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Faculty Are Liberal -- Who Cares?

March 27, 2008

One of the key arguments made by David Horowitz and his supporters in recent years is that a left-wing orientation among faculty members results in a lack of curricular balance, which in turn leads to students being indoctrinated rather than educated. The argument is probably made most directly in a film much plugged by Horowitz: "Indoctrinate U."

A study that will appear soon in the journal PS: Political Science & Politics accepts the first part of the critique of academe and says that it's true that the professoriate leans left. But the study -- notably by one Republican professor and one Democratic professor -- finds no evidence of indoctrination. Despite students being educated by liberal professors, their politics change only marginally in their undergraduate years, and that deflates the idea that cadres of tenured radicals are somehow corrupting America's youth -- or scaring them into adopting new political views.

The study's authors -- Gordon Hewitt of Hamilton College and Mack Mariani of Xavier University, in Ohio -- write that they believe too much time has been spent debating the proper methodologies for testing whether there is a political imbalance on college faculties. If the danger of such an imbalance is that it is hurting students, the key question is whether the imbalance leads to an otherwise unexplainable shift in student political attitudes.

"The indoctrination argument is fundamentally an argument about change, the main point being that liberal professors indoctrinate students to become more liberal over the course of their college careers," the authors write. They set out to test the theory.

Based on a review of numerous other studies, as well as of specific surveys of faculty political attitudes at various private colleges, they do not contest that the faculty in higher education is liberal -- significantly more so than the public at large. To measure student shifts, the scholars used data from the University of California at Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute in which students are asked -- as freshmen and seniors -- to place themselves ideologically. Student data were examined for specific colleges for which data on faculty political leanings were available, and those colleges were grouped into three categories, based on politics. The student attitudes were examined in 1999 as freshmen and 2003 as seniors.

The scholars find some self-selection, with students who enter college as conservative slightly more likely to be found at relatively conservative institutions, and so forth. But over all, they found only slight shifts in political leanings (albeit to the left) during the students' four years. The analysis also found explanations other than faculty ideology -- gender and wealth, for example -- that correlate with the modest political shifts that took place. Whether the students attended a college that was more liberal or conservative did not correlate with the shift -- which it would have had liberal professors been engaged in indoctrination, the authors write.

Even with the slight shift to the left of students, the authors write, college students graduate with a smaller share of people identifying as "far left" than does the 18-24 year old cohort of the U.S. population.

Political Orientations of Private College Students and the General Population

  Far Left Liberal Moderate Conservative Far Right
First-year students (1999) 1.6% 23.3% 47.8% 26.0% 1.3%
Seniors (2003) 3.6% 29.1% 42.8% 23.6% 0.9%
18-24 year old cohort in U.S. 5.3% 28.7% 38.3% 23.4% 2.1%

First, the authors suggest that the shifts are so modest that widescale indoctrination doesn't make any sense. They then go on to note other trends that they think explain the changes that do take place. For example, female students move more to the left during college than do male students. But this mirrors the national political trend of women being the left of men, and the male and female college students are shifting political views (or not) based on the same faculties.

The authors acknowledge that there is another explanation for the minimal shift in student attitudes (at least for those who think professors are trying to indoctrinate): The professors on the left just might not be very good at indoctrination. But even if that is true, and the authors don't see evidence for that thesis, they believe that their analysis should be reassuring. "Regardless of any biases (intentional or unintentional) that professors bring to their teaching, the findings presented here should help alleviate the concern that students, on a widespread basis, are being forced to adopt the political positions of their liberal professors," the authors write.

It seems unlikely all concerns will be alleviated. Daniel B. Klein, a professor of economics at George Mason University, has written a number of articles about the political leanings of faculty members, focusing on the relative dominance of liberal, pro-government views. He faulted the new report on several grounds. He said that the authors could have done more tracing why students move from one political category of identification to another, and that they likely would have found some correlation with the political leanings of professors.

But even if the new study shows that indoctrination is not a widespread problem, Klein said that the new analysis addresses only one issue. The authors may have "usefully refuted" the massive indoctrination idea in an "interesting" way, but fear of indoctrination is not the only reason some people worry about the lack of political balance on college faculties.

"Even if it were true that students totally took a Bart Simpson attitude toward their college professors and were completely uninfluenced by them, I still think it would be a tragedy that during those four years, they were not getting the good stuff," Klein said. There is an "opportunity cost" when students graduate in four years and haven't been exposed (or have only been exposed to negative ideas about) Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, Klein said. Too many students graduate with a "complete zero" in those and other people worth knowing, Klein said. So political leanings matter, he added, even without the assumption of indoctrination.

 

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