Politics (national)

The importance of how voters perceive the political orientation of colleges and universities (opinion)

Allegations that colleges are bastions of liberalism are not new. The reality is it’s always been impossible to peg higher education writ large across the United States into any one ideological corner, when it comes to individual faculty members or institutions. Still, during the Depression, Republicans used to ask each other “How do you get to Washington, D.C.?” to which the answer was, “You go to Harvard and turn left.”

Max Yergan, an African American professor at City College of New York, was hired in 1937 only to be fired in 1941 after complaints that he expressed liberal and progressive views. He was among those ensnared when the New York State Legislature in 1940 launched an investigation into the political beliefs of professors in New York City, and more than 50 faculty and staff members at the City College of New York resigned or were terminated as a result. Historian Carol Smith called this purge of people based on their personal beliefs a "dress rehearsal for McCarthyism."

During the Cold War, conservatives routinely saw colleges and universities as hotbeds of Communism. Many faculty members were required to sign loyalty oaths to the United States, and some 100 faculty were terminated due to their alleged sympathy towards Communism. The concepts of academic freedom and free speech turned out to be such a poor defense for professors who were caught in the crosshairs of investigators that Yeshiva University professor Ellen Schrecker titled her study of the McCarthy era “No Ivory Tower.”

In the 1960s, public concerns over civil rights, student conduct rules, Vietnam and Watergate led to regular campus protests that included demonstrations, building takeovers, strikes and the destruction of property. They also led to renewed charges of a liberal bias. Ronald Reagan launched his political career by using colleges as a political foil, particularly the Free Speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley. While running for his first term as governor of California, he criticized both the students and professors at Berkeley and vowed to crack down on protests. And a Gallup poll in the wake of the shootings at Kent State University in 1970 found that 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for the deaths and injuries, while only 11 percent blamed the National Guard.

What are the popular perceptions -- and the actual facts -- today? Extensive research has concluded that individual faculty members may be liberal but that the recent allegations of an institutional liberal bias are overstated at best or, more likely, just flat wrong. In 2017, a Princeton University Ph.D. candidate, David Austin Walsh, addressed those misperceptions directly in a Washington Post op-ed, concluding, “Higher education actually skews conservative. While it is true that large numbers of professors -- particularly in the arts and humanities -- identify politically as liberal or radical, it is emphatically not the case that institutions of higher education themselves are radical or even necessarily especially liberal. In fact, thanks to the power of regents, trustees, alumni, donors and -- at public institutions -- state governments, some of the most powerful voices in campus politics are politically conservative.”

But unfortunately, in today’s extremely polarized environment where facts, evidence and analysis are devalued or simply ignored, perceptions matter. So what voters think or believe matters a great deal.

That is why the question of how voters perceive the political orientation of colleges and universities is important. Do they see higher ed institutions as ideological or nonpartisan -- as left-leaning organizations, middle of the road or conservative?

Rating Higher Ed’s Ideological Orientation

To answer this question, pollster David Winston inserted, at the request of the American Council on Education, a question into a regular survey he conducts of 1,000 registered voters asking them to rate the ideological orientation of colleges and universities. Specifically, respondents were asked to rate colleges on a scale of one to nine, where one meant “very liberal” and nine meant “very conservative.” If voters thought the ideology of colleges and universities was in the “middle of the road” or moderate, they would rate colleges as a five.

Over all, the average rating of colleges and universities from all voters was somewhat left of center, at 4.48. But the complete picture is more complex and nuanced. Voters are not monolithic, and different subgroups of voters have different impressions.

Younger voters (those aged 18 to 34) gave colleges an average rating of 5.5 and are the subgroup that think colleges the most conservative. This group includes, of course, people who have had the most recent personal experience with higher education institutions. Other groups that think colleges and universities lean to the right include Hispanics (5.28) and African Americans (5.25). Voters with a high school degree or less (4.96), Democrats (4.91) and liberals (4.88) view colleges and universities as closer to the center.

