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Showing your colours: the good and bad of academics joining political parties

Academics are often accused of political bias – but should your nail your political colours to the mast? Colour image

I’ve always thought being an academic is like living in the middle of an endless war where the weapon of choice is words.

You could say the same of parliament, so it is perhaps surprising that relatively few academics go on to have a career in politics, especially when many academics have strong political views.

Take education for instance, a discipline I know well. I think it’s fair to say that an academic with hardcore right-wing sympathies in education is like a unicorn. Although sightings of such a beast have been recorded, the hard right education academic remains a rare creature that is unlikely to rear its head at academic conferences.

In other academic disciplines the political sympathies are not so clear cut. I could locate no recent, in-depth study of the politics of Australian academics, but there was a small study in 1975.

During the 1975 election, where Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party was ousted, many academics actually paid for ads in the paper criticising the Liberal Party. Following this, leading Australian scholar of higher education Grant Harman carried out a small scale survey of academics in the then-colleges of advanced education. He showed that these academics were much more likely to be left-leaning than the rest of the Australian population.

Interestingly, he concluded from this study that academics are “deviant” in their politics. Harman claimed academia is an upper middle class profession and other upper middle class professionals, such as lawyers, tend to be more right-wing in their orientation.

But Harman was writing in the 1970s. Times have surely changed – right?

The prospect of academics spending their own money to put ads in the paper criticising the Liberal Party certainly seems unthinkable today. Although in other countries the boundaries between academia and politics are not so fraught. Early this century, a new political party composed of academics was formed in Thailand, but it was aimed at constitutional reform rather than winning power.

It seems high time that someone had a closer look at this issue - perhaps a specific analysis of the data in the Australian Election Survey could tell us more. Harman’s sample, for instance, was 89% male. Our higher education institutions have (thankfully) become more gender balanced since then.

It’s hard to say how much these findings still hold in contemporary academia, but if research carried out in the Canada and the USA is anything to go by it seems there is a slight drift away from the left. While academics on the whole tend to be left-leaning, the sciences and engineering disciplines are more likely to lean to the right.

However recent cuts to higher education research funding, from both the right and the left of politics, might have left academics of both stripes feeling disenchanted.

The most recent inquiry into academic bias and whether there is a “left wing conspiracy” in our universities failed to show there was any such thing.

The fact that there is little to no recent research on this topic in Australia is a curious oversight.

But if you’re a working academic who has joined a political party, should you disclose your membership publicly or is it a personal matter?

And if you’re an academic who wants to publicly join a political party, what are the consequences for your career?

Not many academics declare membership of a political party. Australian political parties do not have to disclose their membership, so it’s hard to know how many academics are actually members. Your cover is not likely to be blown if you do want to keep it private.

But if you do join and declare your membership publicly, professional appointments can become complicated.

For example, the recent appointment of conservative policy analyst Tim Wilson to the Human Rights Commission, has been contrasted with the appointment of Dr Tim Soutphommasane as human rights commissioner, an academic and former member of the Australian Labor party.

As conservative columnist Andrew Bolt put it:

Tim Soutphommasane was a Labor member from a left-wing think tank and he is welcomed; Tim Wilson was a Liberal member from a conservative think tank and he is attacked.

The case of Dr Soutphommasane is a good illustration of the positives and negatives of nailing your colours to the mast. If his political affiliation didn’t directly contribute to his elevation, it did, perhaps, bring him into contact with the right people. Those people would be in a good position to judge him on his skills and abilities when the time came.

This is how most of the professional world works so there’s nothing suspicious or unethical about that in my view.

However, if the political climate changes and you are known to have an affiliation, even if it’s in the past, you are much more likely to be more vulnerable to accusations of patronage and even nepotism.

By this time you are probably wondering about me. No, I’m not a member of a political party, but since I’m an education academic, and not a unicorn, you can draw your own conclusions about where I tend to stand on many issues.

That being said, I do tend to upset people when I talk about the NAPLAN at education conferences. Sometimes I get angry responses to the columns I write in “The Advocate” - the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) newsletter.

So maybe I am nudging up against the centre. I hope you won’t hold that against me.

With thanks to Ariadne Vromen,David Peeztz and Emily Kotke for their help on Twitter.

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