American colleges and universities have long been among the envies of the world. They are without peer in terms of research and opportunities. Over the past decade, however, there’s been growing attention to what’s become the dirty little secret of American higher education — namely, the degree to which faculty at most institutions have become, in the words of Jonathan Haidt, a “political monoculture.” 

For instance, a 2018 analysis found that 99.5% of donations from Cornell University faculty, instructors and researchers were made to left-wing candidates and causes — with only a single donation of $100 to a Republican candidate among the entire faculty, compared with tens of thousands given to Democratic candidates. 

Another 2018 analysis of 8,688 tenure track professors with degrees from 51 of the 66 top-ranked colleges likewise confirmed a striking imbalance in political affiliation among faculty. A remarkable 39% of colleges represented in this survey were “Republican free” — with most others “absurdly skewed against Republican affiliation and in favor of Democratic affiliation,” according to the author.

In addition to hindering educational and research quality, such an environment becomes a “hostile climate for people who don’t fit in intellectually,” according to Haidt. “We’ve marginalized them. We’ve made it clear they don’t belong; they’re not welcome. And then the really smart ones among them don’t apply! And what we’re left with is a politically homogeneous field of inquiry, which therefore has problems studying anything that is politically (sensitive).” 

Political monocultures on campus

We were curious to get a better sense of how extensive a problem this was, and how Utah schools stacked up on this issue. So Stephen Cranney went to the same Federal Election Commission website which allows people to search political donations and donors by place of employment. 

With a variety of different political organizations available, we focused our examination on individual donors from schools over the past two years to ActBlue, an organization that facilitates small grassroots donations to Democrat causes and candidates, along with WinRed, its analogue on the right for donations to Republican causes. Comparing the collective campus donations to these two groups provides one window to help glimpse the larger scope of political and ideological diversity on campus. 

We zeroed in on employers with “university” in their name that had at least 80 donors (we used the university’s official, formal name, although we also included cases where the state university system made it ambiguous — e.g. “University of California”). Based on that, 226 schools are available for analysis, including Brigham Young University, Utah State University and the University of Utah. According to our analysis of political donations, Utah colleges are more ideologically balanced than most, with BYU topping the chart as the most politically balanced college in America.

Unsurprisingly — and consistent with national trends — most universities analyzed skew dramatically to the left. On the far end, the University of California, Berkeley had zero donations to the conservative organization, compared with 121 to the progressive one. The full range of the liberal skew went from 267 to 1 (Texas A&M) to 4/5 to 1 (Auburn University/University of Alabama). The only university in our analysis with a skew in the other direction — more Republican donors than Democratic — was Liberty University, at a 6/1 ratio in favor of the political right.

Ideological climate on Utah campuses

Every one of the Utah campuses in the analysis, once again, proved to be more politically balanced than the national median (20/1) — including the University of Utah (13/1) and Utah State (6/1), which were both measurably lower than typical universities in terms of a liberal skew in donations, with Utah State in the highest quartile of political balance.

Out of all 226 schools, Brigham Young University was strikingly the school with the smallest political skew in donations, with fairly comparable donations in a single time period (just over 1.6/1, with 53 employee donors to liberal causes and 34 to conservative causes). Augusta and Grand Canyon University followed at 3/1 donations, and Baylor University at 4/1. 

When shifting the analysis to focus on distinct donations, rather than donors, the apparent skew intensifies — with BYU employees making 789 contributions to ActBlue, and 252 donations to WinRed, or about 3.1 times more to ActBlue. As a point of comparison, University of Utah employees during this same time made 11,636 contributions to ActBlue, and 321 donations to WinRed, or 36 times more

This other data has been highlighted by some as suggesting that BYU is “bluer” than some think. But drawing upon multiple data points, political balance is the real story here. While it’s true that BYU employees appear to be slightly more left-leaning, our analysis confirmed that BYU can still be regarded as perhaps the most politically diverse campus in the country. 

Considering other explanations

This kind of a simple comparison undoubtedly hides some confounding factors. For instance, maybe Democrats are just better at grassroots fundraising, or perhaps the WinRed organization has less cachet because it’s been around for less time. When we look at all the donations during a two-year time period, ActBlue does have an advantage (76.6 million versus 28.9 million), or about 2.7 times more. 

And of course, political leanings of employees is only one measure of a school’s overall political leaning, which also comprise students and donors. While college students as a whole are trending more liberal in recent decades, other research has found Utah schools more conservative (and therefore, more politically diverse) than most. For instance, one recent study found BYU’s student body to be 32% liberal, 20% moderate and 48% conservative. Of course, in many ways political ideology is a placeholder for religious, social and other views, and it is likely that if we had measures for these other characteristics we would see a similar pattern. 

