Why are New England professors so far left compared with the rest of the nation? That’s a question for further research. My intuition is that inertia and history play a huge role here. Regions have traditions and cultures that can have powerful influences on thought. I cannot say for certain why New England is so far to the left. But 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.
When I began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in 2010, my colleagues would joke that I was a “targeted hire” because I didn’t express uniformly left-wing political views. In most places I’d be considered a moderate, but in the campus context I might as well have been Ted Cruz.
At the time, I thought that Sarah Lawrence was simply on the extreme side of the academic ideological spectrum. But research I’ve conducted since then has shown that the ranks of academia have shifted sharply leftward over the last 25 years.
The overall shift is undeniable. In surveys of the ideological leanings of college faculty members by the Higher Education Research Institute from 1989 through 2014, the percentage of those identifying as liberal has always outnumbered moderates and conservatives, but the data show a notable shift left in the middle of the 1990s. In 1989, roughly 40 percent of professors were moderate and 40 percent were liberal; the remaining 20 percent were conservative. By 2014, liberal identifiers jumped to 60 percent, with moderates declining to 30 percent and conservatives to just 10 percent.
But the story turns out to be more complicated than this, since the shift left is far from uniform. It varies, for instance, from discipline to discipline and department to department, even when controlling for all other factors.
In my attempt to unpack the larger trend — using data that the Higher Education Research Institute generously provided for the first time — I looked at factors that have been known to affect a teacher’s political ideology: tenure status, income and salaries, school type (e.g., Christian colleges versus large public universities), selectivity, departmental affiliation and age. Surprisingly, the factor that had the greatest impact on the ideological leanings of college professors was their geographic region.
Faculty members in New England are far more liberal than their counterparts anywhere else in the nation, even controlling for discipline and school type. In 1989, the number of liberals compared with conservatives on college campuses was about 2 to 1 nationwide; that figure was almost 5 to 1 for New England schools. By 2014, the national figure was 6 to 1; for those teaching in New England, the figure was 28 to 1.