How Politically Skewed is Virginia’s Professoriat?

by James A. Bacon

How thoroughly dominated are America’s institutions of higher education by faculty and staff hewing to the left side of the political spectrum? In a survey of 12,372 professors, finds a new National Association of Scholars study, 48.4% are registered Democrats and 5.7% are registered Republicans. The ratio of Democratic to Republican donors was even more one-sided, about 95 to one.

The study breaks down the ratios for individual universities. Unfortunately, none are Virginia institutions because the Old Dominion is not one of the states that requires voters to register with a political party. So, I did a quick-and-dirty search on the Virginia Public Access Project database to list all public and private university employees who have donated $10,000 or more to either Republicans and/or Democrats over the past 20 years. (If someone wants to plow through the full universe of donors, not just the biggest donors, be my guest. I’ll be happy to publish what you find.)

The results suggest that Virginia higher-ed faculty and staff, though heavily skewed to Democrats, are less lopsided than the colleges and universities covered in the NAS study – a Dem/GOP ratio of only 3.5-to-one by dollars donated, and less than 3 to one in the number of donors.

One caveat: I included only employees of Virginia-based institutions. A fair number of out-of-state faculty made significant contributions to Virginia political campaigns, but I’m more interested in gauging the ideological patterns of Virginia colleges and universities, not those from outside the state. I somewhat arbitrarily excluded George Washington University, the main campus of which is in Washington, D.C., but which also has an engineering campus in Loudoun County. Other than UVa, more GWU professors were $10,000+ contributors than those of any other higher-ed institution — and they donated almost exclusively to Democrats.

Why is this important? By the standards of the energy industry, the environmental movement, the health care sector, and various single-issue groups, university faculty and staff are relatively small potatoes. (This list spans 20 years.) To understand the political economy of Virginia — who dominates the commanding heights of our culture — it’s not the modest amount of campaign contributions that matters, it’s knowing who is teaching the next generation of business, civic and political leaders.

In my humble estimation, American higher-ed has incubated many of the most destructive notions infecting the country — a veritable Wuhan of virally spreading memes — and there is ample evidence that these ideologies have taken root at Virginia higher-ed institutions. But the (admittedly cursory) evidence suggests that Virginia colleges and universities may be less orthodox and dogma-driven than their counterparts in other states. The finding that Virginia is different is reinforced by my own favorable experience at the University of Virginia — admittedly, we’re talking about a world that existed more than 40 years ago — as well as my acquaintance with two of the donors on the list (both of whose work has been discussed on this blog) who assuredly do entertain diverse points of view.

The National Association of Scholars study finds that the Dem/GOP registration ratio is most disproportionate in the Northeast — twice the ratio as in the South. And it finds that certain disciplines are more skewed than others — anthropologists by 42 to one, sociologists and English profs by 27 to one, but economists only three to one and chemists 4.5 to one. If you think college professors are skewed in their political loyalties, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve checked out VPAP’s list of artists and authors!

Come to think of it, I think I’ll blog about them next.

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20 responses to “How Politically Skewed is Virginia’s Professoriat?

  1. How about the research monies … That would be more definitive. Are you denigrating all writing and teaching of these professors saying what they teach or write is skewed by their voter registration?

    • “Are you denigrating all writing and teaching of these professors saying what they teach or write is skewed by their voter registration?”

      No, I’m saying that intellectual monocultures are dangerous.

      • intellectual monocultures?

        How do you determine that is the case?

        is there objective criteria or just your own subjective ideas
        that others might or might not agree with?

        Higher Ed is a pretty diverse “culture”. It’s hard for me to visualize it as “mono”.

  2. Education is a weapon the effect of which is determined by the hands which wield it, by who is to be struck down.

    Joseph Stalin – Interview with H. G. Wells (September 1934)

  3. Are we sure it’s not this:

    ” Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.”

    not sure if it materially changes the meaning…..

    • I used the translation published by the New Statesman in October of 1934. As far as I know that is the original English translation of the interview. The version you used is certainly in widespread use on the internet, but that does not necessarily make it correct.