By contrast, other subgroups of voters think colleges are very liberal places. Seniors (age 65 and above) rated colleges as 3.60 and see them as more liberal than any other subgroup. Other voters who believe colleges tilt in a liberal direction include conservatives (3.85), voters with some college (4.07), high-income households (4.20), whites (4.24), independents (4.25) and those with bachelor’s degrees (4.35).

At one level, this is not surprising. Groups that historically lean to the left politically see colleges and universities as institutions that are more conservative than they are. Indeed, during the 1960s student protests, one of the most common critiques people leveled at colleges was that they were impersonal, conservative institutions that did not care about individuals. Meanwhile, the subgroups of voters that tend to be on the conservative side of the political spectrum have long believed colleges are very liberal.

Again, it’s not that simple. On that same one-to-nine scale, voters over all rate their own political views as 5.53 -- significantly more conservative than where voters locate higher education institutions. In short, American voters over all, when asked to rate their own political views, choose a distinctly center-right position. When they look at colleges and universities, they rate them as center-left institutions. In short, a majority of American voters see higher education institutions as being significantly more liberal than they are.

When voters are asked to rate their own views relative to political actors, the very liberal senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont gets a 3.69 rating, congressional Democrats in general are at 4.18 and congressional Republicans score a 6.50.

Put another way: average voters (at 5.53) believe that their own political views are ideologically closer to congressional Republicans (6.50) than they are to colleges and universities (4.48). Similarly, voters believe that the ideological orientation of colleges and universities is closer to Bernie Sanders (3.69) than it is to voters themselves.

Interestingly, voters gave an ideological rating of 5.46 to corporations -- almost exactly where they place their own political views.

A Reinforcing Feedback Loop

In this hyperpoliticized era, voters will interpret events in ways that reinforce their world view. Especially given the rise of social media, with its tendency to reinforce messages for like-minded individuals, it’s hard to convince anyone to consider a different interpretation to a sincerely held belief.

Political polarization plays into this, as well. Those with a college degree are to a growing extent likely to vote for Democrats. Those without a college degree are favoring Republicans more and more, a sea change from the era when Democrats were more a part of the working class and Republicans more the party of business owners. But in a world where one set of voters watches MSNBC and another set sticks to Fox News, the public perception of all industries and organizations increasingly includes a reinforcing feedback loop.

Conservatives’ attacks on the alleged liberal bias of colleges, and mandates like the Trump administration’s Free Speech Executive Order giving the U.S. Department of Education the authority to investigate alleged suppression of speech on campuses, are, sadly, some of the results. This is bad public policy, but good politics.

This is a particular problem for colleges and universities because their core values -- academic freedom and institutional autonomy -- depend on widely shared respect for what colleges do and how they do it. Higher education needs -- and deserves -- broad support from across the political and partisan spectrum.

Higher education has been viewed as liberal or unpatriotic in the past. But that didn’t stop our institutions from becoming this nation’s greatest engines of economic and social mobility, not to mention the envy of the world and places that the globe’s most talented students and scholars have wanted to be. But as Americans increasingly divide individuals and institutions into “on my side” and “not on my side” categories -- and simply tune out those with whom they don’t agree -- we need to redouble our efforts to show all Americans that colleges and universities are a public good, not an ideological weapon.

Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education (ACE). Phil Muehlenbeck is legal services associate at ACE and a professorial lecturer at George Washington University.

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A 'virtuous contagion' is needed to stimulate participation in the 2020 elections (opinion)

In recent days, I was looking for a break from reading about COVID-19, and what did I stumble upon? Articles about the disappointing turnout of young voters in the Democratic primaries thus far. In the United States, ever since 18-year-olds got the vote in 1972, people between 18 and 29 have voted in smaller numbers than other age groups.

Part of the reason for this, apparently, is that it takes time to adjust to any public activity. Voting is a habit that develops from being part of a community, and it takes a while to get it going, especially when you are just entering adulthood and pulling together an independent life.

