As a Republican professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University, I think I have a unique understanding of the challenges faced by the right in higher education. Beyond my 20 years of experience as a conservative in higher education, I've spent much of my career systematically studying how academe's liberalism influences students, potentially shaping their values, their politics and their careers.
When I learned that my former senator, Rick Santorum, had recently taken to the airwaves to decry the mistreatment of conservatives in higher education, I took notice. Like many conservatives, I'm concerned about the ideological imbalance among the professoriate. Yet, looking at Santorum's specific accusations, I was disappointed to discover that rather than offering a measured critique of academe's often-insular liberal world views, the senator lapsed into a form of conservative victimology.
Elaborating on a prior interview where he asserted that Democrats like President Obama want every kid to go to college because they are "indoctrination mills," Senator Santorum described his own negative experiences as an undergraduate at Penn State. "I went through a process where I was docked for my conservative views,” Santorum asserted. Although he acknowledged that he couldn't be certain if the mistreatment of conservatives is still a problem in higher education, he further speculated that "I suspect it may even be worse."
There are elements of truth to Senator Santorum’s criticisms. Many professors seem to be in denial about the potential problems created by the ideological homogeneity in higher education. For example, in my own work, I’ve often found it much easier to publish research when findings tend to bolster a left-leaning political narrative than when they might be used to justify a conservative position. I don't think this is a left-wing conspiracy. Rather, left-leaning faculty will unconsciously dismiss conservative findings more readily than liberal findings. In a profession where a vast majority of researchers approach social scientific questions with a liberal slant, it will naturally be more difficult to publish work that undermines liberal policy positions. As a result, academe's ideological imbalance probably tends to stifle innovation, encouraging a kind of groupthink on questions related to politics and policy.
Yet, Senator Santorum undermines these substantive if somewhat subtle criticisms of academe by portraying higher education as a left-wing boot camp, designed to create Democratic voters rather than productive members of society. I'm not suggesting that conservative students are never mistreated because of their views, nor would I deny that many left-wing professors would like to politically influence undergraduates.
However, in assessing whether higher education is truly hostile to conservatives, it's important to consider how often this is a problem. The results of several major studies call into question whether colleges and universities are indeed "indoctrination mills" as Senator Santorum asserts. In my book The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education, (written with my wife, April Kelly-Woessner, and the late Stanley Rothman) we find little evidence that students' views change over their four years of college. Very few individuals (students, faculty or administrators) report mistreatment as a result of their political views. As my wife likes to say, "students aren’t sponges." Eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds aren't accustomed to accepting everything at face value. Indeed, neither I nor Senator Santorum succumbed to efforts to influence our political views. We both emerged from higher education with strong conservative values, perhaps sharpened by an environment in which we were forced to articulate our unique points of view.
Without the facts, I wouldn't presume to contradict Senator Santorum’s claim that as a student at Penn State he was docked for his conservative views. Nevertheless, looking to Senator Santorum's demeanor on the campaign trail, let me offer an alternative hypothesis.
As a presidential candidate, Senator Santorum sometimes engages in exaggeration or hyperbole, to make a political point. For example, in criticizing John F. Kennedy’s famous speech where he advocated a separation of church and state, Senator Santorum remarked, "that makes me throw up." Obviously this wasn't meant literally. Yet, as an academic who trains students to analyze politics calmly and carefully, I found this remark to be disconcerting. Aside from the fact that I think he misconstrued the central point of JFK’s remarks, that kind of over-the-top rhetoric demonstrates a certain political immaturity. While I share many of Santorum's political views, if, as a student, he had criticized Kennedy's remarks with that sort of overheated rhetoric, I probably would have docked his grade, too.
Matthew Woessner is associate professor of political science and public policy at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg.