As any number of graduation speeches formulaically tell you, the purpose of a university education is to "open minds", "search for truth" and inspire students to think broadly and freely. We turn to academia for what we assume is scientifically rigorous, evidentially based, objective and unbiased knowledge about the world and how to solve its many and varied problems.
Except of course that's not actually the case. Six decades of research from the United States clearly demonstrate universities and academics are frequently heavily biased and skew overwhelmingly to the political left.
In 1955 (ironically out of concern that right wing McCarthyism was negatively impacting academic freedom) Paul Lazarsfeld led the first systematic attempt to poll academic political leanings. Lazarsfeld surveyed 2451 social science professors. He found they leaned left (liberal) to right (conservative) by a factor of 2 to 1.
In 1969 the hugely influential American sociologist Seymour Lipset surveyed over 60,000 academics in multiple fields about their political views and found almost half identified as liberal while only a quarter identified as conservative.
Follow up studies in the 70's, 80's and 90's showed an intensifying swing to the left. This trend took a sharp turn further left in the 2000's. Research from this period found that barely 12 per cent of American university professors identified as Republican.
Regrettably there is virtually no research on this issue in New Zealand. This is not surprising - in a small country there is little incentive for a biased and unobjective academia to turn a spotlight on itself.
Further, there is nowhere to run for any professor foolish enough to do so – not a single one of New Zealand's seven major universities has any reputation for embracing right leaning thinking.
However, we can make some assumptions. There is no evidence New Zealand universities are less biased than the United States. In addition, New Zealand as a country sits squarely to the left of the United States politically and it would be completely out of character for its academic institutions to be further to the right.
The clear evidence of significant and sustained left wing academic bias is deeply troubling. First, universities are the training ground for tomorrow's leaders. Universities constantly remind us of the importance of "higher" education to open minds and critical thinking. How can you possibly get a "complete education" when almost all your teachers think one way?
Second, universities exert tremendous influence on public policy. Academics, presumed to be objective and unbiased, are frequently used by authorities to diagnose and solve social problems and issues. Given the small lobbying industry in New Zealand universities are practically the only source of non-governmental policy research in this country.
It is deeply concerning for democracy when research and commentary on policy solutions to New Zealand's problems are formulated by people who, based on US experience, when they donate politically, donate to left wing parties 99 per cent of the time.
Third, universities and academics wield substantial media influence. Virtually any time a complex social or scientific issue is covered by the media an academic will be contacted for an (apparently) objective perspective on the issue.
When nine out of 10 of those academic voices in the media are not conservative but instead offer a left-wing interpretation of the world the public ends with up a highly biased view of that issue and potential solutions.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of systemic left-wing academic bias is the hypocrisy of it. Our largest university, the University of Auckland, lists the following as the second of its nine core values: "Creating a diverse, collegial scholarly community in which… academic freedom is exercised with intellectual rigour and high ethical standards; and critical enquiry is encouraged".
The evidence (note: empirical data over six decades) clearly demonstrates universities are anything but intellectually diverse or rigorous or encouraging of critical enquiry. They are overwhelmingly dominated by faculty who share a depressingly homogeneous and unremittingly left-wing view of the world.
This massive skew to the political left inevitably means academic employment culture becomes reinforcing, encouraging hiring of individuals that fit the mould, resulting in yet further bias; something the data from the US bears out – universities have been getting more, not less, left wing.
Deep down universities know they are biased – when 90 per cent of your colleagues lean left it is impossible not to know. They also know they can't possibly admit it because a university's single most important asset is the appearance of objectivity and open-mindedness.
Perhaps until universities make a real commitment to diversity of thought the Government, media and students should be a lot more careful about believing what they tell us.
• Alex Davis is a business executive.