Reading about voting, like reading about anything these days, brought me back to ideas of contagion, isolation and interaction. Maybe the failure to vote is like the widely reported failure of younger people to self-isolate; they don’t feel they belong to the community that’s at risk. We are now asking for immediate feelings of communal connection when we ask people to stay away from one another. These preventive measures are encouraged to protect some of the most vulnerable: the aging, people with underlying and chronic health issues, the economically disadvantaged. But have we encouraged connectivity of young people with these groups?

The term being used for these measures is “social isolation.” A grim term indeed, but, as Nicholas Christakis has said, we should really be speaking of “physical isolation.” After all, we can remain safely isolated from one another physically while staying socially connected. Via our ubiquitous technological networks, we can have a virtuous social and political contagion even as we avoid malignant physical contagion by keeping six feet apart.

And maybe it’s virtuous contagion that we need to stimulate participation in the vital 2020 elections. Given the current administration’s penchant for voter suppression and the very real problem we would face if people had to come out to vote during an epidemic, one can easily imagine attempts to use the fear of contamination to make it more difficult to cast ballots. This would especially be the case in urban areas where voting happens in crowded places.

The best way to attack cynicism, apathy or voter suppression is through authentic civic engagement between elections. One of the great things about this kind of engagement is that it is contagious. As we replicate efforts to bring people into the political process, we create habits of engagement and participation. Concern for the public sphere -- like a virus -- can spread. Usually this happens through face-to-face interaction, but now we must turn to virtual tools -- notorious in recent years for being deployed to misinform or stir hatred -- to strengthen networks for democracy.

At Wesleyan University, we’ve begun a project called Engage 2020 that aims to bring more students into the public sphere to increase their civic preparedness and broaden their liberal learning. The next eight months offer a crucial opportunity for civic participation and liberal education through engagement with the public sphere. With the launch of the E2020 initiative, we provided a number of pathways for student skill and leadership development via direct participation in civic life. On a nonpartisan basis, we offered mini-internships linked with classes, funded student work to increase voter participation and awarded small grants to students to travel to areas where political races were of particular concern.

Of course, circumstances have now changed. We no longer want to encourage travel or to contribute -- directly or indirectly -- to the kinds of rallies characteristic of political campaigns. Still, there are other ways for colleges and universities to encourage meaningful civic engagement -- and to make that engagement contagious.

We can support our students (through internships or virtual fieldwork classes for credit) in helping other people find out how they can register to vote or in working on campaigns, all from home -- plugging into virtual networks that allow “knocking on doors” from computer to computer, from phone to phone. Working with organizations like Campus Compact or Civic Nation, MyFaithVotes or Let America Vote, the Chamber of Commerce or the League of Women Voters, students can connect with large numbers of people through networks that don’t require travel, or even hand shaking!

Although some of the commentary on the difficulty of Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign focuses on the failure to increase turnout among 20-somethings, it’s important to note that many thousands of college students across the country are already stepping up to their political responsibility. In our E2020 initiative, we’ve invited several other colleges and universities with strong civic engagement programs to join us in embracing the educational value of political participation. More than 75 quickly signed up -- from large community colleges to small liberal arts colleges, from HBCUs and Christian colleges to large, secular research universities. They recognize that civic engagement is good for students, for their institutions and for the country.

This is an anxious time, a time when we have to stay away from our neighbors, our fellow citizens, in order to protect ourselves and the greater good. In circumstances like these, some social networks break down, and we see their disintegration in examples of hoarding, price gouging and general selfishness masquerading as independence. But we also see other social networks coming alive as neighbors look out for one another -- providing food, medicine, even communal serenading.

This is also a crucial time for American democracy, an inflection point that will determine the direction of the country and of the world’s environment for many years to come. Colleges and universities have a duty to pay attention to the physical health of their constituents while also attending to the civic health of the nation. By promoting a virtuous contagion of thoughtful, networked civic engagement, our institutions can prove once again that we can respond to dire challenges and make a potent contribution to the public good.

