Five myths about liberal academia

By Matthew Woessner, April Kelly-Woessner and Stanley Rothman
Friday, February 25, 2011; 12:00 PM

Do red-blooded, hard-working Americans pay thousands of dollars each year to send their children to college, only to have those kids turned into pot-smoking Obamacare-lovers by a pack of communist hippies? This stereotype -- professors as brainwashing left-wing ideologues -- has dogged academia at least since the Vietnam War era. But our nation's vilified professoriate isn't composed of just Marxists and Whole Foods shoppers. Let's upend five popular misconceptions about the people educating the next generation.

1. Today's professors are more moderate than radical professors from the 1960s.

A recent, widely reported study on the political views of U.S. college professors provides evidence that younger professors are more likely than their older colleagues to define themselves as moderates. However, more relevant than how individuals identify themselves is where they fall on specific political and social questions.

For our new book, "The Still Divided Academy," we surveyed more than 4,000 professors, students and administrators from four-year colleges throughout the United States. We compared the views of professors born after 1955, those born between 1946 and 1955, and those born before 1945. The youngest group was most liberal on key social issues, 7 percentage points more likely than the middle group and 14 percentage points more likely than the oldest group to agree with the statement "homosexuality is as acceptable a lifestyle as heterosexuality." And the youngest group was 8 percentage points more likely than the oldest group to agree that "it is all right for a couple to live together without intending to get married." If this trend continues as older professors retire, college faculties won't become more moderate, but will drift toward the left.

2. College professors turn their students into liberals.

Prominent conservative commentators such as David Horowitz and Dennis Prager argue that by requiring students to read politically charged books, slanting their lectures and belittling right-wing arguments, liberal professors alter the views of impressionable undergraduates.

While some professors do attempt to influence their students' politics, it's not clear that they make much of an impression. When we compared the political views of first-year college students with those of seniors, we found little evidence of systematic indoctrination. When 32 percent of first-year students and 31 percent of seniors identify themselves as Democrats, it's safe to say that institutions of learning aren't turning elephants into donkeys.

There were also few differences in attitudes about particular social and economic issues. For example, 74 percent of first-year students believe that "it is a woman's right to decide whether or not to have an abortion." Among seniors, 73 percent agree. In both groups, 54 percent believe that "the less government regulates business, the better."

Students are not sponges who merely absorb whatever political message is put in front of them. Rather, by the age of 18, young people have their own political values and biases, which are fairly resistant to change.

3. Tenure permits professors to espouse fringe views without consequence.

How much does tenure protect professors? When we asked professors whether they "avoid expressing a particular point of view because [they] expected a negative reaction," 31 percent reported that they "sometimes" or "frequently self-censor" to avoid a negative reaction from other faculty members. Thirty-four percent reported that they do so to avoid negative reactions from students. Though Democrats self-censor slightly more, this tendency does not vary greatly by party affiliation, nor by tenure status. While 42 percent of untenured assistant professors admit to sometimes or frequently withholding views, 35 percent of tenured associate professors do the same.

One explanation for self-censoring among tenured professors is that they desire rewards beyond tenure, such as promotion to full professor, administrative positions and merit pay. And with rewards often tied to student evaluations, an up-and-coming professor's desire to be popular among students never disappears.

4. Conservative academics are ostracized on campus.

We have found little evidence that right-leaning college professors are treated poorly. In our survey, 33 percent of Republican and/or conservative faculty say they are "very satisfied" with their careers, while 24 percent of Democratic and/or liberal faculty say so. More than 90 percent of Republican professors report that, given the chance to "begin your career over again," they would definitely or probably still become a professor. Meanwhile, fewer than 2 percent say they have been treated unfairly because of their political views. These results are nearly identical to those of their liberal counterparts.

However, conservative professors can have trouble publishing in peer-reviewed journals and academic presses. A recent study of Harvard University Press by Econ Journal Watch concluded that the publishing house is heavily biased toward liberal views. Only eight of 494 books published in the past 10 years were classified in the study as "conservative" or "classical liberal" in orientation. Since the ability to publish is a key requirement of securing tenure and promotions, this issue cannot be ignored.

5. College professors are liberal because better-educated people tilt left.

This self-serving notion is sometimes used to justify the relative lack of conservatives among U.S. university professors. But it disregards the forces that encourage people to pursue academic careers.

In a chapter we contributed to "The Politically Correct University: Problems, Scope, and Reform," we examined the relationship between political orientation and educational ambition. Liberal and conservative students report similar levels of satisfaction with college and nearly identical grade-point averages, but conservatives are far less likely to express interest in pursuing a PhD. Why?

Part of the reason stems from their preferred majors. Conservative students are approximately twice as likely to major in professional fields such as accounting or hotel management that focus on immediate employment rather than advanced study. But even in the same course of study, differences emerge between conservatives and liberals. Among humanities majors, 19 percent of students on the political right expressed an interest in pursuing a PhD, compared with 30 percent on the left. While smart liberals are drawn to academia, smart conservatives choose other paths.

Matthew Woessner is an associate professor of political science and public policy at Penn State University at Harrisburg. April Kelly-Woessner is an associate professor of political science at Elizabethtown College. Stanley Rothman, who passed away on Jan. 5, was the Mary Huggins Gamble professor of government at Smith College.

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