U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Liberalism and Conservatism in the Neoliberal University

Several days ago Natalia Mehlman Petrzela posted to the USIH Facebook page a fascinating, generally positive, but also critical recent review by the literary scholar Jeffrey Williams of Neil Gross’s sociological study Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? (the review appeared initially in the Los Angeles Review of Books and was reprinted on Salon.com).

I haven’t read Gross’s book, though I now very much want to. But Williams’s central criticism of it is simultaneously thought-provoking and frustrating.[1]

Gross set out to empirically test the claim that academia has a liberal bias.  In Williams’s words, Gross’s study shows that:

yes, professors identify as liberal more often than they do conservative, but the asymmetry is not as extreme as rightwing critics claim, and it has relatively little effect on their teaching. Gross adduces that professors lean left more often than they lean right by about two to one. In data from 2006, about 9 percent identify as radical (meaning they call for the redistribution of wealth), 31 percent as progressive (less about wealth but keen on social and cultural issues), 14 percent as center-left, 19 percent as moderate, 4 percent as economic (but not cultural) conservative, and 23 percent as strongly conservative.

Among other things, Gross also shows that the radical left has declined among academics in recent decades, that most academics cultivate neutrality in the classroom, and that graduate admission processes don’t favor students of any particular political viewpoint.  Gross argues that most people’s political orientation is settled during adolescence and that the professors’ politics reflect the sorts of people who happen to be drawn to academia rather than indicated any process of indoctrination on college campuses.  Finally, Goss stresses that that the charge that academia is a hotbed of radicalism has been an important cultural trope going back to the late 19th century that, starting in the 1950s, became especially politically salient for American conservatives through the pseudo-populism of William F. Buckley, Jr.

Williams’s chief criticism of Gross’s book is

its blindness is to the actual conditions of higher education. It takes politics entirely as a matter of discourse and exemplifies the disconnect I mentioned above, between the purportedly liberal views of professors and the neoliberal policies and practices that, over the course of the last 40 years, have remade the institutions of higher education they inhabit.

Having not read Gross’s book, I am in no position to judge whether or not Gross ignores the politics of the university itself in his study of the politics of its professors. But Williams is, I think, making an important point here.  Insofar as we continue to understand professors’ politics as disconnected from the policies and practices of higher education itself, we will neither understand professors’ politics nor how academia has changed in recent decades.

As in that last quoted passage from his review, Williams’s adjective of choice to describe the politics of the contemporary university is “neoliberal,” a word with an interesting and complicated history, as regular readers of this blog are well aware.  And therein lies my frustration with this review.

I think that “neoliberalism” (in the sense in which Gross uses it) is a valuable concept. But its importation to the U.S. has created some terminological and analytical difficulties.  In his book, Gross appears to use the term only four times and in the very particular context of economic thought and policies.[2]  It’s not a basic political category for him, unlike, say “radical,” “progressive,” “moderate,” and “conservative.” These other terms are, of course, much more common in everyday, contemporary American political discourse.

The problem, then, is what is the relationship of the term “neoliberal” (in Williams’s broader context, beyond the field of economics) to these more quotidian terms. Part of the power of Williams’s challenge to consider the neoliberal university when one is considering the political views of professors is the implication that professors’ relationship to neoliberalism somehow cuts across these more common categories.  Williams makes a couple attempts to spell out this relationship. Perhaps, he suggests, professors views are

in fact a façade, abandoned when push comes to shove (for instance, during the graduate student strike at Yale, when many self-proclaimed leftist professors threw the union overboard and sided with the administration), or a form of false consciousness, in which academics misrecognize their true position (as many critics in the 1960s claimed of professors’ complicity with the war state).

Or perhaps, Williams goes on, the liberalism of many professors, focused as it is on diversity, “goes hand in hand with neoliberal policies.”  But he doesn’t seem to entirely endorse any of these interpretations, preferring, at the end of the review, to simply suggest that we should stop talking about “liberal bias” and instead talk about “neoliberal bias.”

I agree with Williams that, when we think about the politics of university faculty, we need to consider the politics of the university itself and professors’ (political) actions in relationship to those politics.  I am also generally sympathetic with his description of the politics of the contemporary university as “neoliberal.”

Where I disagree is that we can – or should – simply cast aside the common vocabulary of American politics in talking about the politics of the university.[3] Much of the power of Williams’s suggestion that we need to consider the politics of the university when considering the politics of the faculty (and of public discussion of the politics of the faculty) gets lost if, with Williams, we go on to agree that the politics of the faculty and political discussions about the university (as both are usually understood) are merely false consciousness or a façade. If “neoliberalism” is to be a useful analytic word in discussing any aspect of US politics, it cannot be used simply as a warrant to jettison the very vocabulary of U.S. politics as it is actually performed.

