Defining Political Correctness and Its Non-Impact

New analysis of faculty database finds identifiable group of professors with common views on bias, but no willingness to discriminate on politics -- and considerable success for the politically incorrect.
July 25, 2008

A major new study of the political correctness of faculty members may challenge assumptions all around. For those who deny that there is an identifiable group of PC professors, the study says that there is in fact a group with consistently common perspectives, largely based on their views of discrimination (that it exists and matters).

But for those who say that these tenured radicals have all the power in academe, the study finds that politically correct professors' views on the role of politics in hiring decisions aren't very different from the views of other professors. Further, the study finds that a critical mass of politically incorrect professors is doing quite well in securing jobs at the most prestigious universities in the United States, despite claims that such scholars are an endangered species there.

The study is based on data collected for a report released last year, "The Social and Political Views of American Professors," which found that faculty members are more liberal than the public at large, but appear to be moderating compared to previous generations. That study -- which was praised by many experts from varying perspectives for the breadth of its scope and depth of its data -- asked professors many questions on social issues, but did not attempt to identify a politically correct cohort within academe.

The new study, which does so, was produced by Solon Simmons, co-author of last year's report and an assistant professor of conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason. The study appears in The Forum, an online journal that has published numerous key studies on the issue of professors' politics, including some that have been used to suggest that significant bias is present in the academy -- a point of view the new study does not share.

The first thing that Simmons does in the study with the database -- which covers a range of disciplines and institution types -- is to identify a politically correct cohort, reflecting largely common views on a set of issues that are seen as defining political correctness. He finds a set of issues that produce this cohort.

The views are the belief that gender gaps in math and science fields are largely due to discrimination; support for affirmative action; and belief that discrimination is a key cause of racial inequities in American society. Generally, members of this cohort see race and gender as fundamental -- and share that belief much more than beliefs about the curriculum or scholarship, such that the study says that "multiculturalism trumps postmodernism."

In an interview, Simmons acknowledged that many people use "politically correct" to imply more than just shared political beliefs, but also an intolerance of other views. He said that his definition did not attempt to group people together beyond their shared political beliefs.

Then Simmons analyzes disciplines, and finds sharp differences -- largely consistent with previous studies about disciplines and political leanings. Humanities and social science fields tend to have higher politically correct rankings, while professional and science disciplines do not. The table that follows is in order of political correctness. Psychology is the only field where a majority of professors are politically correct. Four fields -- finance, management information, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering -- had no one who was politically correct.

Political Correctness by Discipline

Discipline Moderately Correct Politically Incorrect Politically Correct Non-Committal
Psychology 15.2% 21.7% 58.7% 4.3%
Sociology 48.2% 1.8% 44.6% 5.4%
English 30.2% 18.9% 41.5% 9.4%
History 50.0% 16.7% 31.5% 1.9%
Elementary education 40.0% 28.9% 24.4% 6.7%
Communication 35.6% 31.1% 22.2% 11.1%
Nursing 41.8% 25.5% 18.2% 14.5%
Art 46.3% 17.1% 14.6% 22.0%
Business (general) 27.0% 37.8% 13.5% 21.6%
Political science 58.3% 14.6% 10.4% 16.7%
Criminal justice 63.6% 25.5% 9.1% 1.8%
Economics 32.6% 51.2% 4.7% 11.6%
Marketing 31.8% 43.2% 4.5% 20.5%
Accounting 40.0% 40.0% 4.0% 16.0%
Computer science 42.4% 48.5% 3.0% 6.1%
Biology 62.7% 19.6% 2.0% 15.7%
Finance 34.3% 34.3% 0.0% 31.4%
Management information 19.4% 72.2% 0.0% 8.3%
Mechanical engineering 17.6% 50.0% 0.0% 32.4%
Electrical engineering 34.1% 19.5% 0.0% 46.3%

The study then examines the breakdowns by college type. Again, consistent with findings that community college faculty members are less liberal than others, they are also less likely to be politically correct. The finding is important because one reason this database of faculty attitudes has been praised is that it includes community colleges -- which have been left out of many other such studies despite their role in educating millions of students.

