AlterNet

Looking for Liberals in the Ivy League

by Howard Fienberg
March 11, 2002

According to a recent survey, Ivy League professors are mostly left-wing. David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, described the results with barely-concealed glee, saying that "the elite universities are subsidiaries of the Democratic Party and political left" and "less intellectually free than they were even in the McCarthy era." The study was reported with equal glee in FrontPage Magazine. Frank Luntz, whom Horowitz commissioned to conduct the survey, somberly pronounced the results "disappointing."

With this study, Horowitz and Luntz are trying to do to higher education what Bernard Goldberg has attempted to do to the media -- "out" them as liberals.

On the surface, the results of Luntz's poll of 151 professors and administrators at the eight Ivy League universities look damning. So is the American campus too liberal? Only if we believe the press release. But the devil is indeed in the details, as a closer look at the poll reveals a far more complicated picture.

The eight percent margin of error within the poll is due to the small sample size, itself a red flag to serious pollsters. The big question is, did Luntz only intend to poll 151 people, or did most of those polled refuse to respond? Neither the Center for the Study of Popular Culture nor Luntz Research Companies would explain the poll's methods or clarify the response rate.

For the sake of argument, let's assume the poll to be valid. If so, what do the results demonstrate? According to the poll, only 6 percent of the professors surveyed voted for George W. Bush and only 3 percent of them consider themselves Republicans, while 61 percent voted for Al Gore and 57 percent considered themselves Democrats. In the rest of America, it was almost an even split between Bush and Gore and between Democrats and Republicans. Voila, liberal bias!

Not so fast. The Ivy Leagues are in the Northeast, which voted predominantly for Gore and is predominantly Democratic. The academics could simply be representative of their region.

Throughout the presentation of the survey, comparisons are made between the academics' responses to questions and those of Americans in general. Unfortunately, the comparisons are often without merit and -- though crucial in demonstrating how academics differ from the mainstream -- only made on about half of the questions.

Just how are they invalid? Most of the comparisons are between two differently-worded questions, which pollsters know can yield dramatically different results. For instance, Luntz asked the professors if they agreed that "The federal government owes American blacks some form of reparations for the harms caused by slavery and discrimination." He then compared the responses to a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll from last spring, which asked, "Do you think the United States should pay reparations for slavery, that is, pay money to African-Americans who are descendants of slaves?" Luntz's original question was vague on what reparations might mean, while the Fox News question spelled out "pay money." Also, while Fox News asked only about reparations for "descendants of slaves," Luntz asked about reparations for "harms caused by slavery and discrimination." Due to the difference in questionnaires, that 40 percent of the professors were in favor of reparations while only 11 percent of the "national sample" support them should not in itself surprise.

Additionally, only about half of the question responses were compared. Why not the other half? When Luntz asked the professors about liberal bias in the media, who they believed was the best president in the last 40 years, if they supported CIA and military recruitment on college campuses, and if gun control was the best way to reduce gun violence in schools, why weren't those responses compared to the rest of America? There are plenty of polls telling us what Americans think on these topics. Were these responses withheld because they are not as radically different from the rest of America as they'd have us believe?

Ted J. Smith III, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, analyzed data from several major studies of academia in 1991. While people in the social sciences and humanities were mostly politically liberal and "more prone to dissent from prevailing social values of the larger society," people in the hard sciences and applied professional fields tended to be more moderate or conservative. Why is this relevant now? Because Luntz polled primarily faculties and administrators in the humanities and social sciences. So assuming his results are accurate, they are consistent with Smith's work and should not be surprising.

Overall, academia's larger problem stems not from being a group-think left-wing mob (which the data demonstrate it is not), but that its most politically/publicly active professors are left-liberal. While professors in the humanities and social sciences are outspoken celebrities, appearing often in the news media, the rest rarely venture off campus.

This could be because the journalists who like to quote these professors mostly themselves studied humanities or social sciences at Ivy League universities. It may be that the journalist-expert relationship has become a closed loop. But if that leads to the appearance of political bias, democracy suffers.

In reality, the academy as a whole is just as diverse a place as the rest of America. Voodoo polls and parochial journalists should not obscure that fact.

Howard Fienberg is senior analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C.


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