The '60s Begin to Fade as Liberal Professors Retire
By PATRICIA COHEN
Published: July 3, 2008
MADISON, Wis. When Michael Olneck was standing, arms linked with
other protesters, singing "We Shall Not Be Moved" in front of
Columbia University's library in 1968, Sara Goldrick-Rab had not yet
When he won tenure at the University of Wisconsin here in 1980, she
was 3. And in January, when he retires at 62, Ms. Goldrick-Rab will
be just across the hall, working to earn a permanent spot on the same
faculty from which he is departing.
Together, these Midwestern academics, one leaving the professoriate
and another working her way up, are part of a vast generational
change that is likely to profoundly alter the culture at American
universities and colleges over the next decade.
Baby boomers, hired in large numbers during a huge expansion in
higher education that continued into the '70s, are being replaced by
younger professors who many of the nearly 50 academics interviewed by
The New York Times believe are different from their predecessors
less ideologically polarized and more politically moderate.
"There's definitely something happening," said Peter W. Wood,
executive director of the National Association of Scholars, which was
created in 1987 to counter attacks on Western culture and values. "I
hear from quite a few faculty members and graduate students from
around the country. They are not really interested in fighting the
battles that have been fought over the last 20 years."
Individual colleges and organizations like the American Association
of University Professors are already bracing for what has been
labeled the graying of the faculty. More than 54 percent of full-time
faculty members in the United States were older than 50 in 2005,
compared with 22.5 percent in 1969. How many will actually retire in
the next decade or so depends on personal preferences and health, as
well as how their pensions fare in the financial markets.
Yet already there are signs that the intense passions and polemics
that roiled campuses during the past couple of decades have begun to
fade. At Stanford a divided anthropology department reunited last
year after a bitter split in 1998 broke it into two entities, one
focusing on culture, the other on biology. At Amherst, where military
recruiters were kicked out in 1987, students crammed into a lecture
hall this year to listen as alumni who served in Iraq urged them to
join the military.
In general, information on professors' political and ideological
leanings tends to be scarce. But a new study of the social and
political views of American professors by Neil Gross at the
University of British Columbia and Solon Simmons at George Mason
University found that the notion of a generational divide is more
than a glancing impression. "Self-described liberals are most common
within the ranks of those professors aged 50-64, who were teenagers
or young adults in the 1960s," they wrote, making up just under 50
percent. At the same time, the youngest group, ages 26 to 35,
contains the highest percentage of moderates, some 60 percent, and
the lowest percentage of liberals, just under a third.
When it comes to those who consider themselves "liberal activists,"
17.2 percent of the 50-64 age group take up the banner compared with
only 1.3 percent of professors 35 and younger.
"These findings with regard to age provide further support for the
idea that, in recent years, the trend has been toward increasing
moderatism," the study says.
The authors are not talking about a political realignment. Democrats
continue to overwhelmingly outnumber Republicans among faculty, young
and old. But as educators have noted, the generation coming up
appears less interested in ideological confrontations, summoning
Barack Obama's statement about the elections of 2000 and 2004: "I
sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom
generation a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched
on a handful of college campuses long ago played out on the national stage."
With more than 675,000 professors at the nation's more than 4,100
four-year and two-year institutions, it is easy to find faculty
members, young and old, who defy any mold. Still, this move to the
middle is "certainly the conventional wisdom," said Jack H. Schuster,
who along with Martin J. Finkelstein, wrote "The American Faculty," a
comprehensive analysis of existing data on the profession. "The
agenda is different now than what it had been."
With previous battles already settled, like the creation of women's
and ethnic studies departments, moderation can be found at both ends
of the political spectrum. David DesRosiers, executive director of
the Veritas Fund for Higher Education Reform, which contributes to
conservative activities on campuses, said impending retirements
present an opportunity. However, he added, "we're not looking for
fights," but rather "a civil dialogue." His model? A seminar on great
books at Princeton jointly taught by two philosophers, the left-wing
Cornel West and the right-wing Robert P. George.
Changes in institutions of higher education themselves are
reinforcing the generational shuffle. Health sciences, computer
science, engineering and business fields that have tended to
attract a somewhat greater proportion of moderates and conservatives
have grown in importance and size compared with the more liberal
social sciences and humanities, where many of the bitterest fights
over curriculum and theory occurred.
