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What explains liberal dominance at colleges? Blame New England

 (Shannon Broderick/Laramie Boomerang via AP)

(Shannon Broderick/Laramie Boomerang via AP)

Need a culprit to blame for the ideological imbalance in college? Look to New England.

Thanks to its regional penchant to be more liberal, and the heavy concentration of institutions that exert disproportionate influence on higher education nationwide, it could explain why so few professors are conservative, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Research conducted by Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College found that, when analyzing data about faculty and their political beliefs, region became destiny.

“What I can say, based on the evidence, is that if you are looking for an ideologically balanced education, don’t put New England at the top of your list,” Abrams wrote for The New York Times.

While other regions are as liberal as New England, the concentration of high-quality colleges in the area gives extra sway to ideas that are influential in the region. All else equal, the graduate of Harvard applying for a teaching position against a graduate of Akron tends to have the edge of prestige.

Given that ideological diversity isn’t as valued as other forms of diversity, what the influential colleges believe and accept can shape teaching, research, and how knowledge is understood.

Scott Jaschik, writing for Inside Higher Ed, interviewed Abrams and noted the more theoretical and less practical focus on New England colleges could be key to the success of New England.

“The greater embrace of the practical outside New England results in a more politically diverse faculty,” Jaschik wrote.

As Abrams noted for the Times, he thinks tradition and culture have led to the difference. “Inertia and history play a huge role here,” he wrote.

To the extent that teaching has improved, the shift isn’t a concern. If liberal professors present conservative arguments to challenge their students, the echo chamber isn’t so deep. That, however, doesn’t appear to be happening.

Were New England less influential in higher education, the deep disparity, more pronounced than the average for universities, the gap wouldn’t be so concerning. Yet its 25:1 ratio, compared to a roughly 4:1 ratio for all of academia, has significant influence.

If racial, class, and gender diversity improves higher education, other factors such as ideological diversity could have a similar beneficial effect. Non-liberal professors analyze data and social issues differently than liberal professors. Their existence provides a check on confirmation bias and groupthink. Open debate and the free exchange of ideas already face dire threats on campus. Without a strong milieu of diverse thought on campus, a culture that doesn’t respect disagreement develops more easily.

Whether academia will take issue with a growing gap in ideological diversity is an open question. Until change happens, though, students are left to challenge themselves with unfamiliar ideas outside of class.


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