Yes, Ideological Bias in Academia is Real, and Communication Scholars Must Help Solve the Problem

The National Communication Association invited me to write an essay for the association magazine (Spectra) on ideological bias within academia and the communication discipline. Unfortunately, Spectra is not accessible to those without an NCA login; but fortunately, the agreement I signed with NCA permits me to post it here.

I am deeply grateful to those who took time to contribute their stories, to read the essay and offer feedback, and encourage me along the way. Let me especially mention my appreciation for George Yancey of University of North Texas, who is mentioned at some length here, who graciously took the time to offer his thoughts on the article.

I hope this piece motivates all of us to create ideologically welcoming communities, to understand each other better, and to find ways to work together across lines of ideological difference.

I am grateful that NCA invited me to write this essay on “what some have called the chilling effect of ‘liberal’ academia on freedom of expression among conservative professors and students.” As a social scientist, I think of this as two related empirical questions: What is the political tilt of academia? And, does that political tilt silence conservative voices? Fortunately, scholars have gathered data on these questions, and so I will briefly review a few findings. Then, I will share the lived experience of some of our colleagues and suggest how we might promote ideological diversity in our discipline.

Research Evidence

To the first question: Evidence indicates political skew in academia toward the left. Over a decade ago, Gross and Simmons’s study on the American professoriate found that 44 percent identified as liberal, 47 percent as moderate, and only 9 percent as conservative, with moderates leaning center-left rather than center-right. Particularly relevant to our discipline, the greatest imbalance emerged in the social sciences (58 percent liberal, 5 percent conservative) and the humanities (52 percent liberal, 4 percent conservative). Their monograph, although published only online, has received more than 100 citations since 2007. More recent peer-reviewed research on party affiliation suggests that the imbalance has widened. In a 2016 article published in Econ Journal Watch, Mitchell Langbert and his co-authors found that registered faculty Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 11.5 to 1 overall, and in Communication/Journalism, by 20 to 1. In many departments, members of minor liberal parties (such as the Green Party) are more common than Republicans. Academia leans to the left, and the Communication discipline is no exception.

And so, to the second question: What is the effect of this ideological tilt? The literature has focused on two competing hypotheses for why the imbalance exists: that conservatives self-select out of academia, or that conservatives experience bias that deters them. As sociologist George Yancey has contended, these explanations are not mutually exclusive. Both likely occur, yet the available evidence indicates that political bias against conservatives is no trivial concern. I only have space to summarize a few key findings here, but interested readers would benefit from exploring Heterodox Academy, which advocates for ideological diversity in university life.

  • In a study published in 2012 in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Inbar and Lammers asked psychological scholars about their perception of academia’s political climate. Liberals reported the least hostile climate (1.9 on a seven-point scale), moderates significantly more (3.7), and conservatives the most hostile (4.7). The more a scholar moves away from a liberal identity, the more ideological heat she or he perceives.
  • That study also found that some liberal professors admitted willingness to engage in bias that would harm the career of conservative academics: “Hostility toward and willingness to discriminate against conservatives is widespread. One in six respondents said that she or he would be somewhat (or more) inclined to discriminate against conservatives in inviting them for symposia or reviewing their work. One in four would discriminate in reviewing their grant applications. More than one in three would discriminate against them when making hiring decisions.”
  • Jussim, writing in the same journal in response to Inbar and Lammers, acknowledged the privilege he enjoys as a liberal academic, including: “If I apply for a job, I can be confident my political views are more likely to be an asset than liability”; “I can avoid spending time with colleagues who mistrust me because of my politics”; “I will feel welcomed and ‘normal’ in the usual walks of my academic life.”
  • Yancey, Reimer, and O’Connell, writing in 2015 in Sociology of Religion, found that academia can be particularly hostile to religious conservatives. Yancey testified to his own experience in an article published in The Stream: “Indeed when I read academic literature about my faith it is like I am reading about some alien I cannot recognize. Its description of conservative Christians is often some bizarre caricature of the worst of my faith.”
  • Yancey’s empirical work has further documented bias that conservatives (religious and otherwise) face in academia, particularly in the processes of hiring, promotion, and tenure. Like Inbar and Lammers, he conducted direct surveys of academics, finding that about half would be less likely to hire a conservative Protestant, about 40 percent someone who is part of the NRA, and about a third someone who is a Republican. In contrast, being a member of a liberal group such as the ACLU is seen as an asset.

I am not claiming that these are perfect studies (no study is), or that all progressive scholars hold bias against conservatives (clearly not). Nor am I claiming that anti-conservative bias explains 100 percent of the variance in the political affiliation of scholars in our discipline or elsewhere. That would be absurd. Yet, given the evidence, I am persuaded that it would be even more absurd to claim an effect size of 0 percent. As Yancey put it in a Patheos article, some progressive scholars tend to “focus on self-selection with a slight nod to the possibility of bias. This is exactly opposite from what our empirical evidence has told us.”

Also, the reality of anti-conservative bias does not discount the very real threats to academic freedom experienced by my progressive colleagues. Even as we disagree on ideology and public policy, we should stand together against all threats to ideological diversity, from whatever part of the political continuum they arise.

I encourage those interested to check out these and other sources. I especially encourage my liberal colleagues to do this because, as Yancey noted when I spoke with him recently in a public forum, some progressive scholars disregard claims of ideological bias, despite their abiding concern for other forms of discrimination.