At the same time, shrinking public resources overall and fewer
tenure-track jobs in the humanities have pushed younger professors in
those fields to concentrate more single-mindedly on their careers.
Academia, once somewhat insulated from market pressures, is today
treated like a business. This switch is a "major ideological and
philosophical shift in how society views higher education," Mr.
Schuster and Mr. Finkelstein write in "The American Faculty."
And with more women in the ranks (nearly 40 percent of the total in
2005 compared with 17.3 percent in 1969), different sorts of issues
like family-friendly benefits have been brought to the table.
One way to understand the sense that a new mood is emerging on
American campuses is to look at the difference between the world that
existed when Mr. Olneck was making his way and the one in which Ms.
Goldrick-Rab is coming up.
The '60s Generation
Michael Olneck slides into a booth at Kabul Restaurant on State
Street, a few steps from the sprawling Madison campus and its 41,000
students. "I was a pink-diaper baby," he said pushing his bicycle
helmet aside and smoothing the unruly strands of gray hair on his head.
His father was a Socialist. Right out of high school, in 1964, Mr.
Olneck organized support for the Mississippi Project's black
voter-registration drives. Later, he took a bus to Washington to
protest the war in Vietnam, served on the strike coordinating
committee at Harvard during the American invasion of Cambodia in 1970
and demonstrated at President Nixon's inauguration in 1973.
Similar events embedded themselves in the minds of many students at
the time. A few blocks from the restaurant is a plaque commemorating
protests that rattled the university in the 1960s and '70s: the
seizure of the student movement by radicals, the deadly bombing of a
campus research lab, the clubbing of antiwar demonstrators.
Those sorts of experiences are alien to younger professors, Mr.
Olneck explained, so "they may not be as instinctively
anti-authoritarian; they just don't have that in their background."
The protests ultimately died down here and elsewhere. Mr. Olneck
ended up in front of the class, and like many academics from his
generation, he brought the same spirited questioning and conscience
that had animated his student years to his job as an education and
Yet to some traditionalists, preoccupations like Mr. Olneck's grated.
The conservative philosopher Allan Bloom captured the bitter splits
better known as the culture wars in his influential best seller
"The Closing of the American Mind" in 1987. He detailed fights over
the scarcity of women and people of color in the curriculum, the
proliferation of pop-culture courses, doubts about the existence of
any eternal truths and new theories that declared moral values to be
merely an expression of power. These rancorous disputes often spilled
into the nation's political discourse.
When Mr. Olneck earned his degree, traditional views of American
education were also being upended. Radical revisionists ridiculed the
view of public education as a beneficent democratic project. They
raised questions about equal access, how schools reinforced class
differences, and whether social science should, or even could be free
At the start of his career, Mr. Olneck traced the links between where
someone's family came from and where they ended up on the economic
and social ladder. Although he has done quantitative research, 20
years ago he jettisoned number-centric studies for historical
narrative, exploring how schools throughout the 20th century
responded to immigrants and diversity. In his work one can detect
some of the era's preoccupations when he argues, for instance, that
fights over bilingualism and standard English were about power.
The same goes for his extracurricular activities. In 1989 he worked
to kick the R.O.T.C. off campus because of the Defense Department's
ban on homosexuals. (The effort failed.) More recently, his
neighborhood was riled by a Walgreens plan to open a drugstore. "All
these people who had protested the war and civil rights," Mr. Olneck
said, laughing; Walgreens "didn't know what hit 'em."
Last fall, he taught Race, Ethnicity and Inequality in American
Education, which he introduces in the syllabus: "Schools in the
United States promise equal opportunity. They have not kept that
promise. In this course, we will try to find out why." Like many
sociologists and education researchers, Mr. Olneck said that today
both the kinds of analyses and the theories that prevailed when he
was in college have changed. Overarching narratives, societal
critiques and clarion calls for change of the capitalist system or
the social structure have gone out of style. Today, with advances
in statistical methods, many sociologists have moved to model
themselves on clinical researchers with large, randomized experiments
as their gold standard. In their eyes, this more scientific approach
is less explicitly ideological than other kinds of research.
