In the US, liberal bias in academia has long been a subject of concern, especially to those on the right of the political spectrum. Now here in Canada, pundits and politicians are increasingly bothered by a perceived lack of openness to conservative views on campus (see, for example, here, here or here). Yet Canada is not the US. Is there good reason to believe that pro-liberal or anti-conservative bias on campus is a serious issue here?
One way of answering this question is to consider the political leanings of Canadian university professors. In Canada people do not affiliate with a political party as part of their voter registration, so the only data available on professorial political affiliation comes from surveys. The only published survey of professorial attitudes that I am aware of was carried out almost twenty years ago, in 2000. Nakhaie and Adam sent out a mail-in questionnaire to 10,000 Canadian faculty members. Thirty-four percent of those surveyed responded. The political affiliations of the respondents are shown below the fold.
Professors were less likely to belong to one of the parties on the right than the typical Canadian - see the "professor to population ratios" in the last rows in the table below. Professors were also more likely than a typical Canadian to support the NDP. However, a plurality of Canadian university professors responding to Nakhaie and Adam's survey self-identified with the centrist Liberal party - as did a plurality of the Canadian population as a whole, at that point in time. Professors were not much more likely to be Liberals than the typical Canadian.
Some might explain the relative lack of Reform or PC supporters in Nakhaie and Adam's data by claiming that there is discrimination against conservatives on campus; that academics with right-leaning views are less likely to be hired. One way of testing this theory is with polling data. Are the views of university professors systematically different from those of other highly educated workers? If so, perhaps the possibility of discrimination needs to be investigated further. However if university professors' political views are similar to those of other highly educated individuals, it is harder to argue that people are selected into the academy on the basis of their ideology.
To compare the views of Nakhaie and Adam's professors with other similarly educated Canadians I used November, 2000, Gallup polling data. This poll asked 585 decided voters their federal voting intentions. Here is the relationship between education and federal voting intentions in the Gallup data (the tall blue columns on the left represent likely Liberal voters):
It is not surprising that Nakhaie and Adam did not find a lot of support for the conservative Reform party among university professors; apart from CEGEP-educated voters, who are largely located in Quebec, university educated Canadians were those least likely to support Reform. The majority of university-educated Canadians - in November, 2000, at least - supported the Liberal party. Hence it is not surprising that a plurality of the university professors Nakhaie and Adam surveyed reported Liberal leanings.
I am reluctant to put too much weight on a single monthly poll by a single polling company. However here are some data that I crunched from a September, 2016 Forum Research Poll of Ontario voters. It finds a similar pattern. Although Patrick Brown's Progressive Conservatives led Kathleen Wynne's Liberals among all educational groups, people who had undertaken post-graduate studies were the most pro-Liberal and least pro-conservative of any demographic group - see below. (Somewhat confusingly, in this graph, the tall blue column on the left of each group represents the Progressive Conservative Party):
I also did some tabulations with an Angus Reid poll. This considered 2011 Federal party choices, and again finds that more highly educated Canadians are more likely to lean Liberal and less likely to lean Conservative:
These surveys do not provide conclusive evidence of an education-political affiliation link. They are based on a series of relatively small polls (about 1000 respondents) conducted via telephone. Non-response is a concern, as are confounding factors, such as the interaction between age and education on the one hand (older people tend to have lower levels of education) and age and political affiliation on the other (older people tend to be more conservative). Also none of the figures and tables above do proper tests for statistical significance, as one could do with, say, a multinomial analysis [Bleg: is it worth putting in the effort to do some multinomial analysis? how would one aggregate polls to get a decent-sized data set?].
The evidence presented above is consistent with the idea that part of the reason that conservatives are underrepresented among the professoriate is that conservatives are underrepresented among the group of people who could potentially be university professors: highly educated Canadians.
Yet this begs the question: why are highly educated Canadians more likely to support the Liberal party and less likely to support parties towards the right of the political spectrum?
In the US, where the positive correlation between education and liberalism is well documented, much ink has been spilled on the subject. There are good reasons not to import this debate into Canada.