[1] I don’t believe in arguing about books one hasn’t read, so I’m going to try to keep this post focused on Williams’s review rather than Gross’s book. Any of this blog’s readers who have read Gross’s book should of course feel free to discuss it, as well, in comments.

[2] Thank you, Google Books and Amazon.com’s “Look Inside This Book” feature

[3] Or, I’d add, anywhere else. If “neoliberalism” is a useful concept, it is useful far beyond the Ivory Tower…and we will encounter similar problems with other such uses of the word when we discuss American politics more broadly.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Did (or perhaps we can speak in the present tense) not something like this occur with the term “postmodernism?” I seem to recall loose talk in some quarters about this meaning the transcendence or “overcoming” of the political categories of Left and Right.

  2. I haven’t read the book, but I did take an hour a few weeks ago to listen to Gross in an interview on the New Books network where he discussed the key arguments in the book at some length (link below). I don’t recall him going into the arguments about changing university politics. My impression was that Gross seems like a thorough and cautious social scientist who is trying as best he can to apply data and sober analysis to a deeply contentious topic (which Williams seems to recognize in his review in several places). I’m inclined to think that if Gross does not address the neoliberal changes in college administration and the fact that lefty profs are often inclined to be mere Bobos, it is because he did not see these issues as the motivating forces behind the questions he was trying to answer. It seemed to me like he wanted to get to the bottom of whether the conservative critique/portrait of lefty ideologues professors corrupting young minds with “bias” had much merit, and concluded, with care, that it didn’t. If Williams is right and he is leaving out many of the ways in which professors are even less of leftist radicals then that could fit in with his general conclusion, perhaps, though he would have to use somewhat different research methods to argue for this point.


  3. http://www.jonathanlewy.com/liberal-universitie/

    “In fact, [Gross] writes that according to one poll only 14 percent of professors identify themselves as Republicans (that takes into account those who teach in ‘conservative’ departments in the natural sciences and business.) The rest of the nation’s faculty members are radical leftists, moderate liberals or independents who tend to vote liberal.

    Gross’ own research, which offers many shades of political grey, shows that 23 percent of professors claim they are ‘strong conservatives,’ and four percent are ‘economic conservative.’ Under these two categories most academic Republicans and Libertarians hide. The rest, a stunning 73 percent, is dominated by various flavors of liberals or Democrat voters.

    It is true that Gross identified a group that is dubbed ‘moderates,’ and it composes 19 percent of the professoriate. Moderates claim they would vote for either a Democrat or a Republican, but they tend to vote Democrats when push comes to shove. Or in my words, these are the people who say that they are Independent, but when asked when was the last time they voted Republican, their answer is the 1980 elections (probably because they are too shy to admit they voted for Bush in 2000.)

    Gross demonstrates that although self declared ‘radicals’ are not as prevalent in American universities as they were in the 60s and 70s, the number of liberals as a whole has grown since. Be that as it may, a ‘radical liberal’ or a moderate is in the eyes of the beholder. For this reason, I trust the voting pattern among professors more than what they claim about themselves. Gross does not provide a clear professorial voting breakdown, but one can gather from his book that over 75 percent of professors vote for the Democratic party. In other words, the liberal professor archetype is not a myth, but a firm reality.”

  4. http://chronicle.com/article/article-content/138181/

    “The pattern is especially pronounced in the liberal arts, where political opinions are formed and refined. A recent survey of faculty members at California colleges and universities indicates that Republicans are a rare breed in the humanities and social sciences. In history departments, the ratio is roughly 11 Democrats for every one Republican. In sociology, the ratio is a staggering 44 to 1.”

  5. For the sake of discussion, I am going to propose one short and polemical argument:

    “If “neoliberalism” is to be a useful analytic word in discussing any aspect of US politics, it cannot be used simply as a warrant to jettison the very vocabulary of U.S. politics as it is actually performed.”

    But perhaps that is actually the *virtue* of talking about neo-liberalism – because maybe we should, in fact, jettison that vocabulary. Maybe it is, indeed, very misleading, and perhaps the fact that people continue to employ that vocabulary does result from a combo of false consciousness (which I know, is deeply out of style, but I feel like many who claim they do not agree with it, find themselves articulating arguments over and over again which pretty much add up to false consciousness), ideological cover, and I would add ignorance and naivete. Indeed, I think the value of Williams’ point here about the neo-liberal university is it brings up how unhelpful these categories of “liberals,” “conservatives,” and “moderates” actually are. Yes, this is the vocabulary people use “on the ground,” so to speak. But surely that does not mean we can therefore assume they are reliable indicators of what, for lack of a more academic phrase, is really going on. In that case, no history of any kind would be needed — we would just take a poll and conduct interviews to determine what people think and why they think it, and declare that we have therefore mapped and decoded the political landscape.