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Alan M. Dershowitz writes that the criticisms of his views by other law professors reflect their political bias (opinion)

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed, “The ‘Dersh’ Stands Alone,” contended that my legal arguments against impeaching Donald Trump have thrust me “even farther into academe’s margins.” But the real question is how many of the law professors who have attacked my constitutional views would have done so if I had made the identical constitutional arguments on behalf of a President Hillary Clinton who had been impeached for abuse of power.

Those of us who have been in academe for a long time -- in my case, more than half a century -- know the answer. Many professors disguise their partisan political views as expert scholarship. This is well-known within academe, but not so much in the outside world.

Not only did I vote for Hillary Clinton, but I also started my research on impeachment in the summer of 2016, when it looked like she would be elected president and the Republicans were threatening to impeach her on day one. I was planning then to write a book entitled The Case Against Impeaching Hillary Clinton, in which I would have essentially made the same arguments I am now making. Had I done so, many of these same professors would be praising me for my original research.

Among those would be Nikolas Bowie, assistant professor at Harvard Law School, who wrote an article in the Harvard Law Review Forum in which he unequivocally stated that Justice Benjamin Curtis was correct in concluding that a crime was required for impeachment. Dean Theodore Dwight of the Columbia Law School similarly wrote in the run-up to the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial that the weight of authority was on the side of impeachment requiring a criminal act. But when I cited Bowie in support of my claim that criminal conduct was required, he felt it necessary to distance himself from me in the media, which is perfectly fine, but he mendaciously omitted any reference to his previously stated view that a crime is required. This is all too typical of the politicized “scholarship” that we are experiencing during the Trump era.

Because I refuse to be influenced in my scholarly research by partisan considerations, I have been marginalized by those in academe to whom partisan politics comes before honest scholarship. Instead of responding to my hourlong argument in the U.S. Senate with substantive arguments, professors like Frank O. Bowman III and Laurence Tribe engage in ad hominem attacks, lying about my background, claiming that I have “never done any serious legal scholarship.” This lie is rebutted by a review of my academic writings, which include numerous law review articles on prevention in criminal law, law and psychiatry, the Fifth Amendment, bail, capital punishment, the mathematics of prediction, plea bargaining, pre-emption, the history of the Declaration of Independence, the relationship between the first book of the Bible and the common law, the First Amendment, and numerous other scholarly books and articles. Yes, I write op-eds for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other publications, but those have always been in addition to my 40 books and other academic writings.

Another lie that is being disseminated by some academics is that I have argued that it would not be impeachable for a president to commit serious crimes if his motive was to be re-elected in the public interest. I never said anything like that, as can be proved by simply watching or reading what I actually said: namely that a president can be impeached if he engages in conduct that is “in some way illegal,” “corrupt” or involving “personal pecuniary” gain, such as a “kickback.” These “scholars” are willing to tell outright lies to promote partisan interests. Real scholars don’t deliberately distort what others say. Shame on them.

I have done independent scholarly research on the history of the impeachment provisions of the Constitution, and I have come to a different conclusion than most of my academic colleagues. In the normal course of events, that might stimulate debates on the merits of my views, but instead Tribe and Bowman have led a campaign of schoolyard name-calling and unscholarly ad hominems. I challenge Tribe and Bowman to a Lincoln-Douglas-type academic debate at Harvard on the substantive issues, with only one rule: no name-calling, no ad hominems and no partisan politics.

The partisan attacks on me for deviating from the politicized academic consensus demonstrate how law school faculties around the country are heavily biased politically. Young scholars who dare to deviate from politically correct partisan scholarship are often discriminated against in the academic marketplace. They know that, and they know if they want a teaching job, they are far better off toeing the line than defying the conventional wisdom, especially on issues that are highly partisan. This creates a self-replicating faculty, which is good for neither academe nor America in general. This, too, is an issue worthy of serious scholarship rather than name-calling.

Alan M. Dershowitz is Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard University.

