The Real Bias in the Classroom

It's professors -- not students -- who need to fear being judged unfairly because of their views, new study suggests.
March 20, 2006

Much of the debate over the Academic Bill of Rights has concerned the claims of conservatives that students are punished by liberal professors for deviating from some sort of ideological orthodoxy.

There may be political bias in the classroom, but headed in the other direction. A new study -- soon to be published in PS: Political Science & Politics -- finds that students are the ones with bias, attributing characteristics to their professors based on the students' perceptions of their faculty members' politics and how much they differ from their own.

The authors of the study say that it backs the claims of proponents of the Academic Bill of Rights that students think about -- and are in some cases concerned about -- the politics of their professors. But the authors also say that the study directly refutes the idea that students are being somehow indoctrinated by views that they don't like. "Students aren't simply sponges," says April Kelly-Woessner, part of the husband-and-wife team of political scientists who wrote the study. Further, she adds that the study suggests that not only do students not change their views because of professors, but may even "push back" and judge professors based on politics, not merit.

The study -- which will be presented this week at a legislative hearing in Pennsylvania -- ends with a strong call for professors to be willing to present ideas that may upset some students. "College is not Club Med. As instructors, we ought not to refine our pedagogy exclusively for the purpose of making students comfortable or improving course evaluations," write Kelly-Woessner, who teaches at Elizabethtown College, and Matthew Woessner, who teaches at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg.

The couple will present the results of two papers based on a survey of 1,385 students in political science courses at a variety of public and private institutions. The students were asked a series of questions about their views of the politics of their professors, their own politics, and various other qualities that they attributed to the professors.

In the second study, currently under review for publication and not yet being released, they found that students experience "indirect effects" from having professors with significantly different politics from their own. In what the scholars call a "partisan difference variable," students give less "source credibility" to professors with different views. They are also more likely to characterize professors with different politics as "biased or uncaring."

Liberal or conservative isn't the key factor, Kelly-Woessner says; the real disconnect comes in the difference between the views of student and professor. "It's pretty much the same either way," she says. "The thing that matters is the difference between them."

In the research being published in PS: Political Science & Politics, findings included the following:

  • Most students feel confident that they know their professors' political inclinations and that they are not hidden. Asked if they knew their professors' leanings, 15 percent said that they were "positive," 32 percent said that they were "very confident," 40 percent were "somewhat confident," and only 11 percent were "not at all confident."
  • Students considered 77 percent of their professors to be left of center, and 7 percent right of center. (While the authors of the students didn't verify that the professors indeed held those views, they note that such findings would be consistent with other surveys of the profession.) While more students in the survey identified themselves as liberal than as conservative, the split was such that the student body in this study was more conservative than the professors -- as perceived by students.
  • Professors who students think are conservative are generally rated more favorably by students on whether they present material objectively.
  • Professors who students think are liberal are generally rated more favorably by students on whether students are encouraged to present their own viewpoints, whether grading is fair, whether the learning environment is comfortable, and whether they care about the success of students.

As for the politics of the authors of the study, Kelly-Woessner said that both she and her husband do not want to take a public stand on the Academic Bill of Rights so that their testimony is not prejudged by the lawmakers, who have been holding hearings prompted by the legislation. On politics generally, she said that her husband is a conservative Republican, but that she is "a little fuzzier," in that "on some issues I go left and on some issues I go right."

She periodically surveys her students to ask them what they think her political views are and they are generally divided or unaware --  and she likes it that way.


Back to Top