      Thus far I have been unable to locate a Russian transcript of the interview.

      • thanks… I’m not sure ANY version is authentic at this point. We’ve seen so many mis-attributed quotes on the internet these days.

        in the case of education – characterizing it as a “weapon” to used against someone is way different than most folks attitudes about education which is willingly pursued rather than imposed.

  4. How have you determined that these colleges are monocultures?

    And if HGWells worried about Stalin’s use of education … today we should be more worried about how the heck everyone arrives at fact, with a President who lies continually, whose lawyers lie to Congress, and who believe if it is repeated often enough, which someone characterized as 100 times .. that was what constituted truth.

    • “How have you determined that these colleges are monocultures?”

      Jane, let’s be precise with our language, OK? I provided one measure by which we could make such a determination for Virginia colleges — campaign contributions. I made it clear that it was not a complete sample and suggested that comprehensive work needed to be done.

      The ratio of Dem to GOP contributions suggests that Virginia universities are ideologically skewed — though less skewed than the national sample researched by the National Association of Scholars. I did not mean to suggest from that fact that Virginia universities are “intellectual monocultures.” Rather, I meant to suggest that the fear of creating mono-culture is ample reason to take a closer look at the numbers.

      As one whose ideology is aligned with the majority of college professors, you probably don’t feel threatened. That’s understandable. You might feel differently if you were on the receiving end of “cancel culture.”

  5. I could give another Stalin translation but is just too filthy

  6. No, I am suggesting that giving money to either party has nothing to do with scholarship, and that university professors are not afraid of coming to their own conclusions from their studies regardless of what other professors have to say. At least I would have to say that was true at the three colleges I have attended, one in the early nineties.

    This business of feeling threatened? I have spent my life as a woman who was out in front in a man’s culture. You just deal with it. Eventually the culture is catches up!

    This all sounds so teenager!

    • I agree. Money to a college is supposed to influence the professors?

      Most of the professors I ever came into contact with – were the opposite of easily led folk.

  7. One could just as well conclude or offer the opinion, that as education increases and more ideas, science, history, and political policies are investigated, the human trajectory is to become more open minded and liberal.
    The Oxford dictionary definition of liberal is:
    1) open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.
    2) (of education) concerned mainly with broadening a person’s general knowledge and experience, rather than with technical or professional training.
    In this time, who are the liberals or conservatives who ignore over 90% of the scientific community’s opinion on climate change? Who are the liberals and conservatives who support the imposition of fundamentalist religious dogma into our education process. And in 2018, who were the liberals or conservatives on the Texas Board of Education who voted to remove all reference of two women, one emblematic of early disability movements and the other our nation’s first female major-party presidential nominee from their textbooks, while referencing Moses as influencing our “principles of laws and government institutions, and American founding documents”, the “heroic” defenders of the Alamo and the “Arab rejection of the State of Israel” as the source of Middle East conflict. A review of how this board has changed textbooks in recent history illustrates how these changes can be seen as politically driven choices to favor a conservative, religiously inflected curriculum rather than educational ones designed to encourage critical thinking and analysis.

    • Abbate, this notion is spurious, even if put forward in good faith. Western progressives’ sensibilities are tied to a drive towards rationalism and scientific progress by little more than historical circumstance, and by the fateful political alignment of American Biblical literalism with the oil lobby from the 1970s on.

      In developing states, some of the greatest strides in education have been spearheaded by the religious right — note the Turkish AKP’s infatuation with university funding and literacy rates during the 1990s and 2000s, or the work done on female literacy by the post-Revolution government of Iran.

      Other developing states have not been so forward-thinking in allocating (or not allocating) state revenues toward education. In much of Latin America and Africa, the primary and secondary education systems have been supplanted by networks of private religious schools which, on average, provide much better schooling for their students than the ill-funded public systems.

      Every regime has its blind spots, ours included, but “meaningful work on education” and “religious conservatism” are not exactly oil and water around the world — perhaps just in our little place and time.