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Colleges are doing too little to combat the growing misinformation roiling our society (opinion)

And you may ask yourself, well … how did I get here?
-- “Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads

Facebook stopped making sense for me all the way back in 2005. I was running a high school and discovered that several of my students had taken the liberty of creating a Facebook account for me, complete with photos, nicknames and comments neither clever nor clean. So it’s not true that I’ve never been on Facebook. I had a fake account for three days before I contacted Facebook to shut it down. Even then, Facebook had a dedicated communication channel for educator-victims of its business model.

Since then, tens of millions of people who once voluntarily used Facebook have come around to my perspective. Millennials and Gen Z have fallen out of love with Facebook and moved on to other platforms that are less blatant about fake accounts, stealing data and violating privacy. As Scott Shapiro of Yale Law School tweeted recently, “Facebook can't solve its privacy problem because its privacy problem is its business model.” This invited an invaluable contribution from David Friedman of Willamette Law School -- my former roommate, whose first job was at Cinnabon, and who, to this day, continues to have nightmares about making frosting. Quoth Dave, “It’s like Cinnabon trying to solve its cinnamon bun problem.”

Young people have always had a knack for spotting and rebelling against insincerity. So one reason the next generation is falling out of love with college is that it’s beginning to come across as insincere. Colleges and universities continue to insist their mission is to educate leaders, which entails developing critical thinking and preparing students for a life of civic responsibility (minimally voting and serving on a jury, and hopefully a lot more than that). To the extent hiring and jobs enter into the equation, it’s about preparing students for their fifth job, not for their first job.

In the past few years, pressured by increasing evidence of underemployment of graduates and declining enrollment by career-focused students, some institutions have begun piloting efforts to better connect students to jobs (e.g., partnering with intermediaries, integrating experiential learning). But for the vast majority of four-year institutions, the core value proposition remains unchanged and fixed at a much higher altitude.

If higher education is to continue to make its stand on the hill of logic and sense -- not a bad hill to stand on -- it would do well to drink in the view, for it’s a view shared by all current and prospective students who care to look. Here’s what they’re seeing.

First, crystal-clear evidence that the planet is facing a climate emergency as a result of fossil fuel emissions, and that without immediate action on a broad range of fronts, life as we know it will change dramatically (and, in many geographies, end). But like a dilatory student unable to draw conclusions from a clear set of facts, few countries -- and the United States in particular -- have taken meaningful action.

They’re also seeing the impeachment of a president, a process that has revealed facts as undisputed as the alarming climate statistics, but where a motley crew of elected officials and their hired goons demonstrate a grasp of logic that sounds like something out of a Lewis Carroll story about the Soviet Union. My personal favorite was this recent interplay between Democratic and Republican counsel to the Intelligence Committee:

Democratic counsel: “Would you agree that Joe Biden was a leading Democratic contender to face President Trump in 2020?”
Republican counsel: “I wouldn’t agree with that.”

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post characterized this thinking (or lack thereof) as follows: “It doesn’t matter if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck. This is not a duck.” Whether the president’s actions reach the level of impeachable offenses is open for debate. But the conclusions that his supporters are drawing and failing to draw from established facts are so opposed to reason and sense that they appear to believe up is down and black is white -- totalitarian thinking has become acceptable to a meaningful segment of the population.

Time was that those of us in higher education could rest easy knowing that the media would set things right. Good information would crowd out bad information, scams would be found out and reason would prevail. But it’s now clear that the combination of overtly partisan news outlets and social media is allowing Americans to choose their own news adventure and consume media that affirms what they want to believe. Media is not only not solving the problem, it’s enabling it.

To be clear, the problem isn’t misinformation. There have always been lies in national life, although the democratization of misinformation enabled by Facebook and the talking heads on Fox News has taken lies to new heights. (There are plenty of other examples on both sides of the aisle. But the big, existential ones these days are coming from Fox and friends.) What’s really new is the war on sense -- an inability or willful failure to draw correct conclusions from a set of facts -- which is a frontal assault on higher education’s value proposition.

