job seekers from entering the faculty applicant pool, these findings strongly suggest that the shrinking number of conservative and other non-left faculty job seekers in politically skewed disciplines are an endogenous feature of their own extreme political imbalance. The explanation that Oreskes and Tyson give for the diminished ranks of conservative, libertarian, and other non-left faculty members in recent years may, in fact, be a direct symptom of the very same leftward ideological skew that they deny