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October 15, 2015

Cornell Faculty Donations Flood Left, Filings Show

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Correction appended

Of the nearly $600,000 Cornell’s faculty donated to political candidates or parties in the past four years, over 96 percent has gone to fund Democratic campaigns, while only 15 of the 323 donors gave to conservative causes.

The Sun’s analysis of Federal Election Committee data reveals that from 2011 to 2014, Cornell’s faculty donated $573,659 to Democrats, $16,360 to Republicans and $2,950 to Independents. Each of Cornell’s 13 schools — both graduate and undergraduate — slanted heavily to the left. In the College of Arts and Sciences, 99 percent of the $183,644 donated went to liberal campaigns. The law school demonstrated the strongest conservative showing, with nearly 26 percent of its approximately $20,000 worth of donations going to Republicans.   

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(Data compiled from Federal Election Committee)

Almost one-third of donations made over the past four years went to 2012 presidential campaigns. More than 94 percent of the $200,000 Cornellians contributed to the presidential race went to the Obama Victory Fund, while the Romney Victory Fund received under four percent of these funds.

To compile this data, The Sun filtered public Federal Election Committee filings, collecting the donation information from individuals who listed Cornell University as their employer. The Sun then confirmed the current appointment of each donor as a Cornell faculty member, instructor or researcher. Administrators and other personnel were excluded from all calculations.

Surprised?

Although students and professors alike said they consider Cornell’s faculty generally Democratic, nearly all remarked that they had not expected to see donation numbers so dramatically skewed.

“Nationally, economists, chemists, business school professors and engineers are significantly more conservative than professors in social sciences and humanities,” said Prof. Mildred Elizabeth Sanders, government. “Finding 97 percent of Cornell professors giving to Democrats, that’s surprising.”

Danielle Eiger ’18 said she would have thought that the Democrat-Republican breakdown would be closer to 60 percent and 40 percent, but said she was always sure that the “majority of professors are liberal.”

Prof. William Jacobson, law, one of the 15 Republican donors, said that he found the statistics “completely predictable.”

“Academia in general leans heavily liberal, and that likely is compounded at Cornell because Ithaca itself is a progressive bubble, surrounded by reality, as the saying goes,” he said.

Inside the Bubble

Though Cornell’s administration declined to comment for this article, John Carberry, senior director of media relations, said only that political tendency is “not a condition [the University] weighs when hiring or working with faculty.”

However, several professors offered their opinions as to why such a high percentage of Cornell’s faculty seems to lean left.

Prof. Richard Bensel, government, said a “historical trend” explains a declining number of conservatives in Cornell’s faculty.

“In the late 19th and early 20th century, there were far more conservative professors than liberals in elite universities — although it was still not nearly as slanted as it is today,” he said. “This switched around the New Deal.”

He also conceded that in today’s climate, “a lot of the time conservative professors don’t want to work here.” Prof. Emeritus Isaac Kramnick, government, explained that there were one or two conservative professors in the government department in the 1960s and 1970s, but both had already left.

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(Data compiled from Federal Election Committee)

“Conservative students who come through a place like Cornell very easily move into research or advising positions in Congress, journalism positions and political positions,” Kramnick said. “Career patterns are such that you are less likely to have conservatives applying for academic jobs.”

Other professors asserted that Republicans often have ideas that are “anti-science” or “anti-intellectual,” which can make them an unpopular presence at elite universities.

“It is not surprising that faculty at Cornell find the anti-scientific rhetoric of many in the Republican Party to be troublesome,” Prof. Kenneth McClane, English, said. “Many of us here are scientists — we believe in global warming, since we believe what the research tells us.”

Bensel echoed this claim, saying that recent Republican debates have illustrated the deviation of “mainstream conservatives” from views that are widely accepted by intellectuals at reputable universities.

“I think many mainstream Republicans have views that are anti-intellectual and anti-science,” he said. “There are candidates who are creationists, don’t believe in climate change and claim that Obama’s a Muslim. Ted Cruz, for example, should not teach here.”   

Student Stories

Kramnick said that when he served as Cornell’s vice provost for undergraduate education from 2001 to 2005, he was “concerned that there were not enough conservative voices in the faculty.” Some students maintain that their professors’ politics never enter the classroom. Others recount times when they felt stifled by an atmosphere intolerant of differing viewpoints.

William Bristow ’16, president of the Cornell Democrats, said his professors have consistently delivered material with an even hand.

“I have never found myself in a classroom environment where a professor did not allow for an open discussion between different political views,” he said.

Emily Agnew ’18 said she does not think the political leanings of professors should be problematic, because professors are expected to always be unbiased when teaching subjective subjects.

“Their political affiliations are unrelated [to the material], and professors should be allowing the students to discuss and explore without imparting their own opinions,” she said.

However, some students recounted incidents in which they said their professors were far from objective, saying that personal politics entered both the classroom and coursework.