What have colleges and universities done in response? On climate, many institutions have announced plans to become carbon neutral. But when it comes to defending sense, few speak out. More typical is the University of Iowa, where a faculty member’s recent suggestion that the university promote Greta Thunberg’s participation in an Iowa City climate strike on its Facebook page was met with rejection from the brilliant minds in Iowa’s communications, marketing and government relations offices: due to the university’s “political activity” guidelines, “this event does not fall within the scope of something we can promote.”

On the impeachment fracas, law faculty have testified about what constitutes impeachment, but no college or university president has mounted a defense of sense. One would think higher education leaders could be at least as courageous as Trump-appointed FBI director Chris Wray, who said, “I think it’s important for the American people to be thoughtful consumers of information … and to think about the support and predication for what they hear.”

When asked, college and university presidents will say they can’t take political positions. They’re bound by IRS 501(c)(3) rules. When pressed, they’ll say they can’t risk offending alumni and prospective donors -- and particularly trustees -- who may be happy denizens of the Fox News-Facebook echo chamber. This is particularly true for public institutions, where hostile state legislatures and governors can spell fiscal doom. Or they may offer platitudes along the lines of what the president of Roger Williams University said a couple of years back: “This is a time to be moderate in our responses and to endeavor to create bridges across the widening chasm between liberals and conservatives.” (Notably, none of these arguments stopped 700 college and university presidents from signing a letter in support of the DACA program.)

The existential question facing higher education in 2019 isn’t about taking a political stand, or doing anything brave or controversial besides speaking out -- vocally and repeatedly -- for critical thinking, reason and sense. Colleges and universities stand little chance of making sense to students when they’re continuing to base their value proposition on sense but are too blinded by their parochial interests to defend it.

***

I recognize that the era of the imperial university president is long gone. It’s been more than 20 years since The New Republic featured “Small Men on Campus: The Shrinking College President” on its cover. Bill Bowen, president of Princeton from 1972 to 1988, opined that “the job of the president is not to pronounce on the big public issues of today” (aside from whether to pronounce on the big public issues of today, apparently). But Bowen had more to say: “The job of the president is to pronounce on educational issues.” And this is where colleges and universities are falling flat. The current nonsense at the heart of our national life is an educational issue. It’s about defending logic and critical thinking, and needn’t involve making overt political statements.

I’m not suggesting that elite institutions in coastal or blue states undertake any effort here. That would be counterproductive, as evidenced by the attacks on Stanford and Harvard Law faculty at the impeachment hearing. I’m interested in schools that have invested as much in their football and basketball brands as their education brands.

What if the presidents of SEC, Big 10 and Big 12 universities took it upon themselves to reach out to their millions of alumni with an offer to revisit the critical thinking skills they ostensibly learned at their institutions -- an applied short course on pressing national issues with examples of fantasy-land thinking from both sides? At this parlous time in our history, I cannot imagine a more valuable contribution from our colleges and universities. And while they’re at it, let’s hope the University of South Carolina reaches out to alumnus Senator Lindsey Graham, who says he won’t read the transcripts because his mind is made up and that he’s “not trying to pretend to be a fair juror.” That’s some citizen you produced.

If colleges and universities are unwilling to stand up for sense, I see three possible paths. The first is to give up the pretense of educating students and simply focus on preparing students for first jobs in growing sectors of the economy. Some are already heading down this good and honest (and ultimately faster and cheaper) road.

The second -- and this is really only available to SEC, Big 10 and Big 12 schools -- is to formalize their transmogrification into football and basketball sports franchises.

And the third is to do nothing and watch as millions of students -- appalled by insincerity and hypocrisy -- opt for alternative pathways.

In a country where sense is under attack like never before, colleges and universities need to put up or shut up. Because the evidence is in that higher education’s current deal is as sweet as a Cinnabon and as sickening as Facebook.

Happy holidays. May 2020 be a year of major progress on many fronts.

Ryan Craig is author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College and managing director at University Ventures.

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