For those who follow the ebb and flow of the culture wars, it has long been obvious that university faculties and student bodies largely form a Left-wing monoculture. Some have sounded the alarm for decades, but we forget how long it takes for majority opinion to catch up. Now, the penny is finally dropping.
On social media, many wonder how a donor like Harvard alumnus Bill Ackman could have held such pollyannish views about his alma mater for so long. I get it. I was lucky enough to win a visiting fellowship to Harvard’s Kennedy School as a young professor in 2007-8. Our weekly seminar featured a range of guests, from four-star generals to leading politicians. The content was, in my experience, professional rather than ideological; yet my conversations with dissidents in other departments made it clear that those who didn’t politically conform experienced chilly winds from other academics.
Few average voters have any idea about the progressive conformity and radical DEI agenda taking place behind closed doors in the departments, faculties and committees of the Ivory Tower. This typically intrudes as an “equity and diversity” line item late in a meeting after the dry business of marking and administration is done, but sets the ethos of the university.
After a number of highly-publicised disputes in recent years, Tucker Carlson and other conservative commentators began to peel back the curtain, bashing progressive excess on campus. Accordingly, successive Gallup polls show that the share of Republicans expressing “a great deal of confidence” in higher education fell from 56% in 2015 to an unprecedented 19% in 2023. Nationally, the numbers sank from 57 to 36%.
Universities which have inexplicably escaped the scrutiny of Republican legislators and donors are increasingly in their crosshairs. Red states like Texas have banned Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) offices, the epicentre of progressive illiberalism on campuses. GOP lawmakers have become bolder even in swing states like Wisconsin, where the Republican legislature has defied Democratic Governor Tony Evers, the media and the educational establishment by refusing to approve money for the state university system until $32 million in DEI funding is removed from the budget.
National press coverage of campus antisemitic incidents in the wake of Hamas’s 7 October massacre and the squirming of the presidents of Harvard, Pennsylvania and MIT under congressional scrutiny is even convincing Democrats like Josh Shapiro and members of Joe Biden’s team that something is deeply wrong.
There is still plenty of room for trust to tumble further because most people, even Donald Trump voters, still do not understand how monocultural the academy is. When I asked a sample of nearly 600 American respondents what they thought the political affiliation of American social science and humanities (SSH) academics was, the typical Trump voter said 35% Republican and 65% Democrat. The reality is closer to a 75-5 advantage for the Democrats. At Harvard, for instance, a faculty survey found just 1.5% backed the Republicans while political donations data shows that across the Ivy League the two-party split stands at 96 to 4. Public ignorance protects universities, even in red states.
Consider that Gallup’s numbers track the share of Americans with high confidence in universities, but this excludes those expressing “some” confidence. However, when I ask respondents whether they actively “mistrust” SSH academics, the figure is just 17%. Among Trump voters, 43% mistrust SSH academics while 37% trust them, a fairly even balance.
Yet the closer such voters’ perceptions come to reality, the more they mistrust SSH professors. Trump voters with an accurate perception of the composition of the SSH professoriate, at the far left of the chart below, have over a seven in ten chance of mistrusting these academics. Among the significant minority who think most SSH academics are Republican, fewer than two in ten mistrust them.
As politicians talk up academia’s Leftist skew to voters, trust among Republicans is likely to fall further, increasing the incentives for the GOP to target universities. The result will be a feedback loop of growing hostility. Academia’s insulation from political reality may not last much longer.