    • Indeed, I think the value of Williams’ point here about the neo-liberal university is it brings up how unhelpful these categories of “liberals,” “conservatives,” and “moderates” actually are.

      Or it’s a rhetorical strategy to relabel left/liberal as “center” and moot the question.

    • Indeed, I think the value of Williams’ point here about the neo-liberal university is it brings up how unhelpful these categories of “liberals,” “conservatives,” and “moderates” actually are.

      Williams seems to simply assume that those categories are unhelpful. I don’t mean to suggest that the way in which people understand their own world is entirely correct. As Williams suggest, the operation of the university (and faculty attitudes toward that operation) suggest that some things are going on that are not fully covered by the categories that Gross uses (assuming that Williams presents Gross’s argument fairly). But it’s one thing to use the category of neoliberalism as an addition to our way of talking about the political world, and quite another to invoke it as a warrant to assume the irrelevance of the way we usually talk about it.

      I think we cannot do history if we make the assumption that we can simply ignore the way people understand their own world. So I suppose I would say that we can, and should assume, that the vocabulary that ordinary people use has some relationship–and is necessary to take into account in order to understand–“what’s really going on” (indeed, those ordinary understandings of the world are themselves an important part of “what’s really going on”). This doesn’t mean we necessarily give these understandings the last word (in fact, I thing we rarely do or should). But simply assuming that people are arguing in bad faith (the facade suggestion) or that they utterly misunderstand their own world (the false-consciousness argument) is, in fact, to deny the importance of a whole lot of stuff that is, quite plainly “really going on.” I think one would have to do a ton more work than Williams does here to justify such a move. And there’d be little point in doing intellectual history if one had no interest in the way that others understand the world.

  6. “I don’t mean to suggest that the way in which people understand their own world is entirely correct.”

    Yeah, for sure; I understood you weren’t making this argument, and should have included a disclaimer to this effect. And I agree with the sentiments that follow, that we have to of course, listen to how people explain their world to themselves, and this is rather important, etc. But in being polemical, I was trying to suggest something about the nature of these type of discussions about method/approach/assumptions.

    Because I think here, as with so much, the question of approach & assumptions is not so much one of “is this always or ever appropriate” but, one of degree and emphasis. In other words, how unnerved one is or is not by any assumption or, rhetorical strategy — and I see no problem with rhetorical strategies as long as they are connected to an argument you are explicitly advancing and providing some type of evidence for — reveals larger positions we hold on any given subject. If Williams did not provide substantial evidence for his sweeping use of neo-liberal in this case — in a single book review — then certainly he ought to do so in more length elsewhere. But the problem here is not necessarily with the use of neo-liberal, as you pointed out, but the claim that *his* use of the word implies. To be clear, I agree that it is ” quite another to invoke it as a warrant to assume the irrelevance of the way we usually talk about it.” But from this we cannot conclude or assume we have proved that he is not right in such a claim. Which you do not think he is. Which is completely legitimate, obviously. But in that case, you too also bear a lot of weight for showing, beyond the evidence you’ve presented in an also short piece, that he is wrong. What the discussion might really be over, I’m implying, is not the form of his argument, but the content. Does Williams really just assume the irrelevance of those categories, not just in this one book review but in all of his work and thinking? Perhaps he does, and in that case, we are in total agreement. And indeed, I agree with you that he (or someone, at least) should not merely dispense with the old labels, but show what relationship they have to neo-liberalism. But my guess is he has his reasons for reducing his use of the common vocabulary, and you have yours for holding on to it. So, better to focus on those than these questions of vocabulary which skirt around the much more interesting content argument going on.

    This is why I presented a polemical argument, to get at this larger discussion: what if someone claims, in this case for example, that this vocabulary IS irrelevant? What is your response going to be to that? It can’t just be an appeal to a normative rule of historical method, although that can be discussed along the way — but it has to be a content argument, primarily. You have to show he’s actually wrong for doing so. (I’m not sure he is right, btw, but obviously, I think it might be more revealing and useful to imagine he is than he isn’t.)

