Academic liberal bias: nope

When I was in grad school at Indiana, I was generally considered the token ‘conservative’ among the grad student population.  I know, you probably think that’s weird.  It was weird, to be thought of as a conservative. Which meant, of course that I was ostracized by all my fellow grad students and professors, who were intent on indoctrinating me with their East Coast, radical ’60s liberal, borderline communist ideology.

Actually, none of that happened at all. At all, ever. The main reaction my fellow students had to my supposed ‘conservatism’ was . . . I don’t remember that they had any reaction to it.  Mostly, we were all trying to pass really difficult classes, write papers that might have a chance of publication, work on our dissertations and responsibly teach the undergraduate classes to which we were assigned.  Political indoctrination?  Never happened.  We were learning theatre history and theatre theory, and we were reading tons of difficult texts and trying to make sense of them.

What did happen was that I saw plays in production that I would not have been exposed to as a BYU undergraduate, plays I had been led to believe were ‘worldly’ and therefore morally and spiritually dangerous.  I remember specifically having been warned, at BYU, against David Mamet.  Then a friend of mine, a fellow student, directed a production of American Buffalo, and seeing it changed my life.  It was wonderful, compassionate and powerful.  Later, I saw Marvin Carlson’s terrific production of Marat/Sade–again, an incredible encounter with Artaudian theatricality.  So, yes, I did grow and advance in grad school.  I did learn, and it did change me. And I will be forever grateful.

Okay, but still.  Nationally, college faculty members tend to be more liberal than most Americans, and it is therefore an article of faith on the Right that colleges are indoctrination factories, intent on corrupting (with liberal nonsense) the Youth of America.  In fact, the beginnings of movement conservatism are often said to date from 1951, and the publication of William F. Buckley’s God and Man At Yale.  Buckley, as a conservative undergraduate at Yale, felt marginalized, felt that his religious beliefs were under attack from his professors.  And he was willing to name names–cite specific professors and quote their attacks on his religion.

But that name naming is both the strength and weakness of the book.  Obviously, it was pretty cheeky for a kid like Buckley to call out specific big-deal profs.  But his evidence was anecdotal.  And that’s been the way it’s always gone since–the evidence of specific anti-conservative bias is always anecdotal.  ‘So and so said such-and-such.’ Oh, conservatives will also cite some polling data.  But numbers don’t pack the punch of a good story, and good stories aren’t hard to dig up.

I could do that too, actually. I had one professor at Indiana who challenged my Mormon conservatism directly and openly, in class.  He never let me get away with anything.  I would say something in class, and he’d say ‘okay, we heard the Mormon point of view.  Is that really what you think, Eric?’  He even said to me, once, ‘you’ll never progress as a playwright until you set aside your religious beliefs.’  We locked horns all the time.  And when I think of that professor, my eyes get all misty–he’s one of the most important influences ever in my life.  I know if I saw him today, we’d talk, and we’d argue and we’d disagree.  And we might even quarrel.  And then he’d clap me on the back with a great smile on his face, and ask about my wife and family, and we’d probably go out to lunch.

He was, in a word, a teacher.  A fine one.  And like any great teacher, he pushed me, to think differently and more deeply, to reconsider previous positions, to defend a point of view, to cite evidence–always evidence–and to hone and polish my arguments.  That’s what good teachers do.

Anyway, this supposed ‘indoctrination’ of conservatives probably does happen occasionally, because teachers are human beings too, and make mistakes.  But are universities entirely liberal-indoctrination-factories?  No.  And in a new book by a prominent sociologist, Neil Gross, some solid evidence emerges.

The book: Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?  Gross combines polling data, hundreds of interviews, and even developed a little experiment.  He submitted fake grad school applications; in half, the prospective (fictional) student described working in Republican political campaigns, and in half, they worked on the Obama campaign.  He discovered no difference in acceptance rates–political affiliation just wasn’t a factor.  Gross says that, yes, professors self-identify as liberal more often than they do conservative, about 2 to 1.  But evidence suggests that it has little effect on teaching.  23 percent of faculty self-identify as conservatives, and Gross’ evidence suggest that those faculty are the ones most likely to bring their politics into the classroom.

Basically, what seems to happen is that people come to college with strong political views already in place, and tend to choose their majors accordingly.  If you’re a liberal high school kid, you’re more likely to want to major in the humanities, for example.  But as professors, that’s not so important.  Nearly all college professors say classroom political neutrality is a very important value for them.

But faculty aren’t nearly as important as they used to be.  When I was in grad school, me and my fellow students all hoped our PhDs would lead to tenure-track jobs, and, we hoped, to publication and to tenure.  And for the most part, we did get jobs.  Faculty jobs did exist, and my friends and I did get them.  Of course, the fact that I was at Indiana helped–it’s a very highly respected program.  But the track existed–PhD to tenure track job to tenure. When I was hired at BYU, well, hey, I got my job too.

But academia is changing very rapidly, and while the job track does exist, it’s very seriously eroded.  Salon just published a terrific article by Jeffrey Williams, in which he uses Gross’ book as a starting point to a larger discussion about the real crisis in higher education.  Today, three quarters of faculty are in impermanent jobs.  Faculty float, from job to job, from school to school, in lower-paying part-time faculty jobs. Don’t let ‘part-time’ fool you–often these adjunct faculty have very heavy undergraduate teaching loads.  And in those jobs, they face a terrible Catch-22.  They have a workload that makes research and publication incredibly difficult, but without impressive publication records, it becomes harder to land a tenure-track position, which are anyway disappearing.

The reasons for this are obvious–colleges have lost traditional revenue streams, especially state schools, where legislatures find higher education a lower funding priority.  Another response, of course, involves tuition hikes, leading in turn to students graduating with impossibly high levels of student loan debt.  Let’s not kid ourselves–higher education in this country is in crisis mode, with few solutions in sight.

(I could point out that colleges seem perfectly willing to pay loads of money for football coaches. Check this out.  The University of Texas could hire fifty assistant professors for the amount they pay Mack Brown.  But I suppose that money wouldn’t be available, in Texas, for something as unimportant as professors.)

And, of course, this supposed ‘academic liberal bias,’ the notion of bias, the idea of it, that’s also one of the problems. If state legislators believe it, believe that profs turn kids into liberal humanist atheists, they’re unlikely to pony up for higher education.

As Williams’ suggests in his article, colleges have also become internally de-centered.  The core of the university used to be the faculty.  That’s not true anymore.  Nowadays, the core of most universities are administrators.  They’re the most highly paid, and they’re the ones with de facto job security.

This isn’t all bad.  Most of my professors taught grad classes exclusively.  A 1-2-1 class load was considered pretty normal–one class in the fall, two in the winter, one in spring or summer.  Undergraduates were almost entirely taught by guys like me–grad students.  When I came to BYU, and discovered that my work load was a 4-4-2, my IU profs were appalled.  But BYU always believed that professors, the most experienced and knowledgeable teachers on campus, should have a significant undergraduate teaching load.  Personally, I loved it.  I loved teaching, and I loved teaching freshmen.  And I managed to publish too.

So if the de-centering of higher education means professors teaching more undergrad classes, I think that’s fine.  But if it means the end of tenure, and the administrator-driven erosion of academic freedom, well, that could be disastrous.

In any event, this ‘liberal professors indoctrinating students’ nonsense has political and educational implications, and we can’t push back against it strongly enough.  There was a time when American higher education was the envy of the world.  That’s becoming less true, and trend seems to continue.

Universities have historically been built on three great pillars: tenure, academic freedom, and faculty self-government. As education continues to evolve, we have to make sure we don’t lose absolutely fundamental educational principles.



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