Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Too many liberals in the liberal arts?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sightings is sponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up to get Sightings in your inbox twice per week (on Mondays and Thursdays). You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Sightings on Mondays is conceived of as being politically nonpartisan, so it is rare to feature the words “Republican” and “Democrat” as we do this week. The terms sneak in here because they are key to the main point of our source today, an article titled “Homogeneous: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts College Faculty” (April 24, 2018) published by the politically conservative National Association of Scholars. Note: the title does not say “affiliations in”—which would refer to the political leanings of individual faculty members—but rather “affiliations of,” since the author of our source deduces and claims that these faculties as faculties are themselves propagators of capital-“D” Democratic values.

The author is Mitchell Langbert, an associate professor of business at Brooklyn College, who thanks the Searle Freedom Trust, which traditionally funds conservative and libertarian organizations, for supporting his project. Langbert’s blog and other writings are likewise consistently conservative and “Republicanesque.” We know that overdoing citation of percentages can be alienating in a column like this, so we urge readers to stock up on statistics yourselves by extracting, printing out, and doing a thorough read-mark-learn-and-understand engagement with Langbert’s. Here’s an unavoidable and, I hope, helpful dipping into his statistical pool and assertions.

Langbert’s finding and thesis is that “[t]he political registration of full-time, Ph.D.-holding professors in top-tier liberal arts colleges is overwhelmingly Democratic.” He writes that thirty-nine percent of the colleges in his sample are “Republican free—having zero Republicans.” Examining that “sample of 8,688 tenure-track … professors from fifty-one of the sixty-six top-ranked liberal arts colleges,” according to U.S. News, reveals them to be overwhelmingly Democratic in affiliation. A few institutions are “outliers”; he lists Claremont McKenna, St. John’s, Thomas Aquinas, and two military academies (West Point and Annapolis), which enlarge the conservative/Republican ranks. Regional locations make some difference. New England faculties are far more Democrat-leaning than are those in, e.g., the South. What interests us at Sightings most in these data, though, is the Democratic/Republican split among faculty in various disciplines.

Least Democratic (though Democrats are always in the majority) are teachers in engineering, chemistry, economics, et cetera. Midway down the list come my own congenial disciplines, history and philosophy, followed by English and religion. Beyond them? Anthropology and communications, which carry a note on the included graph: “No registered Republicans.” Similarly, there were no Republican professors at all in gender studies, Africana studies, or peace studies. Back to religion: if Langbert is right, then there are seventy Democratic-affiliated “religionists” to every one Republican.

Hold on! Back off! Cross fingers? I may have read some of this wrong, or maybe Langbert skewed his study to fit a preexisting narrative. Experts can check on these matters, but the published findings are so stark and clear that we can work with them until another study comes along. What to think? What questions to ask about higher education and party affiliation tending Democratic?

For one thing, this study deals with only one kind of institution: elite liberal arts colleges. Delete the word “elite,” and would findings be different? What of faculties in the many high-quality church- or religion-related colleges, e.g., those based in Jesuit and other Roman Catholic settings? Or think of institutions serving Methodist, Lutheran, and, of course, evangelical populations. A few such universities do show up in Langbert’s elect-as-elite, but how different would these findings look with a broader sample?

One could further refine the inquiry and ask what all goes into the definition of the “elite” club, factors which might unfairly limit Republican representation. Philosophers and historians might ponder the heritage of the Enlightenment and how it colors our academic disciplines. Let the questioning go on and on: there is enough here to occasion pondering the politics of faculty-departmental appointments, the question of the ethos of campus cultures, et cetera. Still, we can hope that first-rate if not officially “elite” schools will probe their practices and values, in their continuing pursuit of other than “homogeneous” approaches, and serve their constituencies, their students, and the public in manifold and refreshing ways.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


Click here to post a comment

  • There are disproportionately more liberals in academia because, as everyone knows, reality has a liberal bias and academia is supposed to deal in reality.

  • If only they were true liberals… standing against tyranny. Instead they are oppressive socialists.

  • When we stand against tyranny, we’re called oppressive socialists. It’s almost as if the word means absolutely nothing outside of the right wing echo chamber.


  • What makes you an “oppressor,” Ben, is that you willfully defy them. You see, in their eyes, as a human being, you are required to say, think, believe, and do all the things they demand you say, think, believe, and do. That you’re under this mandate is one of their beliefs, so by refusing to obey it, you’re thwarting them … and that, in turn, is an “attack” on their persons, and a form of wicked “oppression” they cannot tolerate.  

    Now, I know you already know all this … I just figured I’d spell it out, for everyone else’s edification.  

  • I do know exactly what you were talking about. The biggest problem I pose for the bigots on these very pages is that I refuse to know my place. It’s the same problem with gay people in general pose for bigots like Anita Bryant. It was the exact same problem That the “colored women” posed for the white women in the movie, “the help”. They refused to know their place.

    Not all bigotry is hate. So much of it is simply the assumption of superiority—mOral, religious, sexual, familial, relational, gender, racial, and so on. AlWays present, rarely acknowledged.

  • The key word here s “liberal;” as liberal arts. The point of this moniker is the function of education under this rubric is to develop and intellectual world view which is open to new ideas, willing to explore new thoughts and systems of thoughts, to free one from the parochial mind. In view of the current spate of “Republican” commentators and thinkers, I see nothing which places them in the category that would apply to a liberal arts education or environment since most seem opposed to any of the mentioned attributes of this pursuit Go to Hillsdale College/University where the closed mind is not only supported but required. Nothing liberal there and no self respecting Ph.D. would apply to teach. if you don’t support liberal arts values,don’t go to a school that does and then complain about the treatment you receive!

  • Liberal arts comes from the Mediterranean and the Mediterranean exports welfare. Liberal arts is a free form type of study and the focus is awareness of different people culture laws and rules and the environment to create well rounded citizens. free form study means individuals are free to study and explore certain topics within the arts department, chosen by the university for self interest, personal welfare, and collective welfare with no rules or specific structure. They are not told to take any particular class. Liberal arts programs can also be complimentary to professional development using interest classes. Liberal arts students are often connected to welfare and helping and maybe considered alternative. Liberal arts, philosophy, social work and welfare programming should be separate. Liberal arts student study philosophy to explain things in a way that is alternative but are not serious philosophers.
    Proffesional devlopment courses are not freee study and are not libreal arts.

  • Conservative circles often spread the meme that the elite universities are bastions of neo-Marxism. The problem with the elite universities is not that they are neo-Marxist….it is that they are not. Sure, the faculties may express progressive to radical left-wing points of view, but the admission system is still quite elitist and discriminating, despite its efforts at diversity. Perhaps the radical ideology of elite faculties assuages their guilt over their own class and the class privilege that their institutions perpetuate.