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Looking for Bias

June 27, 2013

Does the University of Colorado need to do a survey to determine that many at the Boulder campus are liberal? And does a liberal-leaning faculty and student body mean that anything is wrong there? Those are among the questions raised by last week's Board of Regents vote to look into political diversity at the system's flagship at Boulder and its three other campuses.

Sue Sharkey and a fellow Republican regent proposed the intellectual “climate survey” during a recent meeting, citing concerns among some University of Colorado faculty and students that a liberal bias chills the free exchange of ideas and negatively affects student learning.

In her remarks, Sharkey said the survey would determine “how well the campuses have implemented the [board's] guiding principle that encourages ‘the rich interchange of ideas in the pursuit of truth and learning, including diversity of political, geographic, cultural, intellectual and philosophical perspectives.’ ”

Without data, she continued, the board “cannot gauge how well it is meeting this goal. Consistent with principles of academic research, rather than relying upon anecdotal evidence or urban legend, this climate survey will tell us where we have succeeded and where we have opportunities to make the University of Colorado stronger.”

In an interview, Sharkey said her concerns about political discrimination in higher education date back at least 17 years, to her son’s own college experience receiving an "F" on a paper because his views on an education issue differed from his professor's (outside the University of Colorado system). Since then, she said, “because of my position and also as a conservative, people have been willing to share their personal stories of discrimination based on their beliefs, but we don’t know how widespread the problem is.” The proposal was inspired by anecdotal evidence rather than any one specific incident, she added.

The resolution passed 8-0, with Michael Carrigan, board chair, abstaining as is his general practice. Carrigan said in an interview that the proposal gained broad support especially after an amendment was passed to include questions about other kinds of diversity -- including gender and ethnicity -- in the survey.

As a graduate of Boulder, Carrigan said he'd heard the "standard allegations about a bias among certain departments and among certain faculty that one hears in many institutions." But there are "a couple regents who have made it more of a priority to have the institution look at ways to broaden intellectual diversity on the campus," he added.

“I want to ensure all students have the opportunity to receive higher quality educational experiences with robust discussions of different ideas and viewpoints."
--Sue Sharkey, a Colorado regent

The survey, which Sharkey said would examine students, faculty and curriculum, is designed to map what she sees as the problem. To be developed and executed by an independent company, in conjunction with a university team that includes faculty members, the survey will focus on things like teaching styles and curriculum rather than party affiliation, she said. "I don't believe you need to belong to one political party to teach the philosophical views of another."

The survey is tentatively planned for this fall. It’s too early to tell exactly how the data will be applied, but “I want to ensure all students have the opportunity to receive higher quality educational experiences with robust discussions of different ideas and viewpoints," Sharkey said.

Several professors, including Robert F. Nagel, professor of Constitutional law at Boulder, offered remarks in favor of the proposal. Nagel said that although law schools are often liberal, Boulder’s is especially so and that “faculty cannot be relied upon, if left to its own devices, to address in any significant way the problem of political homogeneity.”

If a study is well-done, Nagel said in an e-mail “it might convince some faculty members that there is a problem (which is widely denied now).  It might also cause faculty members to be more careful and thoughtful about hiring, and so on, because of the possibility of public scrutiny.”

But, he added, “the problem is largely intractable because of entrenched faculty attitudes.”

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University who served as a visiting professor at Boulder last year, also described a liberal bias among faculty in his comments to the board. Although he was invited to the university by board members and the chancellor to develop a set of freshman honors writing courses based on liberal-conservative debate, similar to what he created at Emory, “the Boulder English department proved uninterested in what I was offering," he said.

(In an e-mail, William Kuskin, department chair, disputed that account. "I was very open to his ideas about engaging the students," he said, adding that he suggested Bauerlein participate in a campus lecture series and experiment with new ideas directly in his honors classroom. "What I tried to convey to [Bauerlein] at the time was that we have a process for curricular changes at the University of Colorado Boulder, and logistically it would be quite an undertaking for a visiting professor to introduce a brand-new curriculum.")

