Our Universities are Skewing the Next Generation to the Left

Essay, Culture Wars, Lee Harding

How leftist are Canadian universities? The answer is “very.” This was confirmed in the last in-depth study on the matter. Even though the study is somewhat dated, nearly every piece of data and less methodological approaches have shown the same thing. Canada’s universities are leftist to the core—and most of the periphery too.

The most definitive confirmation ever given of the universities’ leftist bias was made by M. Reza Nakhaie. She co-authored two studies that gave us our last good look. The 2011 “Ideological Orientations of Canadian University Professors” showed how professors rated their own ideological leanings and compared it to other segments of the Canadian population.

“These differences are substantial but not enormous,” the authors wrote. “Canadian academics fall to the left of the political spectrum but are not hugely different in this respect from the Canadian university-educated population.” This interpretation of the data was remarkably understated and reflects how hesitant academics are to have any data suggest they have any bias that deserves correcting. The data clearly showed that those with a B.A. were nearly five times as likely to be right-wing as a professor would. If that’s not an “enormous” difference, what would be?

Figure 1

Source: The Ideological Orientations of Canadian University Professors / M. R. Nakhaie & R. J. Brym, Canadian Journal of Higher Education, Volume 41, No. 1, 2011, p. 22.

These findings were built on the Canadian Election Study 2000. That examination showed that university-educated people were further left than the general public. And why wouldn’t they be, having received their education from left-leaning university professors?

Figure 2

Source: Blais, A., Gidengil, E., Nadeau, R., & Nevitte, N. (2000). Canadian Election Study 2000, as cited in The Ideological Orientations of Canadian University Professors / M. R. Nakhaie & R. J. Brym, Canadian Journal of Higher Education, Volume 41, No. 1, 2011, p. 22.

Table 1

Source: M.R. Nakhaie and Barry D. Adam, “Political Affiliation of Canadian University Professors,” Canadian Journal of Sociology, 2008, p. 882

In the year 2000, the average person was five times as likely to vote Reform than a professor would, and twice as likely to vote Progressive Conservative. The professor, on the other hand, was 3.4 times as likely to vote NDP. Adding to the electoral significance, the average citizen was almost twice as likely not to vote at all than was a professor.

Extensive polls of Canadian professors have not occurred since. Even so, subsequent polls of electoral intentions provide a consistent picture. On May 18, 2015, iPolitics reported that the NDP was the top choice for university-educated voters at 36.8 per cent. They finished third in the election five months later.1

The prelude to the 2019 federal election was no different. On July 6, three months before the election, Abacus Data reported that 37 per cent of those with high school education voted Conservative. That percentage dropped with every level of education until just those with postgraduate degrees only offered 25 per cent support.2

Figure 3

Source: Bruce Anderson & David Coletto, “Tight Race between Conservatives and Liberals Continues as Voter Fluidity Remains High,” Abacusdata.ca, July 6, 2019, https://abacusdata.ca/tight-race-between-conservatives-and-liberals-continues-as-voter-fluidity-remains-high/.

That same day, University of Ottawa professor Amir Attran tweeted, 

“Conservatives have a strong lead among those who have not attended college or university, while the Liberals have a lead among those with university education.”

The party of the uneducated. Every poll says this.3 

On June 7, 2019, Attaran followed up with, “Hundreds of Conservative trolls are irked by my tweet.” On June 8, he tweeted: “Many Conservatives are viciously angry with me for showing polling data. But they can’t or won’t DISPROVE the data . . . It takes strength to face uncomfortable facts. Not doing so is a type of cowardice, too.”4

Just what was it that Attaran thought Conservatives should be uncomfortable about? That only someone who didn’t know much would vote Conservative? Maybe it was Attaran who had something to reflect on also. If parties rooted in freedom, family, and free markets seemed intellectually lacking to him, there were other potential interpretations. Maybe his left-leaning views had been so inadequately challenged in his education, he did not see how they could be valid. And maybe this school of thought had been passed on to students—ones who came to view the world the same way he had.