Lived Experience

I am unaware of any study of political bias that focuses exclusively on our discipline. So, to document such bias and vivify the claims above, I invited members of our discipline to share their experiences anonymously. With their permission, here are a few stories I heard:

  • “During my first job interview for a tenure-track position, I sat through an uncomfortable meal where a senior faculty member, assuming I was liberal, openly mocked economic beliefs that I hold. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just kind of smiled and nodded.”
  • “I haven’t been to NCA in years. As a conservative woman, there is no space for me there.”
  • “When I was in graduate school, the Department Chair got up and started talking about how stupid Republicans are. I remember being shocked that the Chair was using a position of power to degrade others.”
  • “During a campus visit at a potential graduate school, I wore a cross necklace. A faculty member pointed it out and said, ‘Cross necklace? You aren’t welcome here.’ This interaction almost deterred me from pursuing any sort of graduate education.”
  • “I wrote an article on conservative artistic performances that the Editor responded to with high praise, followed by a request for a few revisions. After I made the requested revisions, the Editor rejected it. He told me that he wanted to publish the article, but that the conservative content of the performances had so offended the other members of his editorial staff that he ‘dared not run it’ lest he have to deal with a ‘full blown revolution.’”
  • “Political bias is one reason I left academia soon after receiving my doctorate.”
  • “When I write papers that suggest liberal bias in the media, they get rejected, and so I now write about other things. In a world where promotion is determined by publication/presentation rate, I have no desire to spend more time writing articles that will never see daylight.”
  • “As a graduate student, I remember being told at a conference that I couldn’t be a critical/cultural scholar because I had a Christian worldview.”
  • “Before I had tenure, a senior professor who knew my political leanings jokingly referred to me as ‘a Nazi.’ This occurred in front of students.”

I know we would be concerned (and rightly so) if we were to hear such lived experiences from other groups. Those concerns should be no less when the stories pertain to ideological diversity.

Promoting Ideological Diversity in the Discipline

So then, what should we do to foster ideological diversity in the Communication discipline? I’ve heard a variety of ideas from conservatives and concerned progressives. Here are a few actionable suggestions that, to me at least, seem to flow from the available evidence.

  1. As a small but important first step, admit the reality. If a conservative scholar shares an experience of bias with you, they’re probably taking a brave step. Don’t minimize that. They’re showing you a remarkable degree of trust. Also don’t assume that all conservatives are alike; like liberals, we’re a diverse bunch. So listen. Even if you can’t affirm their beliefs, affirm their humanity and academic freedom. More generally, our field would benefit from the kind of discussion about political bias that Jonathan Haidt has spearheaded in Social Psychology.
  1. Affirm ideological diversity when you have the opportunity to do so. I find the statement that Heterodox Academy asks its members to sign to be a helpful one that resonates with NCA’s Credo for Free and Responsible Communication in a Democratic Society: “I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic fields and universities currently lack sufficient viewpoint diversity—particularly political diversity. I will support viewpoint diversity in my academic field, my university, my department, and my classroom.” Scholars who agree may want to join — it’s easy, free, and a gateway to good conversation among scholars with diverse disciplinary and political orientations.
  1. Refrain from assumptions of political homogeneity in the discipline. This is perhaps nowhere so true in our discipline as partisan political statements passed in the form of NCA resolutions. Let us be candid: These have no discernible impact on public policy. As a Texan myself, I can assure you that the 2017 convention has come and gone and has made no difference in Texas politics. But some events there may speak volumes to conservatives in our field, particularly those who lack the academic privilege that comes with publication success and tenure. As one graduate student voiced after an e-mail from the NCA leadership ahead of the Dallas convention, “Can we maintain membership at NCA in light of this statement?” I look forward to a world where our students never have to ask that question, no matter their political stripe.
  1. Use online fora judiciously. For all their benefits, we know that online spaces can tempt us to engage in communication that dehumanizes others. Whatever strengths it may have, I am not convinced that the Communication listserv CRTNET has served as a healthy venue for political discussion. Perhaps more substantive online conversation could be facilitated by communication technologies newer than 1980s-style e-mail listservs.
  1. Purposefully build warm relationships with those whose beliefs differ from your own. To be utterly clear and emphatic: Over the course of my career, my relationships with progressive colleagues and friends have been overwhelmingly positive rather than negative. When we talk politics, the conversations may be animated, but most of the time they occur in a spirit of mutual respect. Often, we aren’t talking about politics at all, but about our personal lives or mutual professional interests regarding Communication research, theory, and pedagogy. And, indeed, such research tells us that intergroup contact reduces bias.

I believe NCA has the social capital and goodwill among its membership to address ideological bias. Some of my conservative colleagues do not share that optimism, but a panel at the 2017 convention gave me hope. Organized by then First Vice President Ronald L. Jackson II, co-sponsored by the Public Dialogue and Deliberation Division, and chaired by Laura Black (Ohio University) and Leah Sprain (University of Colorado, Boulder), the panel addressed public dialogue and polarization within NCA and featured scholars from diverse political orientations. People spoke candidly, but respectfully, and I think we all gained insight from the discussion. I see no reason why that spirit of goodwill amid disagreement cannot extend to the entire association, our departments, and the discipline.

Our discipline possesses a wealth of scholarship about effective communication across lines of difference. We can apply this knowledge to foster ideological diversity within our discipline—and then, if we are so inclined, we can turn and use that knowledge to help other disciplines solve this trans-disciplinary problem.

(This article is reprinted from an article that originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Spectra magazine, a publication of the National Communication Association. All rights reserved.)

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