    Or perhaps not, and perhaps you’re pretty much in complete agreement with the content of his assessment of the university, and really just have a problem with the vocabulary or, the idea that we can say that a very significant amount of “what is going on” — perhaps a majority? — is not accounted for by the common vocabulary. Personally, in any question, I find this idea less troubling and more likely than many. As someone over at Crooked Timber put it recently (I’ve forgotten who), it is quite important to understand how people understand themselves, but yet — sincerity is not the same thing as accuracy. Again, I’m sure you agree with that, as well, but here we are again with the question of emphasis, which is actually no small question. We can imagine the problem with the silly strategy of percentages. 70 percent neo-liberalism, 30 percent the old categories? Or 60/40? Or you would be more comfortable with 50/50? (I would go with 70/30, myself, when forced to choose.) I understand splitting things up in such a clear way is no substitute for a detailed, sustained analysis that shows how messy and interrelated this all is. But the point I’m trying to make here again is even when arguing directly (and actually) about approach/vocabulary/assumptions what have you, we’re actually arguing about where we fall in a sliding scale that reveals larger intellectual assumptions and political positions that differ in that bedrock way which is hard, from there, to proscribe any “so you should never do this” rule that everyone agrees should be normative all the time. Because even if in principle, we all agree, in practice, we reveal our larger conclusions and tendencies in how often we apply such rules, and where and when.

    Which I guess is all to say, such discussions seem to me to usually boil down to not a question, really, of method or vocabulary or assumptions, but of intellectual and political positions that should be argued about in a much more direct way. Apologies if this was rambling or confusing; thinking aloud kind of thing.

    • I see what you’re getting at here, but in this particular case, we’re dealing with a term, “neoliberalism,” which is potentially very useful, but which, as students of neoliberalism like Daniel Stedman Jones have noted, in practice is often thrown around in sloppy and imprecise ways that end up muddying the waters of political discussions (it’s very similar to the term “fascism” in this regard).

      Now I happen to think that, used precisely, it’s a word that can be applied accurately to important transformations that have been going in the university. But it also doesn’t happen to be a concept that undoes the work done by the more usual vocabulary of American politics. That is, for example, I think that, while (some) self-described liberal professors and (some) self-described conservative ones are supportive of the neo-liberal university, that doesn’t mean that either group is in some sense really neoliberal rather than liberal or conservative (they might better be described as both/and) or that there’s no difference between self-described liberals and self-described conservatives because of their shared neoliberalism.

      I don’t think this is a matter of percentages (I’m not even sure how you’d apply such a methodology). It’s a matter instead of something like: 1) the scholar’s being precise about what s/he means when using an imported, analytic term (like “neoliberalism,” in this context); 2) s/he also making a good faith effort to understand what actors on the ground mean when they use their own political vocabulary. Finally, 3) the scholar should note how the actors, who don’t use the word “neoliberal,” describe the phenomena that the scholar calls “neoliberal”…or, in some cases, why they don’t notice these phenomena at all.

      • Sure, all well-taken points. Just as a note, I was not intending the percentages idea as an actual method — I meant it as a thought experiment for thinking about how people weigh various factors differently, and the implications of that different weighting.

        For example, on the question of whether supporting neo-liberal policy makes you a neo-liberal, you are right that “that doesn’t mean that either group is in some sense really neoliberal rather than liberal or conservative (they might better be described as both/and)” two thoughts come to mind to me: yes, it does not mean they *necessarily* are “really” neo-liberal in some sense; but *could* it mean that, though? Is that a possibility that you could entertain — in this situation or any other similar one — or do you think it immediately discredited by the points you’re making here? I’m genuinely asking, because that’s what’s interesting to this whole problem/discussion to me; where people come down on this question and what arguments they advance for it. Or, if you would rather look at the more immediate content question, expound on this — “But it also doesn’t happen to be a concept that undoes the work done by the more usual vocabulary of American politics” — because I want to know why that is. That might be a whole post but, that was what I meant by the content discussion is much more juicy and at the heart of the matter, and that’s what I want to hear defended, rather than just asserted.

        Second, and I think here I am speaking to your point about the vagueness of how the term was applied, the usefulness of thinking about neo-liberalism — to me at least, and maybe I’m totally eccentric in this regard — is that it gets us to talking about behavior; what people actually do. Liberals can really be sincere liberals, while behaving in a way that reinforces neo-liberalism more than any other ideology they choose to identify themselves as adhering to. Ie, neo-liberalism is often not a label someone takes on or a set of beliefs they consciously adhere to, but something they *participate* in. So what are the implications of that? Here we agree that we should be more precise about how neo-liberalism relates or interacts with liberalism/conservatism/other more on the ground terms.

        Anyway, I’m obviously both interested in the particular debate about university politics and, this larger question of how important the conscious self-understandings of political actors are; but as I’m still working through this, I’m not going to throw down for any position at this moment, — we’ll see where I end up myself on these questions. 🙂

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