There was a BYU faculty member in my ward growing up that mentioned that he had to downplay his being a Democrat at work because, well, BYU.
I had no reason to doubt it at the time, but a few years later when I enrolled at BYU I came to the realization that by far the majority of faculty that had any discernible political preference were actually Democrats. I started rolling my eyes whenever I came across the narrative that Democrats there were an independent thinking, besieged minority on campus because, snicker snicker, BYU.
Now, I’m completely fine with a faculty member being a Democrat (or a Republican for that matter). BYU Democrats, for the purposes of this post, may be in the right. However, what they are not is unique or particularly edgy. Like a lot of us they are lemmings in their own way, and they don’t get renegade iconoclast points.
The FEC website allows people to search political donations to federal PACs by place of employment.
There are a lot of different PACs, and it would take way too much time for me to categorize even a sampling of them, so here I’m going to look at BYU employee contributions to ActBlue, an organization that facilitates small grassroots donations to Democrat causes and candidates. I will also look at WinRed, its analogue on the right for donations to Republican causes.
Over the past two years BYU employees made 789 contributions to ActBlue, and 252 donations to WinRed, or about 3.1x more to ActBlue.
As a point of comparison, University of Utah employees during this same time made 11,636 contributions to ActBlue, and 321 donations to WinRed, or 36x more.
However, a simple comparison undoubtedly hides a lot of x-factors. Maybe Democrats are just better at grassroots fundraising, maybe WinRed in general has less cachet because its been around for less time. When we look at all the donations during this time ActBlue does have an advantage (76.6 million vs 28.9 million), or about 2.7x more.
Therefore, it looks like BYU may be slightly more left than the US at large, in stark contrast to the U of U which is clearly much, much more left-leaning. However, BYU is much more representative of the US as a whole, so maybe BYU shouldn’t be known as a “conservative” place as much as a more ideologically diverse and representative place than universities in general, which tend to be political monocultures.
This is a useful corrective and appreciated. But you don’t have to look very deeply into BYU’s history to see where the conventional narrative came from. When I was at BYU (1990s) the faculty were still telling stories about President Wilkinson grilling job candidates about their politics. (“But do you do liberal econometrics or conservative econometrics?”) And conservative points of view were certainly privileged in the “American Heritage” course I was required to take. I’m embarrassed to say that I lost a debate where my opponent argued that the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional and un-American, partially because she was heavily coached by the instructor–and I did not get the sense he was playing devil’s advocate.
The question now is whether some administrators are using concern about faculty support for the Proclamation on the Family as an excuse to try to make BYU’s faculty politically conservative once again.
Of course, using political affiliations (or leanings) of faculty isn’t a great proxy for whether BYU is conservative or liberal. Faculty is only one part, along with students, administration, donors, and (unique to BYU) Church leadership to the extent that it might be separate from university administrators. We know that level of education is associated with political affiliation (with higher levels of education associated with increased likelihood of being liberal). So we would expect faculty (those on campus with the most education, though a minority of those on campus) to be more liberal, while the least educated (students) being the majority of those on campus. So I imagine that BYU would ‘feel’ very conservative to just about anyone there.
I’ve worked at BYU for lots and lots of years. One former dean told me a few years ago that 60 percent of BYU faculty were Democrats. I don’t know where he got his information, but it sounds about right. On the other hand, most BYU students are Republicans. This also does not surprise me. On average, the more education you have, the more liberal you become. This is just a statistical fact. And the divide is growing wider as the GOP casts doubt on higher education (really, education of any flavor). The GOP has become an anti-fact, anti-intellectual, anti-truth party. Especially since Trump took over the GOP, its remaining members have been highly susceptible to believing nonsense. The gullibility quotient among Republicans is extremely high. When 70 percent of Republicans believe the lies about election fraud (and all sorts of other crazy things), you can be certain that they have not really learned how to think or process information, and they certainly do not know how to find credible sources of information. So, I would fully expect a majority of BYU faculty to be liberal. Maybe if the students get more education, they too will see through the smokescreen that passes for conservative thought.
As a current BYU student, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a slight Democrat majority among BYU professors. Also while there are a lot of conservative students, I bet the majority is slimmer than many think, I’d guess 60/40. Interestingly, in 2020 the men’s apartments seemed full of Trump flags and the women’s was full of Biden/Pride flags, so I imagine there is a significant gender split. As an engineering student I (fortunately) see a lot less of politics than an environmental science/psychology student might.
That said, BYU is not “ideologically” diverse at all. I have yet to have an engineering class without a spiritual thought, and my philosophy GE is basically just: “How do Aristotle’s writings compare with president Nelson’s teachings.”
The ideological predilections of the faculty depend to a significant degree on the discipline. In the humanities and social sciences (e.g. English, history, political science, sociology), it is likely more than 10-1 ratio (frankly, probably higher than that) of liberal to conservative. In the sciences, the numbers are closer to 60-40 conservative-leaning. In religion, it is about 25-1 conservative. The law school and business school trend more conservative as well. This is based on twenty years-plus working at the university.
The student body has become more liberal over the past two decades, but it is still probably one of the most conservative in the country.
As far as political donations go, that is an imperfect metric at best. Many faculty simply cannot afford to make such donations–even if they wanted to–based on the fact that they are already giving 10% of their (somewhat modest) income to the Church in order to remain eligible for a temple recommend.
Didn’t the election precincts nearest to campus swing Biden in 2020? That might suggest something about the student body as well.
Well-said, Bert, completely agree.
The fact that Utah and Provo in particular are deep-deep red complicates this analysis somewhat. Democrats at BYU have very little political voice through traditional channels, and one of the only ways that is available to them to express their political voice is through political donations. Republicans on the other hand are able to express their political voice through more traditional means like voting.