Soft Support for Tenure

Poll suggests most Americans back academic freedom and faculty control of classrooms -- but with limits.
June 9, 2006

Americans back the concept of tenure -- but they don't necessarily know what it entails. Americans think highly of professors -- except that a substantial minority of Americans doesn't. Americans don't rate political bias in the classroom as the top problem in academe today -- but many think it's a serious one.

Those are among the findings of a national survey of public opinion being released today by the American Association of University Professors. The results are a classic case of "is the glass half empty or half full," with plenty of evidence to show that academe is held in high regard, and plenty of evidence of vulnerabilities in public perceptions. The survey was conducted by an independent polling group and has a margin of error of 3.4 percent. AAUP leaders said that they wanted to measure public attitudes in light of the barrage of criticism from various conservatives that higher education is a center of bias and outrageous views.

In some cases, higher education does well in the survey -- in part because Americans are increasingly critical of so many parts of society, not just academe. For example, 41.6 percent of respondents said that they had "a lot of confidence" in American colleges and another 48.7 percent reported having "some confidence." Only 9.7 percent reported having "hardly any confidence at all." While academics might prefer to have more people feeling much confidence in them, more Americans express "a lot of confidence" in higher education than in organized religion (29.9 percent), the White House (20.7 percent), and the press (10.8 percent). Confidence in the military did exceed that for academe, at 53.9 percent.

Confidence levels in higher education vary widely by group, the poll found. In terms of age, people appear to lose confidence in academe as they age -- more than half of Americans aged 18-34 have "a lot of confidence" in higher education, but only 26.8 percent of those 65 and over feel that way. Politically, liberals (50.5 percent) are more likely to have a strong confidence level in higher education than are moderates (42.2 percent) or conservatives (30.5 percent).

In terms of tenure and academic freedom, the survey found qualified support. For starters, the survey revealed that only 55 percent of those surveyed had even heard of tenure for professors. (Those who hadn't heard of it were read a definition that said that tenure was granted only after a probationary period of about seven years and that once tenure is granted, "professors usually can be dismissed only for serious misconduct or incompetence.") In a paper analyzing the results, Neil Gross, an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard University, and Solon Simmons, a researcher in sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said that this large subset of the population that doesn't know about tenure creates "considerable room for partisan framing of the issue."

Other survey results reinforce that view, with strong majorities endorsing the concepts of tenure but also accepting common criticisms of tenure. For example, 76.6 percent agree that tenure is a good way to reward accomplished professors and 69.7 percent believe that tenure is needed so professors can teach. But 80.7 percent believe that tenure sometimes protects incompetent faculty members and 57.9 percent believe that tenure removes incentives for professors to work hard. More than two-thirds of respondents believe tenure should be modified in some way.

On academic freedom issues, substantial percentages of the public believe that professors' rights should be limited in ways that contradict traditional notions of academic freedom. For example, more than half of Americans polled believe that public colleges should be able to fire professors who join radical groups like the Communist Party. Here are some results for questions about academic freedom:

Public Views on Academic Freedom

  Strongly Agree Somewhat Agree Somewhat Disagree Strongly Disagree
Professors who oppose the war in Iraq should be allowed to express anti-war views in the classroom. 29.0% 32.5% 14.4% 24.1%
Public universities should be able to dismiss professors who join radical political organizations like the Communist Party. 44.9% 17.7% 18.4% 19.0%
There's no room in the university for professors who defend the rights of Islamic militants. 39.0% 18.0% 21.8% 22.2%
The best way to ensure academic excellence is to make sure politicians don't interfere with research in colleges and universities. 50.1% 30.3% 13.6%   6.0%
The government should control what gets taught in the college classroom.   6.7% 13.9% 18.0% 61.4%

In looking at responses to various questions, Gross and Simmons characterized most people as being in a "no funny business" grouping: They generally support tenure and academic freedom, but their support gets softer when it comes to certain controversial topics.

One area on which the public has a view that is decidedly different from many faculty members is over the purpose of higher education -- with the public taking a decidedly practical perspective. Asked about the primary purpose for higher education, 67.6 percent said that it was to teach students skills that they could use in their careers. Only 26.3 percent said that it was to teach students to think critically and only 6 percent said that it was to teach students about great works of literature, art, music and philosophy. There were few differences on this question by age, gender or politics, but among those who have a college education themselves, more than half think that the primary purpose is to learn to think critically, compared to just 13.1 percent of those with only a high school diploma.

When it comes to the charges of David Horowitz and others about alleged political bias being a major problem in higher education, the poll found that very few people rank that as the top issue. At the same time, substantial numbers of Americans think that it is a real issue. When Americans were asked to identify the top problem facing higher education today, college costs was a runaway winner, at 42.8 percent. It was followed by binge drinking (17 percent), low educational standards (10.2 percent), political bias (8.2 percent) and crime on campus (6.5 percent).

At the same time, many in the poll viewed problems that they did not rate as the top one as still being "very serious." In some cases, there is relatively little ideological difference on whether people view certain issues as serious problems. But on other questions -- such as political bias -- there are clear breakdowns. Here is a breakdown -- over all and by political orientation:

Problems in Higher Education Seen as 'Very Serious' by the Public

  All Liberals Moderates Conservatives
The high cost of college 80.5% 84.0% 81.9% 77.0%
Binge drinking by students 66.2% 69.0% 63.0% 66.1%
Low educational standards 48.9% 45.9% 49.6% 51.1%
Crime on campus 45.5% 50.8% 47.2% 39.0%
Political bias in the classroom 37.5% 34.4% 31.1% 45.5%
Too much focus on athletics 36.3% 39.1% 35.7% 34.2%
Incompetent professors 34.6% 35.7% 31.8% 35.9%
Lack of support for diverse student population 30.2% 39.6% 28.4% 22.6%

With all the issues facing colleges, is being a professor prestigious? Most Americans think so, according to the survey: 53.2 percent of respondents said that the job of college or university professor was "very prestigious" and 41.5 percent said it was "somewhat prestigious."

The paper on the study notes that there is a narrowing of the gap between the prestige levels of teaching at the college or elementary school level. Whereas previous studies have found college professors to be much more prestigious, they enjoy only a modest edge now. While physician outranks college professor on the "very prestigious" scale at 71.9 percent, the percentage finding professors "very prestigious" topped those for elementary school teacher (50.2 percent), lawyer (33.6 percent), and stock broker (16.7 percent).


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