The liberal college conspiracy

Conservatives like David Brooks love to blame academics for making lopsided donations to Democrats. A closer look reveals otherwise.

Published September 21, 2004 12:20AM (EDT)

George Wallace used to score points attacking "pointy-headed intellectuals." The first President Bush mocked Michael Dukakis for getting too many ideas in Cambridge, Mass. As Richard Hofstadter explained in "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," American politicians have long trumpeted their "common man" ideals to contrast themselves to the educated elite.

The 2004 election is no different. This year's canard is that all professors are liberals, making colleges and universities distorted, irrelevant and closed to conservative ideas. The straw professor makes an easy election-year target. After all, many professors are liberal. Many academic ideas are hard to understand.

Recent attacks on academe, however, are more than election-year tactics. The image of higher education as having a single party line helps conservative academic groups raise money. Which in turn leads lawmakers to propose legislation to require colleges to achieve "balance" in their faculties -- a requirement many academics view as forcing faculty members to justify and perhaps soften their opinions. Congress is currently reviewing the Higher Education Act, a mammoth federal law that governs most student-aid programs, and a perfect vehicle for lawmakers to tack on amendments to make points about the academy. So this debate comes at a very sensitive time.

Much of the conservative commentary about academics this year springs from news reports that Sen. John Kerry is trouncing the president in places like Cambridge, Berkeley and Madison. When the Boston Globe conducted an analysis of professors' campaign contributions in May and found that Kerry had received more than twice as much as the president, a Bush campaign spokesman derided professors as "those who are more inclined to view this time in history as just another gray area in need of a group discussion."

In the New York Times, David Brooks had this to say: "Academics have had such an impact on the Democratic donor base because there is less intellectual diversity in academia than in any other profession. All but 1 percent of the campaign donations made by employees of William & Mary College went to Democrats. In the Harvard crowd, Democrats got 96 percent of the dollars. At M.I.T., it was 94 percent. Yale is a beacon of freethinking by comparison; 8 percent of its employee donations went to Republicans."

Those numbers sound pretty dramatic. But the same Federal Elections Commission database that was used to produce them contains numbers that suggest that there are plenty of colleges that don't fit the mold of an all-liberal campus.

To begin with, most of the institutions cited by conservatives are in blue states that already support Kerry, and not just on campuses. But venture into Red State U. and it's a different picture. Since Jan. 1, 2003, nine employees at Texas Tech made contributions to either a Democratic presidential candidate or the Democratic Party. But Bush or the Republican Party received help from seven employees, including one of the most influential men in Lubbock these days, Bob Knight, the university's basketball coach. Over at Baylor, six employees backed Bush and the Republican Party, while just two supported Kerry and the Democratic Party.

At Mercer University in Georgia, seven employees made contributions to Bush or the Republican Party, while five backed Democrats. Notably, Republicans on campus include the university president and two senior administrators.

Some of the institutions where Bush and conservative politicians like to appear don't donate much to any presidential candidate. No employees of Bob Jones University, site of a controversial appearance by Bush in the 2000 campaign, donated to anyone -- perhaps faculty members were too busy discouraging interracial dating. Hillsdale College, a Michigan institution beloved by the right, had three donors: all to Republican congressional candidates. Five employees of Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson, have contributions in the database -- all to Republicans.

Even places where people make more donations to Kerry than Bush don't always fit the liberal stereotype. Three employees of Morehouse College, a historically black institution in Atlanta, have made federal campaign contributions since the start of last year. A $300 donation went to Kerry, $400 to Joe Lieberman's doomed (and not terribly liberal) presidential bid, and $500 went to Republican Senate candidate Johnny Isakson.

The data also show a willingness of academics to support Republicans. In the presidential race, the University of Pittsburgh looks solid for Kerry. But more employees made contributions to Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican, in his reelection bid than to his challenger, Rep. Joe Hoeffel. Specter was once a prime liberal target for his role in pushing the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. But he's attracted the respect of many academics for his support for education spending and for easing President Bush's limits on stem-cell research.

Those who think there are only a handful of W. supporters in academe may want to consult a national survey of faculty attitudes by a research center at UCLA. The survey, last conducted in 2001, found that 18 percent of faculty members identify themselves as conservative and less than 1 percent as far right. The percentages for liberal and far left were 42 and 5, and the percentage for middle of the road is 34. Jennifer Lindholm, who directs the study, which is done every three years, says that the conservative figures have been fairly steady. "You always find a smaller, but significant segment of the faculty that is conservative."

What do all the numbers mean? While the total donations show plenty of conservatives on campuses, the figures show that most academics do indeed back Kerry and the Democrats. In fact, it's not hard to find academics who think the choice on Election Day is between Kerry and Nader, or people whose anger over the war in Iraq leads them to say things that sound like apologies for Saddam Hussein, or people who just 100 percent hate President Bush.

Either way, Bush critics in academe make no apologies for wanting a change in the White House. "Unsurprisingly, people who are intellectually serious are acutely revolted by the pattern of deception and stupidity that is manifest in the Bush presidency," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.

A good part of the anti-Bush seething on campuses is related to the president's policies. Many academics disagree with the president on Iraq, the economy, social policy and other issues that directly relate to higher education, notably expanded stem-cell research and affirmative action in college admissions. He opposed both, ignoring the advice of most research and academic leaders. The president's stance against using ethnic preferences in college admissions was particularly galling; after all, Bush's own academic record in high school does not seem to have been how he was admitted to Yale.

Beyond policy, the president's history and personality offend many. It's not just that he was never much of a student; he seems to take pride in it. When he spoke at his alma mater, he said, "To the C students, I say, 'You too can be president of the United States.'" So much for standards.

The president may be a lot smarter today than he was as a student but he still promotes the idea that this is a black-and-white world, when academics love gray. When President Bush says he doesn't "do nuance," he portrays himself as strong and decisive -- in perfect contrast to academics, who thrive on nuance. After all, many a Ph.D. dissertation has been written about a nuance in someone else's book.

For all the vitriol that the president inspires among faculty members, it's still the case that campuses aren't all liberal. Gitlin says he walks by Bush-Cheney posters on his way to his New York office everyday. Indeed, if you track campus posters and what students put up in their dorm rooms since 9/11, there has been a notable addition of American flags, even in places like Ann Arbor and Cambridge. Many campuses oppose the war in Iraq but the war in Afghanistan won broad backing in academe. Still, conservatives insist on portraying academics as '60s-era radicals who believe U.S. force can never be justified -- an image that doesn't ring true.

Even at institutions that lean left, you will find active, vocal, respected conservative faculty members. And while the institutions that lean left are among the most prestigious in the country, they also educate a tiny fraction of American students.

In the end, Republican claims that universities are dangerous to conservative values may be little more than a political ploy. When it comes to Republicans' own children, few enroll at institutions where faculty members are reliably conservative. The president's daughters just graduated (with no apparent damage to their GOP loyalties or social lives) from Yale and the University of Texas at Austin, two institutions where Kerry overwhelms the president in faculty financial support.

By Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik is editor of Higher Ed Today, which will appear online early next year.

MORE FROM Scott Jaschik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------