It may be tempting to pass off some of these numbers as proxy for mere educational differences — reflecting the popular notion that more education inevitably leads someone to become more liberal. This, of course, is as insulting as it is oversimplified — with one commentator suggesting that as “students get more education, they too will see through the smokescreen that passes for conservative thought.” There are a great many conservative intellectuals across the country who have remained so, not only despite, but very much because of their deep educational and research experience in various topics.  

It’s also well-known these trends also differ across fields, with the liberal skew increasing as you move from the physical sciences to the social sciences and humanities (e.g. English, art, history, political science, sociology). In fact, fewer than 10% of professors in the social sciences identify as conservative (a number that keeps shrinking). As a result, one scholar notes that “conservatives have little influence in the scholarly disciplines that have the most to say about social and cultural life, family and mental health.”

Challenging campus stereotypes

This analysis may paint a more positive picture of Utah universities than is often considered in national depictions — one in which Utah campuses provide far more opportunities for cross-political dialogue (between ideologically diverse faculty, as well as between faculty and students that may lean in different directions) — especially compared with national trends skewing sharply in a direction that makes such dialogue difficult. 

Furthermore, the reality is that BYU is much more representative of the U.S. as a whole than most American campuses, which often resemble balkanized liberal states within regions that are far more “purple” politically. Maybe, then, it’s time to begin questioning the tired stereotypes of Brigham Young University as a stodgy “conservative” institution — and begin to consider the distinctive benefits of political diversity like we observe there. 

To be clear, we’re completely fine with a faculty member being a Democrat (or a Republican, for that matter). What this analysis pushes back on is BYU Democrats feeling particularly unique or edgy.

And BYU as a whole — along with the other Utah campuses to some degree — ought to be appreciated for how it has become a robustly ideologically diverse and representative place of higher education, in rather stark comparison with other universities in general, which increasingly tend to be political monocultures.

This isn’t how it’s always been, by the way. In 1984, only 39% of the American professoriate identified as left-leaning, a number that climbed to 72% in 1999. 

Consequences of homogeneity

It’s important to not minimize the consequences of what such a monoculture means for both education and research. There is evidence that this kind of homogenized environment polarizes and radicalizes the like-minded further. As Cornell graduate Isaac Schorr put it, writing for National Review, “In my experience, college turns RINOs into Blue Dogs, Blue Dogs into progressives, and progressives into socialists.”

“Downstream,” he adds, this “molds an elite class that can’t understand or tolerate conservatives, and that trains them to deem the right’s political gains ‘illegitimate.’”

We might also ask seriously what all of this means for our ability to pursue more truth together as well.

Writing for Scientific American, social psychologist Clay Routledge from North Dakota State University, reviews the ways in which liberals have been portrayed in social psychological research as uniquely empathetic, fair and thoughtful, compared with conservatives who have been branded as more prejudiced and racist — not because this is all the data shows, but because it’s only liberal researchers doing the studies. (A 2018 social psychology text likewise pointed out that the character and lives of conservatives were far more likely to be studied for signs of pathology and deviancy than liberals.)

As Routledge summarizes, “when fields like social psychology are almost entirely composed of researchers who are ideologically similar, it is easy to create a social science that rarely looks inward.”

These same problems are compounded when such bias extends to peer review, when liberal biases are passed over and missed, while any article that examines a conservative-friendly question may receive heightened scrutiny, if it is published at all. To invite more empathy from progressive readers, Routledge proposes this thought experiment: 

“Imagine if the social sciences were dominated by conservatives. If conservatives designed studies the way many liberal researchers who study prejudice do, the literature might paint a picture of liberals being the more racist group. Then imagine lay conservatives feeling emboldened by ‘the research’ when their guts tell them that liberals are the intolerant racists.”

As you can see, there are serious problems when campuses become too tightly monolithic in their ideology and politics. Routledge goes on to pose important questions for parents and university stakeholders to consider. “Do we want colleges to become increasingly self-segregated so that conservative parents send their kids to more conservative schools and liberal parents send their kids to more liberal schools? Do we want young liberals to think it is OK to hide from ideas or censor speech they don’t like, or young conservatives to think college is not for them?” 

Obviously not. And to observers across the political spectrum, it’s clear such campus environments end up only weakening our nation further. To the degree we can proactively foster ideological diversity at our universities across the country, let’s invest and work to that as a common goal.

Stephen Cranney is a Washington D.C.-based data scientist and non-resident fellow at Baylor’s Institute for the Studies of Religion. The father of seven, he is the author of more than 20 peer-reviewed articles. Jacob Hess has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”