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Professors and Their Politics

reviewed by Hadley Solomon & Jake Stringer - November 20, 2014

coverTitle: Professors and Their Politics
Author(s): Neil Gross & Solon Simmons (Eds)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421413345, Pages: 376, Year: 2014
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Professors and Their Politics, edited by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, is a collection of eleven chapters that collectively aim to paint a picture of the American professoriate and their political orientation. Combining empirical analysis with broad historical frameworks, the book seeks to synthesize the perspectives of several scholars regarding the development of the university as a reputed stronghold of liberal thinking. Using mostly large data, the variety of studies presented in this book challenge deeply held assumptions of American universities as havens for simplistic, linear, ideological left-wing thinking. The chapters in this book are varied, representing both historical analysis and empirical studies, and could be used individually or in total with students in courses of sociology, education, psychology, political science, or history. The book is not recommended for a general audience.

Overall, although the purpose of the book is strong, relevant, and timely in an era of increasing privatization efforts in higher education and the public sector in general, we believe the chapters could have been stronger if greater care had been given to the ontological and philosophical orientation of the studies themselves, and connections made between these orientations and the historical analyses provided at the end of the book. Ontological and epistemological orientations are likely to have intimate connections to a researcher’s perspective on the world—including his or her political perspective—yet the authors in this book make no such connection to the importance of philosophical rootedness in these chapters. Further, such orientations are the driving force behind the methodology chosen to analyze the research questions in any study such as the ones presented here; however, no connection is made from philosophical foundations to choice of method within.

As it stands, the studies presented in this book are highly data-driven, lack theoretical rootedness, and are not well framed in literature. All but one of the studies are quantitative, large-data examinations. Connecting the purpose of the studies to relevant literature is a hallmark of strong inquiry, and whereas many of the studies in the book attempt to provide literature, we feel there was a general lack of strong connection to the literature. Other methodological limitations were noted as well. For example, one study did not report the sample size, and most studies did not clearly identify the measures used to analyze the data. The qualitative study does not report any information about how the data were collected or analyzed.

Of particular interest is the purpose of the book itself. Although the editors sought to put together a series of chapters that would challenge the status quo, they did so by examining the phenomenon from within the status quo—something that will inevitably lead to problematic findings. Challenging the notion that professors are liberal while relying on the standard measure of liberalism to conservatism will, by definition, result in a mean somewhere in the middle. We challenge the authors and other sociologists to consider the possibility that the American intelligentsia is bucking the traditional conservative-liberal spectrum altogether, which could explain why so many of the presented results find the professoriate landing in the “moderate” category. High quality qualitative work, perhaps using grounded theory as a start, would begin to answer the question of whether the professoriate even subscribes to liberalism or conservatism as it commonly known, or if there is a new, emerging phenomenology of political identity that the authors have not yet detected operating in society.

Further, this collection of writings is undergirded by the assumption that a university is a singular entity that can be operationalized, quantified, and ultimately labeled (in this case, either as “liberal” or “conservative”). Universities are dynamic multiplicities of organizations within organizations with layers of identities that are acting and reacting upon the actors both within and without its own self—it is virtually impossible to put a simplistic political label on such a massive institution. Individual professors within the university hold belief systems consisting of depth and breadth as a result of their training, their lived experiences, their worldviews, and their missions within their work and lives; their politics may reflect this. Two professors in the same department may hold wholly divergent political perspectives, and this has nothing to do with the mission of the university itself. We believe professors’ politics are much more complex than the studies in this book have alluded to, and consequently, we encourage the authors in this book to challenge the assumption that universities are institutions defined without adequate attention to all of the moving parts. Individuals in academia cannot stand in for the totality of beliefs in a university.

Regarding formatting, it seems the book may be suffering from a crisis of identity. Where the first six chapters present individual, disparate empirical research studies, the last five chapters present a more historical and narrative approach. This raises some questions as to the book’s intended audience. We feel that by placing the historical and narrative chapters at the back of the book rather than at the front of the book, the editors missed a prime opportunity to set the stage for the empirical chapters by framing them in the history, theory, and narrative that seemed to be lacking in the empirical work, as mentioned above. This book, as a whole, reads much more like a handbook than a book targeted to a general audience. Given the highly specialized nature of the material within the chapters, we believe the book to best be utilized in graduate-level work, particularly for programs and courses that have quantitative methodology as requisite coursework.

In sum, the articles collected in Professors and Their Politics by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons succeed at least in addressing a salient and relevant topic in social science. In our changing political landscape, the academy is a natural starting point to initiate these important conversations. This book illustrates a myriad of ways to understand the multiple perspectives on the issue of professors’ politics. In their conclusion, Gross and Simmons hope that this book will be a starting point for a new sociology of higher education—a respectable and noble goal.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 20, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17763, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:52:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Hadley Solomon
    Virginia Commonwealth University
    E-mail Author
    HADLEY SOLOMON, PhD, is an Educational Psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research examines the effects of stress and burnout on teachers as a result of the contexts created in classroom environments as a result of state and federal education policies, teachers' professional identity, and motivation. She received her doctorate from The Ohio State University in 2012.
  • Jake Stringer
    Virginia Commonwealth University
    E-mail Author
    JAKE STRINGER is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying Educational Psychology. He is interested in theories of self, motivation, and social processes in education.
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