Unfortunately, for some intellectuals, this might have been the point. German-American sociologist Herbert Marcuse was a leading luminary in the New Left of the 1960s. He envisioned that college students, feminists, homosexuals, and blacks would be the Cultural Marxist revolutionaries to overthrow western institutions. He was part of the Frankfurt School, which, just like the Fabian socialists before them, had envisioned that western culture could be transformed by a long run through its influential institutions (including schools).5

The success of this strategy might have been reflected in other Abacus Data findings. Those who had grown up before the New Left had dominated campuses were more likely to vote Conservative as well. The older one was, the more likely they were to preserve the values of western culture—a stance that is conservative by its very definition.

Figure 4

Source: Bruce Anderson & David Coletto, “Tight Race between Conservatives and Liberals Continues as Voter Fluidity Remains High,” Abacusdata.ca, July 6, 2019, https://abacusdata.ca/tight-race-between-conservatives-and-liberals-continues-as-voter-fluidity-remains-high/.

Ontario’s premier believed it was common knowledge that university students are still leftist revolutionaries. To free the ones that weren’t, he made it optional for students to pay student union fees. “I think we all know what kind of crazy Marxist nonsense student unions get up to,” he said.6

In 2018, Ontario’s premier forced publicly funded Ontario institutions to enact free speech policies. It was inspired in large part by stories of university administrations stifling politically incorrect views. There remains some distance to go. In 2019, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms ranked 60 schools on their freedom of speech. Only four universities and one student union received a grade of ‘A.’7

The previous Federal Conservative leader also objected to the stifling of free speech on university campuses.

By September, the perception that universities were left-leaning were being incorporated into electoral campaigning. Conservative Party outreaches for volunteers at the University of Toronto included flyers that read, “Because you can only hear the same left-wing talking points from your professors so many times.”

The previous Conservative leader, whose picture was on the cover, was interviewed about it by Mia Robson of the Canadian Press. He said he was not trying to influence who universities should hire or teach. However, he did add that during his university days, Conservative clubs ran recruitment drives that said people should join to “annoy your professor.”8

The poster itself annoyed David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. He claimed it was a “very misplaced and mistaken view” . . . “that somehow colleges and universities are these indoctrination centres. . . They are diverse, certainly schools of business and economics are not overrun by left-wing thinkers or liberal leftists.”

With some irony, the article continued, “Robinson said political parties should be talking about how to fund post-secondary education, student debt, research funding and the role universities and colleges can play to help stop climate change.” Did Robinson realize he had just repeated those “leftist talking points” he denied being typical?

Thankfully, some Canadian intellectuals believe students deserve better than the left-leaning group think. “We should all be concerned by the growth of a university ideological monoculture,” wrote Christopher Dummit in the National Post. The PhD professor of history at Trent University asked, “[H]ow can we trust scholarship to give us useful answers if there isn’t genuine intellectual debate?”

Debate isn’t possible when only one side of the argument is allowed. Wilfrid Laurier University teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd played a TVOntario debate between University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson and two others regarding non-gendered pronouns. It offended the sensitivities of one student, leading to a meeting where she was reprimanded by her supervisor, the head of her academic program, and an acting manager from the university’s Diversity and Equity Office.9

At the end of this, what can be done? Dummit has two solutions. One is to ensure that a diversity of viewpoints receives equal treatment in hiring decisions. Dummit’s second idea is that research funding agencies should “emphasize curiosity-based research,” especially in the humanities and social sciences. Dummit says “popular ones these days are anti-racist, ‘critical’ studies of various persuasions, settler colonial studies,” but that scholarship would be better advanced by funding studies that test and challenge those theories.

“If we don’t fix our universities, we all lose,” Dummit writes. “We need to make it an orthodoxy that the best universities are heterodox universities.” He’s right. And, even better, he wouldn’t mind if someone challenged that idea. If Canada could fill its ranks of professors with people like Dummit and with the approach he advocates, universities would truly fulfil their label of “higher education.”


Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.