Ms. Goldrick-Rab has embraced such experiments. A graduate course she
created partly based on her research of community colleges
focused on "educational opportunity and inequality" at community
colleges, with an "emphasis on the critical evaluation and assessment
of current up-to-date research."
Another Wisconsin professor, Erik Olin Wright, a 61-year-old
sociologist and a Marxist theorist, described it this way: "There has
been some shift away from grand frameworks to more focused empirical
As for his own approach, Mr. Wright said, "in the late '60s and '70s,
the Marxist impulse was central for those interested in social
justice." Now it resides at the margins.
A New Generation
"I was part of a new wave of hires," Sara Goldrick-Rab said, peering
over the top of her laptop at her favorite off-campus work site, the
Espresso Royale cafe. She came to the University of Wisconsin in 2004
and, like Mr. Olneck, has a joint appointment in educational policy
studies and sociology, both departments considered among the best in
Now 31, she grew up in a Washington suburb, Fairfax, Va., when Ronald
Reagan was in the White House and corporate mergers were the rage. At
George Washington University she was active in a campaign to end the
death penalty, but for most of her classmates the late 1990s were
marked by economic growth, peace and student apathy.
"My generation is not so ideologically driven," she said.
That doesn't mean she doesn't want to engage a larger audience and
influence policy. She considers herself the "intellectual heir" of
her senior colleagues "It's like working with your grandparents,"
she said fondly and she cares deeply about educational inequality,
often writing about the subject on a blog she created with her husband.
But she also is aware of differences between the generations.
A Sensibility Gap
"Senior people evaluate us for tenure and the standards they use and
what we think is important are different," she said. They want to
question values and norms; "we are more driven by data."
Her newest project is collaborating on what she calls the "first
rigorous test in the country" to measure whether needs-based
financial aid increases the chances that low-income students will
graduate from college. It involves 42 colleges and 6,000 students,
and will combine statistics with more in-depth interviews.
As for partisan politics, when she wrote an article in May for
Pajamasmedia.com about welfare reform cutting off poor people's
access to higher education, some friends and co-workers were
surprised by its appearance on that conservative blog. She said she
didn't know; she had not paid attention to its political bent.
When Ms. Goldrick-Rab speaks of added pressures on her generation,
she talks about being pregnant or taking care of her 17-month-old
while trying to earn tenure. The lack of paid leave for mothers is
high on her list of complaints about university life.
At a conference titled "Generational Shockwaves," sponsored in
November by the TIAA-CREF Institute, Joan Girgus, a special assistant
to the dean of faculty at Princeton, underscored how these sorts of
concerns were increasingly on the minds of younger faculty members.
Universities need to focus more on the "life" side of the work-life
balance "because faculties historically were almost entirely male and
the wives took care of the family side," Ms. Girgus said. "I don't
think we can do that anymore." Ask Ms. Goldrick-Rab if she believes
there is a gap between her generation and the boomers, and she
immediately answers yes.
Mr. Olneck and Mr. Wright are more cautious. "Some of my closest
colleagues are 25 years younger than I am and I feel absolutely no
barrier of sensibility," Mr. Wright said.
For him, the institutional shifts outweigh any others: "I don't think
the big things have anything to do with generational change, but with
financial pressures on education," he said.
Wisconsin is part of the state's university's system, for example,
but it receives only 18 percent of its total budget from the
Legislature. The rest comes from tuition, donations, foundations,
federal research grants and corporations. Mr. Wright and Mr. Olneck
worry how constantly having a hand out particularly to corporations
may affect attitudes and policies. Mr. Olneck mentioned the long
list of labs and classrooms named after companies like Halliburton,
Pillsbury and Ford Motor Company.
The market sensibility may account for what Mr. Olneck and others
call an increasing careerism among junior faculty members. Jackson
Lears, 62, a historian at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said, "I
don't think that necessarily means a move to the right, but a less
overt stance of political engagement."
Gerald Graff, president of the Modern Language Association and author
of the 1992 book "Beyond the Culture Wars," is more skeptical, saying
he hasn't seen evidence of change at the University of Illinois in
Chicago, where he teaches English. "You'd think that the further we
get away from the '60s, where a lot of our political attitudes are
nurtured, there would be," he said, "but I have to say it doesn't
seem to be happening."