David Navadeh ’19 said he was in a nutrition class in which his professor regularly featured announcements from various clubs before class began. According to Navadeh, one day the professor advertised a Planned Parenthood rally, which was an event independent of any club, and spent substantially more time than usual encouraging his students to attend.   

“He was very clear what his personal leanings were and he made it very clear that we should stand with Planned Parenthood as well,” he said. “I certainly respect their right to protest and I respect the other view. The irony just kind of strikes me, though, if a conservative professor were to say that you should go to a defund Planned Parenthood rally and was saying what a good job folks like Ted Cruz are doing in making sure that that happens — if someone were to put forth the idea that abortion is indeed murder — I can just imagine the outcry.”   

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(Data compiled from Federal Election Committee)

Austin McLaughlin ’18 recounted a time when, in an industrial and labor relations economics class, the professor abruptly dismissed free market principles as ineffective.   

“We were largely focused on financial crises and after we finished the 2008 crisis the next slide said, ‘and that is why deregulation and free market economics do not work,’” he said. “So I asked him, ‘Isn’t it too early to say that this is the case?’ And he says, ‘No, it’s not too early it’s too late.’”

Brandon Thompson ’16 said he has seen “thousands of examples” of professors holding debates and only giving conservative students a fraction of the speaking time given to their liberal counterparts.

Cornell Republicans Chairman Mark LaPointe ’16 said he deliberately took microeconomics with a professor who he knew was fiscally conservative and stressed that, while they may be rare, the few conservative professors at Cornell are highly respected and “[their presence] is definitely good for the campus.”

Is Something Missing?

According to Thompson, there is not one moderate or conservative professor among the 42 faculty members in Cornell’s government department. While some students feel that a valuable viewpoint is missing, other students and professors say they do not feel the University needs to actively seek out conservative faculty members.

Bensel said that while he would support adding a conservative to the government department, he does not believe Cornell is obligated to supply students with all points of view.

“Our job is not to mold the minds of young students — they’ll go out into the world and do that for themselves,” he said. “Cornell does not have to be a banquet that offers every viewpoint.”

Prof. Andrew Little, government, said that while it would be “nice to have more balance,” he would not advocate compromising the quality of Cornell’s professors, which he suggests would be the effect of seeking out Republican faculty.

“Placing more emphasis on diversity of political beliefs when hiring [would] almost certainly require sacrificing on general quality or other dimensions of diversity,” he said.

Jacobson, on the other hand, said he views the failure to expose students to the conservative viewpoint as one of Cornell’s most striking weaknesses.

“If we value professors not just for their research and publications, but also for the role they serve in mentoring students, then the lack of political diversity among the faculty is a University failure,” he said.   

Many acknowledged that it is difficult to determine whether Cornell’s political imbalance is due to a lack of conservative professors applying to work at the University or the administration’s refusal to hire them.

“I think it would take a lot of bravery to work here as an openly conservative professor,” Bensel said.

Damaging Diversity

While Cornell pursues diversity in its student body and in certain aspects of its faculty, many students and professors who saw these statistics said they were concerned about Cornell’s professed diversity of thought.

“Cornell faculty pride themselves on eliminating discrimination with respect to ethnicity and gender,” Bensel said. “But I think one of the last prejudices they still have is against conservatives.”

Thompson also said he saw the absence of the conservative viewpoint among faculty members as in conflict with Cornell’s proclaimed mission of diversity.

“I think that’s actually kind of an embarrassment for Cornell with their stress on diversity and inclusion, and yet whenever someone’s position doesn’t go exactly into the range that they’d like it to, they purposefully will not let those opinions be heard,” he said.

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(Data compiled from Federal Election Committee)

Jacobson said he believes this lack of diversity is actually most damaging to liberal students, who leave college without having to defend their views and enter a world where “Republicans control both houses of Congress and most state legislatures and governorships.”

“Such homogeneity in thought process at the professorial level is not conducive to intellectual rigor. That harms liberal students more than anyone, because they have a comfort zone of political acceptance which does not exist in a real world,” he said. “Over the years, I have observed that openly conservative students have to be better prepared for argument than their liberal counterparts and that process prepares them for life better than being intellectually coddled.”

Thompson agreed, saying that he, as a conservative student in the College of Arts and Sciences, has a chance almost every day to hone and defend his own beliefs, while many liberal students never experience a “trial by fire” test of their own values.

“I actually think that students on campus on the right-end of the political spectrum are stronger and more able to confront challenges to their viewpoints after they leave here, so I think Cornell is actually failing students in that way as well, they’re not providing students with an alternative point of view,” he said.

Jacobson called on the administration to recognize the value and necessity of diversity of thought in Cornell’s faculty.

“Diversity at Cornell focuses on gender, race and ethnicity as a proxy for intellectual diversity. That is inadequate as an objective matter because it has not resulted in a diversity of political thought,” Jacobson said. “If Cornell truly believes that diversity of thought fosters the educational experience, then it should include political diversity in its mandated diversity goals.”

Connor Juckniess ’18 contributed data analysis to this article.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Cornell Republicans Chairman Mark LaPointe ’16.