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