The Echo Chamber on Liberal Campuses

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Professors are stereotyped as pinko, tree-hugging, world-order globalists intrigued by same-sex marriage, obsessed with the environment and besotted with anything non-Western.

Admittedly, I overstate the public image somewhat. Still, when consensus does occur among colleagues at my faculty "lunch table," it generally falls left-of-center, so perhaps there is some validity here.

One study, by a team that included GMU communications professor Robert Lichter, provides more tenable evidence of a liberal inclination among today's professors. Survey responses from faculty members at 183 American colleges and universities show that "liberals and Democrats outnumber conservatives and Republicans by large margins" and that liberals generally teach at the so-called better institutions.

There is some variation by academic discipline. English literature professors, for example, turn out to be 88 percent liberal and 3 percent conservative, whereas business professors are 49 percent liberal and 39 percent conservative. Overall, however, 72 percent of professors describe themselves as liberal and 15 percent as conservative. That's almost a 5-1 ratio.

Another interesting point: The percentage of faculty members who are liberal increases with the academic ranking of the school. The study postulates that anti-conservative discrimination in hiring and advancement may push conservative professors out of elite schools.

So, if you are looking for a conservative academic, try the business department at an institution not considered top-tier. You will need some luck, however, because the odds are still against finding one.

Okay, academic faculties are generally liberal. So? What's a liberal faculty anyway? Well, according to the study, faculty members agree with these statements in the percentages shown.

· Homosexual and heterosexual lifestyles are equally acceptable (67 percent).

· Women have a right to an abortion (84 percent).

· Extramarital cohabitation is acceptable (75 percent).

· Government should guarantee employment (66 percent).

· Government should reduce the income gap (72 percent).

· The environment should be protected even with higher prices and fewer jobs (88 percent).

But I think there's more to this. I would argue that there is an implicit mainstream campus credo. Dissent is heresy, so stay in the mainstream unless you are tenured. Here are the principal tenets.

· Diversity, particularly linguistic and theological diversity, binds and unites a culture.

· Proportionate representation of races within a student body justifies corrective discrimination by race.

· All cultures are morally equivalent.

· Social justice may require unequal application of equal protection laws.

· The dearth of women in science screams gender bias; the dearth of men in nursing does not.

· Diversity promotes classroom learning -- except in English composition, for which foreign-born students must have their own section.

· Hate speech (racial, sexual and religious slurs) has no place on college campuses. Some words should never be spoken.

· No one should ever have to pay for health care -- or condoms.

The American professoriate is sexually tolerant, culturally sensitive, environmentally conscious and socially collectivistic. It leans hard to the left, but that is not the important thing.

What is important is that many perspectives on every issue should be presented and examined. Right now, liberal bias is so extreme as to threaten the only campus diversity that matters, the diversity of ideas.

Syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell worries that students may be exposed to just one side of issues and that they may graduate with neither skill nor competence in intellectual argumentation. "These 'educated' people will have developed no ability to analyze opposing sides of issues . . . learning only how to label, dismiss and demonize ideas that differ from what they have been led to believe," he wrote.

I worry, too, but at least a study has identified the problem and quantified the challenge. Now if we could just hire and retain a few conservative professors, we might expand classroom debates, teach students to evaluate conflicting arguments -- and just maybe tilt my lunch table back toward the center.

James A. Metcalf is a professor in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at George Mason University in Fairfax.

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