The Actual Politics of Professors

With the sequestration crisis at hand, and cuts in defense, education, social programs, and other essential government services in the works, the chatter in some corners of the blogosphere last week turned to … the politics of professors.

Jane Mayer, a writer for The New Yorker, reported that in 2010, Ted Cruz, who had not yet announced his U.S. Senate bid, gave a speech in which he stated that President Obama was a “radical.” Obama was so radical, according to Cruz, that he could just as well have been “president of Harvard Law School,” where, as Cruz told it, “there were fewer declared Republicans in the faculty than Communists.” He elaborated, claiming that when he had been a student there, in the early 1990s, “there were twelve [faculty members] who would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.”

Mayer characterized Cruz’s allegation as baseless. She compared it to his unsubstantiated suggestion that Chuck Hagel, nominee for secretary of defense, had received payments from North Korea, and offered that Cruz might just be “our new McCarthy”—eager to profit politically from accusations of subversion. Cruz’s office responded, and before long bloggers and journalists from across the political spectrum had weighed in.

Cruz’s comments about Harvard echo the claims of other prominent conservative politicians and commentators, who like to assert that faculty lounges are nests of radicalism. But are they?

To answer this question, among others, I analyzed data from surveys and interviews with professors, including a nationally-representative survey of the American professoriate, conducted in 2006 with the sociologist Solon Simmons. My research shows that only about 9 percent of professors are political radicals on the far left, on the basis of their opinions about a wide range of social and political matters, and their self-descriptions (for example, whether they describe themselves as radicals). More common in the professoriate—a left-leaning occupation, to be sure—are progressives, who account for roughly a third of the faculty (and whose redistributionism is more limited in scope), and academics in the center left, who make up an additional 14 percent of professors.

Radical academics, it turns out, are overrepresented not at elite research universities, like Harvard, but at small liberal-arts colleges. Most are concentrated in a handful of social sciences and humanities fields, like mine, sociology (in which radicals are nevertheless in the distinct minority), and in tiny interdisciplinary programs like women’s studies and African-American studies.

But who are academic radicals, and what do they believe? This is a diverse category, encompassing social democrats, radical feminists, radical environmentalists, the occasional postmodernist—and yes, some Marxists. All told, about 43 percent of radical professors say that the term “Marxist” describes them at least somewhat well. (About 5 percent of American professors, over all, consider themselves Marxists.)

In the course of seven years of research, I never encountered any radical professors who advocated “overthrowing the United States government.” Those who are politically committed to Marxism are profoundly concerned with economic inequality and class, believe that things aren’t going to get much better for people at the bottom of the income ladder unless capitalism in its present form gives way, and harbor some hope that things might eventually change—but are generally pessimistic. Radical academics vote Democratic in national elections, but do so holding their noses, seeing the Democratic Party and President Obama as far too centrist and business-friendly.

While it seems unclear that the specific professors at Harvard to whom Cruz was referring would describe themselves as radicals, it is the case that many radical academics see no point in trying to neatly separate their politics from their scholarship. Their academic analyses and teaching often have a political thrust. This can be a source of great tension not just with conservatives, but also with generally liberal professors who believe that politics, scholarship, and teaching shouldn’t mix.

Layered on top of these tensions are generational differences. The social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s led to an influx of radicals in the social sciences and humanities. Scholars who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s often took issue with the radical intellectual perspectives championed by their predecessors. Today a new generation of scholars, influenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement, appears poised to embrace radicalism once again, in the latest phase of a back-and-forth cycle.

Is it a problem for American higher education that 9 percent of faculty members are political radicals? The answer is that far-left academic radicalism is both a weakness and a strength. Were there no radical professors for conservatives to fulminate against—or had radical academics done more to keep their politics and their work separate—there might well be fewer political attacks on higher education today, and greater public support for colleges and universities. Radical professors in the post-1960s period overestimated how much tolerance there would be for them, and how far the idea of academic freedom could be stretched. Also, some academic radicals, privileging politics over scholarship, have waged unproductive battles against the scientific aspirations of their colleagues.

At the same time, academic radicals in the social sciences and humanities have given us novel and important ways of thinking about society and culture. They have alerted scholars and students to previously unrecognized dynamics of inequality around race, class, gender, and sexuality.

That we are about to endure a round of spending cuts that no one really wants suggests that American political culture is stuck. The ideas of academic radicals may sometimes be over the top, but if politicians like Cruz, the senator from Texas, made a habit of thoughtfully engaging with a wide range of political perspectives rather than dismissing them out of hand or demonizing them, perhaps we wouldn’t be in our present predicament.

Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and a visiting scholar at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge. His latest book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, will be published next month by Harvard University Press.

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