      Beyond the question of religiosity, it’s interesting to consider what tension (if any) exists between explicitly anti-liberal attitudes and “the human trajectory.” Can progress come at the expense of liberalism, just as it can alongside it?

      Note the growing trend of Chinese graduate students in Western universities who choose to return home after completing their studies, despite increasingly ungrounded assertions that foundationally liberal societies possess universal appeal. Note too the *lack* of any trend toward open or voluntary civil society institutions in mainland China itself, despite longstanding predictions out of DC think tanks and Western media that the fall of the Bamboo Curtain would inevitably bring a movement toward (or widespread activism for) liberal institutions in China.

      This has been one big tangent from James’ post, but it’s all to say that there’s nothing inevitable about the confluence of progressive attitudes and effective support for higher education. Effective political action on increased education funding/curriculum changes (be it for textbook material, sex ed, or pedagogical approaches) only really comes when there’s an ideological issue at stake — religious literalism, loyalty to the regime, inclusion efforts for underserved populations, etc.

      When we lack such motivations, most US voters on either side of the aisle default to apathetic and vague mutterings concerning “charter schools” or “teacher salaries.”

      • re: ” In developing states, some of the greatest strides in education have been spearheaded by the religious right ”

        All developed countries like the USA were once “developing” states also.

        How were the Founding Fathers of the USA educated? By the religious right?

  8. AND … the whole thing about facts that are not facts … like those Texas textbooks … is often money … like …
    “Think tanks like to present themselves as purveyors of unbiased expertise, but they have to make payroll like any other organization. The groups that pay the bills exert varying levels of power over think tank outputs. For example, a recent leak of emails from Emirati ambassador to the US, Yousef Otaiba, shows that the Atlantic Council let Otaiba edit parts of a Council report on US-Iran relations before it was published. The United Arab Emirates was the Council’s single largest foreign government funder between 2014 and 2018.

    I would say that funders for research and for non-profits have skewed their research for dollars … certainly true with climate denial and that is a much bigger problem than possible bias from a political point of view.

  9. The comment that “American higher-ed has incubated many of the most destructive notions infecting the country” is sort of strange. All, or virtually all, of the leaders of this country are graduates of American higher-ed institutions. So, one could also say that American higher-ed has incubated many of the most beneficial notions affecting the country. In summary, higher-ed is an incubator of ideas. Isn’t that one of the traditional functions of higher ed?

    • agree and hard to understand that the most powerful country in the world got to that position with “bad” education…

      most countries that have high literacy rates – tend to end up in a better place than the countries that do not which are most typically wretched 3rd world places with basic problems with food and sanitation and other basics of life.

  10. “All, or virtually all, of the leaders of this country are graduates of American higher-ed institutions.”

    This of course, is precisely our great problem. As famously said some 60 years ago, it’d be better had they been chosen from most any Telephone Directory.

  11. No real surprise however, considering the partisan skew about higher education and about the role of science and validity of scientific expertise in public policy. As Pew researchers reported last year, from 2015 to 2019, the share saying colleges have a negative effect on the country went from 37% to 59% among Republicans. Over that same period, the views of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic have remained largely stable and overwhelmingly positive.

    Regarding science and scientific policy recommendations, here’s also what Pew reported: “There are also clear political divisions over the role of scientific experts in policy matters, with Democrats more likely to want experts involved and to trust their judgment. Most Democrats (73%) believe scientists should take an active role in scientific policy debates. By contrast, a majority of Republicans (56%) say scientists should focus on establishing sound scientific facts and stay out of such policy debates. The two political groups also differ over whether scientific experts are generally better at making decisions about scientific policy issues than other people: 54% of Democrats say they are, while 66% of Republicans think scientists’ decisions are no different from or worse than other people’s.”

    The academy is behaving rationally and empirically by trusting Democratic elected leaders to recognize, support and defend their contributions to society. Republicans no longer have that allegiance or association with scholars in formulating policy or acting politically. Partisanship follows the truth-seekers.

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