Students' Minds Under Siege: Have College Professors Gone from Teaching to Political Preaching? · 06 November 2005

Filed under: Press Coverage


By Sharon Schuman--Oregon Register-Guard--11/06/05

We are in the midst of a war. I refer not to Iraq or terror, but a war on the academy.

The symptoms are not invasions of foreign lands, where leaders are accused of gassing their citizens. They are attacks on universities, such as the recent columns by John Tierney in The Register-Guard, in which liberal professors are accused of bullying conservative students in class. These professors are now seen as dangerous enough to do something about.

Don't get me wrong: Most of the university students who replied to my recent informal e-mail survey, asking whether professors are "too liberal" or "too political" in the classroom, seem to like the education they are getting.

Ingrid Loesch, a senior at Humboldt State University, explains that professors have changed her life - the "best ones let you know their opinions and are willing to discuss alternate opinions as well."

Josh Kennedy of the University of Oregon Law School says, "I appreciate hearing a professor's thoughts, whether their views are conservative or liberal. Sometimes I agree, other times I don't. Either way, talking gets people thinking."

Kimberly Parzuchowski, a UO graduate student in philosophy, adds, "My professors seem respectful of students' views."

Yet there is an undercurrent of discontent. One UO student complains, "We face indoctrination from the left on a daily basis, and being conservative has turned into a dirty word."

UO senior Anthony Warren spells it out: "Professors nowadays are too liberal and cross the line from teaching to political preaching in the classroom."

Part of the problem seems to stem from recruitment. Maurice Holland, emeritus dean of the UO Law School, laments, "We hardly ever see a candidate who is politically conservative, even moderately so." If you get professors speaking off the record, many will admit that they know of colleagues who are too political in the classroom.

Legislators in 20 states have decided to fix this. They are discussing bills that call for faculty in public universities to grade students on merit, not according to their political or religious beliefs. They are also calling for hiring and promoting professors on the basis of their expertise, not their beliefs, and for establishing reading lists to "provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints."

These measures all incorporate language from the "Academic Bill of Rights" circulated by Students for Academic Freedom, an organization founded by David Horowitz of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles. The CSPC includes in its mission statement a description of Horowitz as "the left's most articulate and brilliant nemesis."

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida calls Horowitz a "fighter for freedom." Currently, he is fighting to restore to the seal of the County of Los Angeles the cross that was removed when the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue.

Students for Academic Freedom boasts members on more than 100 campuses and has declared victory in three states: in Colorado and Ohio, where academic leaders have signed memos of understanding protecting students' rights in exchange for getting legislation dropped; and in Pennsylvania, where the House passed a resolution establishing a subcommittee to determine whether public university "students are graded based on academic merit, without regard for ideologi- cal views."

The subcommittee will hold hearings and conduct investigations at least until June 30, 2006, giving faculty who choose to do so 48 hours to prepare to face their accusers.

Whether you feel reassured or terrified at the prospect of these hearings depends on your perspective on the culture wars.

Last month, Jonathan Cole, the former provost of Columbia University, complained that, "A rising tide of anti-intellectual- ism and intolerance of university research and teaching that offends ideologues and today's ruling prince is putting academic freedom - one of the core values of the university - under more sustained and subtle attack than at any time since the dark days of McCarthyism."

By June of this year, the pressure on universities got so intense that the American Council of Education, an association of 1,800 American colleges and universities, released a "Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities," which has led to an uneasy truce between universities and their critics. Students for Academic Freedom claimed another victory because the statement says,"Neither students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions."

Meanwhile, universities eager to protect their independence from political interference also claimed victory, because the statement includes assurances that "the responsibility to judge the merits of competing academic ideas rests with colleges and universities."

But the war of ideas is not over. Recent studies support claims that higher education in this country leans too far to the left.

In March, The Forum, an online journal, published an article that re-examined data from a 1999 survey of 1,643 faculty from a cross-section of colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. The authors found that, "Liberals and Democrats outnumber conservatives and Republicans by large margins" at most institutions. This study was funded by the Randolph Foundation, which also funds Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture.

The online journal Academic Questions presents two more studies about professors at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

The first deals with voter registration, and concludes that in 2003, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 10 to one at Berkeley and almost eight to one at Stanford. The second shows that in the social sciences and the humanities Democrats outnumbered Republicans seven to one at both institutions.

It is easy to quibble with these results. In the first study, 46 percent of the faculty at Berkeley and 47 percent of the faculty at Stanford could not be identified as either Republican or Democrat; in the second, the response rate was a low 31 percent.

Furthermore, Jonathan Rauch of the Times Literary Supplement tells us that Academic Questions was founded by disgruntled academics seeking to fight "the menace of political correctness." According to him, it "gives us a ringside seat on the right-hand side of the campus culture wars."

Yet the sheer volume of data showing that Democrats outnumber Republicans on American campuses, and the absence of any data to the contrary, leads us to wonder whether conservatives on campus are an endangered species.

On the other hand, for a student to learn math or literature, does the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the classroom need to be the same as in the general population? Wouldn't it be more relevant to ask whether professors should inject their political views into their classes? Does it matter whether the class deals with physics or race relations?

For professors being classified as "too liberal," part of the frustration involves the word "liberal," which has become tainted. To Horowitz, its meaning is obvious: the opposite of "conservative." Yet there are Democrats who consider themselves conservative, and Republicans who consider themselves liberal.

There is also the whole idea of the liberal arts, which calls for open inquiry based on logic, evidence and willingness to think in new ways. Another view of liberal involves individualism, the idea that a person should be free to do as he or she pleases as long as no one gets hurt.

What do we mean by "liberal"? What is "too liberal"? Who gets to decide? Asking, "Are professors too liberal?" lets conservative critics of academia prejudice the answer by loading a vague question with a word that has become an insult.

Under these circumstances, most professors just wish this conversation would go away. I don't think it will, though, as long as an anonymous law student can complain, "There are times when professors will laugh about the current administration, or make people who don't believe in gay marriage out to be ignorant, not because they are trying to hurt people's feelings but because they believe that everyone in the class agrees with them." There is just enough smugness in the classroom to furnish critics such as Horowitz with ammunition.

The remedy is not a war, which only produces entrenched enemies who demonize each other in a fight to the death.

What we need is for all professors to take seriously the 1940 American Association of University Presidents' Statement of Principles, which cautions them "not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject" and to "remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances."

We also need for students to realize that all ideas are not equal. Without evidence and a trenchant argument, it is hard to be taken seriously, whether you come from the left or the right.