Notably, in community colleges and four-year colleges generally, the politically incorrect significantly outnumber the politically correct. (The "top 50 category" refers to the rankings of U.S. News & World Report.)

Political Correctness by Sector

Sector Moderately Correct Politically Incorrect Politically Correct Non-Committal
Community colleges 28.2% 26.5% 15.5% 29.8%
4-year colleges 38.8% 33.1% 17.5% 10.7%
Ph.D.-granting institutions 40.4% 22.4% 20.0% 17.2%
Liberal arts colleges 48.8% 18.8% 28.8% 3.8%
Top 50 32.9% 18.0% 38.9% 10.2%

After having shown that, while there are politically correct professors, there are many who are not, Simmons turns to data to examine what happens to those who are politically incorrect. Here he looks for "stars," those who publish much more than others or who in other ways demonstrate levels of excellence beyond the norm. Here he finds considerable success by the politically incorrect. Of those at top 50 institutions, 73.3 percent are stars.

He reports that of politically incorrect stars, across institution types, 27.8 percent end up at top 50 institutions, while the other 72.2 percent do not. Of politically correct stars, 91.2 percent end up outside the top 50, suggesting that politically incorrect stars are more likely than their PC counterparts to end up at top institutions. While Simmons said that there are multiple ways to interpret these findings, they suggest at a minimum that some significant number of politically incorrect professors rise to the institutions of greatest prestige.

One of the big questions for the paper is whether political correctness -- as defined in this study -- matters. The charge made by conservative critics is that politically correct professors use classrooms to indoctrinate and try to prevent the hiring of conservatives. While not finding those trends, this study does find that the politically correct are less likely than other professors to keep their political views to themselves and more likely to be guided by their beliefs in suggesting research topics.

But on these questions, the politically correct are not monolithic, nor are those who are politically incorrect. For example, asked whether professors dealing with controversial topics should keep their views to themselves, 14.6 percent of the politically correct and 26.0 percent of the politically incorrect strongly agree, while 48.8 percent of the politically correct and 27.7 percent of the politically incorrect disagree.

When it comes to hiring and definitions of diversity, there is a strong belief -- across levels of political correctness -- that political tests should not be used. And while support isn't quite as strong, there is also broad support across political correctness levels for the idea that the goal of campus diversity should include "fostering the diversity of political views among faculty members."

Here are the data:

% of Professors Saying Politics of Job Candidates Shouldn't Play Role in Hiring Decisions

  Strongly Agree Somewhat Agree Somewhat Disagree Strongly Disagree
Moderately Correct 75.6% 21.2% 3.2% 0.0%
Politically Incorrect 71.6% 24.4% 2.0% 2.0%
Politically Correct 74.3% 25.7% 0.0% 0.0%
Non-Committal 68.2% 31.8% 0.0% 0.0%

% of Professors Saying Diversity Should Include Faculty Political Views

  Strongly Agree Somewhat Agree Somewhat Disagree Strongly Disagree
Moderately Correct 25.0% 41.8% 21.8% 11.4%
Politically Incorrect 27.3% 36.5% 24.3% 11.9%
Politically Correct 30.3% 38.0% 12.1% 19.5%
Non-Committal 16.7% 67.2% 8.6% 7.6%

Taken together, these findings suggest that politically correct professors are not "illiberal" in their tolerance for others, or that they desire to have everyone agree with them, Simmons said. That is significant, he added, because that is among the reasons cited for concern by those who argue that the liberal tendencies of professors pose some inherent danger to academe.

The Forum also is publishing a short response to the paper by Robert Maranto, a political scientist at Villanova University, who is co-editor of the forthcoming volume The Politically Correct University. Maranto writes that the Simmons study is "intelligent and provocative," but that it plays down the impact of political correctness.

He notes that politically correct professors are more likely than others to be guided by their beliefs in selecting research topics, and says this explains why -- he believes -- sociologists have ignored certain successes in crime prevention and education professors have not studied certain kinds of school reforms. "The real impacts of the PC university are on knowledge generation," he writes.


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