Certainly some disciplines, like literary studies, seem more
resistant to change. Elsewhere, senior faculty members are more
likely to hire young scholars in their own mold, while some baby
boomers have adopted the attitudes and styles of their younger peers.
But as scholars across fields argue, the historical era in which a
generation develops the Depression, wartime or peaceful affluence
is a defining moment for its members. "My generational paradigm is
the end of the cold war," said Matthew Woessner, a 35-year-old
conservative and political scientist at Penn State Harrisburg. He and
his wife, April Kelly-Woessner, a political scientist at nearby
Elizabethtown College who is a year younger and a moderate, have been
analyzing faculty survey responses for a new book. The notion that
campuses are naturally radical or the birthplace of social movements,
Ms. Kelly-Woessner said, was specific to the 1960s and '70s. "I think
the younger generation does look at it differently."
You Aren't Just Losing Teachers
Posted July 15, 2008
A recent New York Times article entitled, "On Campus, the 60s Begin
to Fade as Liberal Professors Retire," highlights a new study that
found many professors active during the 1960s are retiring and being
replaced by younger professors with more "moderate" views on the
world. It states: "When it comes to those who consider themselves
'liberal activists,' 17.2 percent of the 50-64 age group take up the
banner compared to only 1.3 percent of professors 35 and younger."
This is something that should be lamented and cause concern for those
of us interested in creating social change. I graduated from UCLA in
2002 and the direction of my life took was heavily influenced by
these activist professors. Like many privileged high school students
who make up the majority of who get into the top universities, I grew
up in the suburbs, where many of my friends did not have to work and
could focus on their extracurricular activities, SATs, AP courses,
and grades needed to impress college admissions officers. Our only
access to poverty was through the television, or the occasional
homeless person outside the supermarket. We are the children of
Ronald Reagan, the visionary who ushered in a new culture of extreme
individualism, where Americans became more obsessed with material
possessions, wealth, and ignored calls for public service and social
justice. And as we entered high school and college in the 1990s, the
Clinton administration did little to change this culture.
I came to college obsessed only with creating the perfect resume to
get into law school, where I could gain the skills necessary to get
that six figure salary job. It was the more leftist professors who
challenged me to question my insular view of the world. One of my
professors, Paul Von Blum, an over 65 year old militant white guy
with crazy hair and a beard, taught a class called the Art of Social
Conscience, where we studied art critical of society or as he stated
"art that makes you uncomfortable." He was active in the Free Speech
Movement at Berkeley in the 1960s, went to the South to help register
African Americans and fought against the Vietnam War. He painted for
us a picture of those tumultuous times through his stories, pieces
written by activists at the time, and art.
He would make radical statements about the police, the government,
and the culture of apathy within my generation. They often caused
lively debate, absent from other courses. And though the class
focused on the past, it forced us to reflect on our own times. His
anger against injustice stirred up something inside me and I got
involved with more campus activism from the struggle to unionize the
janitors on campus, to strengthening the ethnic studies departments.
I even started to migrate outside the confines of campus to downtown
Los Angeles where I participated in rallies against police brutality
and when on precinct walks with the ACLU and the union.
High school history never told us about the recent injustices
committed by our government, skipping over Watergate, Vietnam,
COINTELPRO, Iran-Contra, and other milestones that would cause
children to question authority. I can get the "moderate" view simply
by rereading my high school history book. I want the professor who
makes me pick up course material at the independent book store.
These professors not only taught; they inspired and challenged us to
do more for the world. They instilled within a lot of us a sense of
social responsibility and aroused our idealism.
The movement and activism generated by the Obama campaign should give
us hope that the young people today will experience first hand what
is like to fight for something, whether its around the Iraq war,
global warming, or poverty. They can become the professors of the
future who will continue the tradition inspiring the youth to take
action. Interestingly enough, the person who helped Obama develop a
strategy for organizing was Professor Marshal Ganz at Harvard, who
was a former organizer with the United Farm Workers union and worked
directly with Cesar Chavez. Perhaps with an Obama victory and a more
active youth population, within the next decade, the "moderate" trend
may reverse itself.