Is this a result of someone's agenda? We really don't quite get -- with all the other issues out there -- why this, why now?"
--Paul Chinowsky, professor of engineering

The board's vote isn't the first move to address Boulder's liberal reputation; in March, the university announced that Steven Hayward would be its first visiting professor of conservative thought and policy. In a statement, Hayward called the creation of his position "a bold experiment for the university and me to see whether the ideological spectrum can be broadened in a serious and constructive way."

But the proposal surprised many of Boulder’s 1,500 faculty, including Paul Chinowsky, professor of engineering and incoming chair of the Boulder Faculty Assembly.

“I’ve been here for 12 years and I don’t think the issue they’re bringing up is the problem they’re characterizing it to be,” he said. “And I don’t think the average faculty member thinks it is.... Is this a result of someone's agenda? We really don't quite get -- with all the other issues out there -- why this, why now?"

Descriptions of Boulder's large faculty body sharing one belief system are "just plain wrong," and likely based on "localized" interactions with specific departments, he added. "If you look across campus, it's actually a very diverse campus."

Still, Chinowsky said he didn’t necessarily oppose the survey, other than on grounds of cost in a time of budget constraints (it’s expected to run upward of $40,000). But he wants a better-articulated idea of how the gathered data will be used before the survey begins, lest people view it as a kind of political "witch hunt."

“Let’s be very clear about what we’re going to do with the findings so that everyone is in agreement about what we’re trying to achieve,” he said. “Let’s prevent any misuse of data, or we’re going to create a very confrontational situation.”

Carrigan said one possible use for the data is as a "guidepost" to determine whether or not progress toward diversity is made over time.

In her own remarks, Patricia Limerick, professor of a history and faculty chair at Boulder's Center of the American West, said Boulder faculty -- like people in all lines of work -- may be guilty of "confirmation bias," or a predisposition toward ideas similar to their own. She said she didn't oppose the survey but offered the center's practice of inviting diverse speakers to discuss things such as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," as a model for the rest of the university to follow.

"You end up with better activities that are more engaging and offer more wide-ranging perspectives," and honor the role of the university as a place for congenial debate, she said in an interview.

Neil Gross, professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and author of Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, said in an e-mail that while Boulder does have a reputation for progressivism, “I don’t know if conservative students there feel any more besieged than do their counterparts at any number of major research universities.” Although understanding the student experience is important from a social science and public policy perspective, he added, it remains to be seen whether the survey instrument lives up to “the demands of rigorous social science.”

Amy Binder, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, researched the role campus environments can play in shaping student politics in her recent book, Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives. An unnamed “Western flagship” institution where she did some of her research bears a striking resemblance to Boulder, and students there did report liberal bias from faculty, including "rants" about the Iraq War and jokes about national conservative leaders. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Binder said students said such encounters sharpened their critical thinking skills and often only confirmed their beliefs. Other data show that, while strongly outnumbered, very few conservative faculty and students report being discriminated against for their views.

A survey like the one proposed could nonetheless help enhance the student experience by leading to less-biased instruction where it exists and greater exposure to the "full panoply of human thought," Binder said. But like Gross, she said its value will be in its rigor. "It seems to me they need to spend lots and lots more money and do qualitative research in classrooms and sections," on things like textual analysis. "If I'm a liberal and teaching, say, inequality, am I teaching the perspectives of multiple scholars and policy makers, and thinking about the multiple ways inequality can be studied?"

Ultimately, however, Gross said inquiries into the "liberal bias" in higher education, an idea that’s been around since the 1950s, might do more harm than good. “In the short term, amid budget cuts and reorganization of higher education, it could have real impact, at Boulder and elsewhere,” he said, but it’s probably a nonstarter for most students. “Rightly or wrongly, continued focus on the bias issue may send a signal to those uncommitted politically that conservatives and the [Republican party] are anti-intellectual, and more concerned to bash liberal professors and other symbolic enemies than to put forth any meaningful program for securing the country’s future.”

But Bauerlein said the issue is fundamentally about education, not politics. The survey therefore has to be presented as a “genuine inquiry” into curriculum, not personnel.

“I’m not someone who believes in affirmative action for conservative people,” he said. “We need to look at the curriculum and come up with summary judgments. Is it a tendentious one? Then we correct that tendency. If we find conservative backgrounds and ideas have been overlooked, then it’s a failure on the part of the university.”

 

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