First, although Canadians and Americans have similar overall levels of education (see here), Canada is exceptional among OECD countries in having a large "college" - as distinct from "university" - sector (see here). As the Angus Reid and Gallup polls discussed above show, is pretty difficult to find any evidence of pro-Liberal bias among college graduates. If college instructors have left-leaning orientations similar to those of university professors, the relative conservatism of college graduates would be evidence against a straightforward "liberal teachers pass liberal values to their students" hypothesis. It would, however, be consistent with the idea that the content of the university curriculum inclines people to become more liberal.
Yet U of T is not Harvard; UBC is not Oxford or Cambridge. Some evidence suggests that the effect of university education on political attitudes stems from students' interactions with other students, rather than what they are taught by professors. For example, Kyle Dodson's research summarized here and partially ungated here suggests that it's engagement in student activities, rather than interactions with faculty members, which creates campus radicals. Faculty interaction has, if anything, a moderating effect on students' views. Dodson's study suggests that any systemic differences in the on-campus experiences of Canadian and American students might be expected to affect the values they absorb while at university.
There are also differences between the demographics of university-educated Canadians and Americans. Canadian university graduates are disproportionately likely to be immigrants - a reflection of Canada's immigration system which gives points for education level. Visible minority Canadians are much more likely than other Canadians to have a university degree - this is particularly true of visible minority men. These demographics provide a straightforward explanation of why many people with university degrees would be reluctant to embrace any party perceived to be anti-immigration or nativist - and despite Conservative repudiations of racism e.g. here, it is not obvious that the party has succeeded in creating an image of itself as being pro-immigration.
Indeed, this raises a more general point: it is foolhardy to try to explain the education/political affiliation linkages without looking at the substantive content of political parties' platforms. For example, parties that promise austerity and reduced government spending are unlikely to appeal to doctors and nurses, teachers and social workers, and all of the other highly educated public sector workers. It is entirely possible that the relationships between education and political affiliation in Canada are driven, in whole or in part, by self-interest.
Self-interest, in the largely unionized Canadian university context, might explain why the typical university professor is more likely to support the NDP than the typical highly educated Canadian, given the NDP's historically pro-union stance.
Another possibility often raised in the US debate is that smart conservatives seek out better paid jobs in the private sector. It is not obvious that this explanation would apply to Canada, where professorial pay is relatively generous - though, at the same time, it is also worth pointing out that many undergraduates are taught by contract instructors earning a fraction of what their tenure- or tenure-track colleagues make. It is not obvious why someone would want to work as a contract instructor, rather than an accountant, unless they valued the non-monetary aspects of the job.
The non-monetary aspects of professorial life - working all morning in one's pyjamas, working all night marking papers - are not valued equally by everyone. Hence personality characteristics - what one enjoys and values in life and in work - are another potential driver of the correlation between being left-leaning and being a university professor. Below is a table from Carney et al that provides a sense of the literature on the personality/politics correlation. The notation "Slovenly, ambiguous, indifferent (C-)" in the Liberal/Left-wing column means that people who are low (-) in conscientiousness (C) are more likely to be Liberal. The "Reliable, trustworthy, faithful, loyal (C+, A+)" in the conservative/right-wing column means that people who are high (+) in the selected conscientiousness (C) and agreeableness (A) traits are more likely to be conservative.
If creativity and openness are essential prerequisites to having a successful and happy career in academia, then any overrepresentation of liberalism in academia could simply be a function of the type of personality needed to be successful on the job.
This has been a long post. The underlying motivation for it is to better understand the political context under which Canadian universities are operating. My gut feeling is that over the next five to ten years universities will find themselves under increasing pressure to show that they are delivering value to Canadians. I'm trying to figure out where that pressure will come from, and what form it will take. Suggestions/thoughts/ideas for regressions to run would be welcome.
Note: I have not been able to find any information on the attitudes of Canadian academics other than Nakhaie and Adam's work. Mohsen Javdani has carried out a survey of Canadian academic economists' views, but the results are not yet available.