Inside Higher Ed recently reported that over five times as much money has been given by higher education donors to Joe Biden than to Donald Trump. Among professors, the ratio exceeds seven to one. Countless surveys show that the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the social science and humanities areas of universities is even more lopsided. I once met a Republican sociologist and was so astonished that I asked for his autograph.
This is widely known, even among the general public. I ask myself then: why do middle class folks who have fared relatively well under capitalism in America, people often conservatives or libertarians, send their kids to colleges where they know the instructors predominantly have quite different political orientations, and where the suppression of views antithetical to traditional American values is increasingly commonplace? Two recent examples: students at Skidmore College are demanding that the school fire an art professor who committed the unpardonable sin of attending a pro-police rally. Second, the University of Chicago English department is only taking doctoral students interested in black studiesShakespeare and Milton aficionados need not apply. Many middle class parents who know about these things no doubt are asking: do I want to send my child to a school like that? Do I want to send my kid to a place where a significant part of the college community believes it is bad to show support for the police?
The main reason for doing so is that the piece of paper accompanying a college degree historically has had enormous value, with college grads making upwards of double what high school diploma holders earn. A huge percentage of the nations most wealthy and politically powerful people not only attended college, but graduated from elite private schools which, ironically, on average are more liberal (based on faculty political orientation) than mid-quality state universities. The sheepskin effect is pronounced, and many view a diploma as a prerequisite to a comfortable middle class life.
College presidents need to appease multiple constituencies if they want a long, successful tenure. These constituencies include, typically, a left-oriented faculty and administrative bureaucracy, students who mostly are relatively apolitical but a strident and sometimes large minority of whom often push the same progressive faculty agenda, and alumni of varying persuasions who are on average much more conservative than current campus inhabitants. The students and faculty are on campus and have the capacity to make life miserable for the president; the alumni are distant, disbursed, and less knowledgeable about what is really happening on campus. Thus the administration listens mainly to left-oriented campus denizens, and anyhow most are sympathetic to their perspective.
There are, however, campuses with a much more conservative orientation, and my sense is that these schools on average are doing quite well. In Flyover Country, I think of schools like Hillsdale College, Grove City College, and some Christian schools of diverse denominational perspective, such as Liberty University and Saint Vincent College. The Left Coast has a surprising number of these schools: Pepperdine and Chapman universities and Claremont McKenna College in the Los Angeles area come immediately to mind. And many prominent state schools are also known as not being flamingly liberalI dont hear much about radicals rebelling at Texas A and M University, for example.
The politics of all of this are interesting. The Democratic Party leans heavily on the academy for personnel to help run governments they control, provide progressive ideas, and help fund campaigns. Yet some first-rate academicians have also furthered Republican ideals. I think of Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse as a current example. Conservative to middle of the road prominent Black scholars like Tom Sowell, Walter Williams and Glenn Loury are proof that not all African-American intellectuals are reflexively far-left progressives.
On balance, however, campuses are far more left-oriented than the general public, and the disconnect between the Real World and the Ivory Tower has grown pretty large over time, which, on balance, I think is hurting universities and leading to reduced public support. To remain popular on campus, college presidents often praise student protesters, but in so doing annoy some donors and state legislators. Colleges and universities cannot ignore the Real World that funds them.