The danger of political groupthink in our universities

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The American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently reported a study by Bill von Hippel and David Buss of the political leanings of American social psychologists. Members of their professional society were asked to describe their stance on a scale from extremely liberal to conservative. Eighty-nine per cent of respondents described themselves as left of centre and less than 3 per cent as right of centre. In the 2012 presidential election, 95 per cent supported Barack Obama; 1 per cent his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. I am not surprised that social science professors are to the left of the general population, but taken aback by the magnitude of the difference.

Mr Haidt describes himself as a liberal turned centrist; others might think he had not only shifted to the right but had done so with a convert’s zeal. He is a member of the Heterodox Academy, a small group of conservative social scientists who denounce leftist bias in university teaching and research. But surely economics at least is irretrievably rightwing, its practitioners gripped by the invisible hand as they sing the praise of free markets? No. While academic economists are to the right of other social scientists, their political preferences are strongly Democratic — by a margin of three to one, according to one survey.

The leftist trend has become more marked over time. The Higher Education Research Institute found that the proportion of all college and university faculty as a whole who described themselves as “far left/liberal” has risen from around 40 per cent in 1989 to over 60 per cent today.

Paul Krugman, standard bearer for the liberal position, suggests the explanation is not that the academy has moved left but that US politics has moved right. The New York Times columnist makes the point that in 1992 the Republican candidate was the moderate George H W Bush, while the 2016 front runners are Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. By contrast, the Democratic camp has replaced Bill with Hillary Clinton. Polls show support for Mr Trump falls off in educated communities.

British data belie Mr Krugman’s explanation. Academic support for the Conservatives certainly declined when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister in the 1980s; 38 per cent of dons favoured the Tories in 1964 but only 19 per cent in 1989. But David Cameron is plainly to the left of Thatcher, while there is little difference between the political stances of Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband. The Times Higher Education Supplement’s poll of 2015 voting intentions among university faculty found 46 per cent would vote Labour (and 22 per cent Green) with only 11 per cent Conservative. (That party fared best at London Business School).

Traditionally, elites were conservative, even if professors were always the most radical of elites. But their relative economic position has deteriorated. And political opinion is defined today less by economic interests than by social issues. The well-educated are generally more socially liberal than the traditional working class base of parties of the left, among whom Mr Trump and Nigel Farage win significant support.

But the dangers of uniformity of political opinion on campuses are well illustrated by the commentators on Mr Haidt’s piece. They argued (apparently without irony) that there was nothing surprising about his findings because social psychology demonstrated the objective truth of liberal positions.

All communities are subject to groupthink, and in the academic world the rise of peer review and the importance of grant funding have reinforced it. The word “diversity” is today used endlessly on campuses. But it is too often associated with reduced tolerance of the diversity of thought and opinion that should be the defining characteristic of the university.

 

This article was first published in the Financial Times on February 3rd, 2016.

 

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