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Mayer: ‘Diversity’ leaves conservatives out

March 1, 2017 GMT

If you’ve spent any time hanging around a university — indeed, if you’ve just come within earshot of such an institution — you know that one of the great academic buzzwords of the last several decades is diversity. Whatever else universities are committed to — usually their goals and values are phrased in such a way as to avoid the most fundamental questions — they are fully in favor of diversity.

Last year, Northeastern University, where I have been a professor for the last 25 years, issued an “Academic Plan” that tried to provide a general statement of the university’s goals over the next 10 years. Though the plan is just 10 pages long, it uses the words “diverse” and “diversity” 25 times.


Now I do believe there is considerable value in having a diverse student body and faculty.

My principal objection to the quest for diversity, however, is the contorted, remarkably undiverse way that schools interpret this term. In academia, diversity is conceptualized solely in terms of race and gender, with an occasional nod toward sexual orientation, international origin, and physical disability. In my experience, universities pay no attention to what one might think is the most important form of diversity for an educational institution: intellectual diversity.

It is no great secret that faculty members have a very strong leftward tilt, and that the tilt is even greater at elite institutions. This has been verified in a large number of surveys. The predominance of liberals and radicals has a significant impact on the teaching of the social sciences, history, and law. Less obviously, perhaps, it affects the teaching in the humanities, where the writings of dead white males — Shakes- peare, Milton, Chaucer — have gradually given way to authors chosen largely because of their race or gender. And while politics may not show up in standard courses on physics and chemistry, it can influence the treatment of topics like global warming or nuclear energy.

Consider two bits of evidence specific to my own school that use party affiliation as a proxy for ideology.

• In a study published in Econ Journal Watch in September 2016, three scholars used publicly available voter registration data to determine the party registrations of faculty at 40 highly ranked universities in five major fields (economics, history, law, journalism, and psychology). At Northeastern, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 33 to 1 (not counting 23 registered independents), making it the seventh most imbalanced of all the universities examined. This was slightly less lopsided than the partisan profile at Boston University (40 to 1 Democratic), slightly more askew than Tufts (32 to 1), Brandeis (28 to 1), and Boston College (22 to 1). Surprisingly, Harvard came in at only (only!) 10 to 1 Democratic.


The Northeastern Law School had a particular problem in this regard (well, some of us would regard it as a problem). It had 33 registered Democrats on its faculty — and not one registered Republican.

• Using an online database maintained by OpenSecrets.org, I was able to examine the pattern of campaign contributions made by Northeastern employees in the 2012 presidential election. Northeastern faculty and administrators made a total of 123 contributions to the presidential candidates and their associated committees. Fully 91 percent went to Barack Obama, just 6 percent to Mitt Romney. One brave maverick made four contributions to Ron Paul.

This sort of imbalance cannot be good for a university. It means that students are likely to hear only one side of a lot of highly contested issues. As John Stuart Mill pointed out, a solid defense can only be provided “from persons who actually believe” the other side, “who defend [it] in earnest and do their very utmost for” it. Nor is such a one-sided ideological profile good for the faculty, who may never encounter a serious challenge to many of their cherished dogmas.

I have no quick and easy solution to the gross underrepresentation of conservatives at places like Northeastern. But it would at least be a good first step if it were recognized as a problem, something I have never heard any university leader in Boston acknowledge. On the one occasion when I tried to raise this issue — at a meeting in which departments were being urged to make a special effort to hire a more diverse faculty — the meeting’s organizers quickly made clear that my suggestion was inappropriate and not worth considering and then moved the discussion back to safer issues like race and gender.

William G. Mayer is a professor of political science at Northeastern University.