Skepticism of Faculty and Tenure

New poll finds majority of public believes bias is problem in college classrooms and questions role of tenure.
July 12, 2007

A new poll by Zogby Interactive may not cheer professors. A majority of the public believes that political bias by professors is a serious problem and doubts that tenure promotes quality.

To critics of the professoriate, the poll is but more evidence of the gap between academics and the public, but some experts on public opinion about higher education have questions about the value of the new findings.

The poll was conducted this month through an online survey of 9,464 adults, and has a margin of error of +/- 1 percent. A Zogby spokesman said that the poll was conducted by the polling company itself, and was not sponsored by any group.

More than 58 percent of those polled believe that political bias is a somewhat serious or very serious problem.

There are sharp divisions by party lines (73.3 percent of Republicans view the problem as very serious, while only 6.7 percent of Democrats do), gender (46.8 percent of men view the problem as very serious, compared to 32.1 percent of women) religion (57.9 percent of those who are born again view the problem as very serious, while only 17.6 percent of Jews do), and those who shop at Wal-Mart (56.7 percent of those who shop there weekly believe the problem is very serious, while only 17.6 percent of those who never do think that).

On age and race, white people and older people are more likely to believe bias is a serious problem in the classroom.

Percentages Believing Bias Is Problem in College Classrooms, Total and by Age

Views of Problem Total 18-29 30-49 50-64 65+
Very serious 39.4% 24.9% 38.9% 41.4% 54.1%
Somewhat serious 18.8% 21.7% 18.6% 17.4% 17.8%
Not very serious 23.4% 31.8% 23.1% 21.8% 16.7%
Not serious at all 13.3% 17.4% 13.7% 14.0% 7.1%
Not sure 5.1% 4.1% 5.8% 5.3% 4.2%

Percentages Believing Bias Is Problem in College Classrooms, by Race and Ethnicity

Views of Problem White Latino Black Asian
Very serious 41.5% 39.1% 20.5% 33.5%
Somewhat serious 18.7% 13.7% 24.5% 20.7%
Not very serious 21.5% 27.4% 33.8% 28.5%
Not serious at all 13.5% 13.2% 13.6% 14.2%
Not sure 4.7% 6.5% 7.5% 3.1%

On the tenure question, divisions were less clear by demographic groups and were more consistent across groups, although Republicans appear to be more dubious of tenure than are Democrats.

The question asked was: "Do you agree or disagree that a professor who does not have tenure is more motivated to do a good job than one who does have tenure"

In total, 65.3 percent agreed, 21.4 percent disagreed, and 13.3 percent were unsure.

The Zogby poll is not the first to suggest ambivalence of Americans about what goes on in the classroom and about tenure. Last year, a poll commissioned by the American Association of University Professors found such ambivalence, although one of the lead researchers on that poll had several criticisms of the Zogby effort.

Neil Gross, an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard University who worked on the AAUP poll, noted that in its questions on tenure, it started by asking people if they understood tenure, and that only 55 percent had even heard of it. So the AAUP followed that with a brief definition of tenure (that it is 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"). Given the reality that many people haven't heard of tenure, Gross said he was skeptical of poll results that did not include a definition. (A Zogby spokesman confirmed that no definition was given.)

The AAUP survey ended up with results that were quite similar to Zogby's on the percentage of the public believing classroom bias is a serious problem. The AAUP found that percentage to be 37.5 percent, just a little more than a percentage point under the Zogby level. But Gross said that there was a key difference in that the AAUP asked the public how it viewed a range of potential problems on campus. The public is far more worried about college costs and binge drinking by students than by political bias, the AAUP survey found.

By not asking about the perceived bias problem in relation to other problems, Gross said, the extent of concern may be distorted. "I think that the issue here is that they have simply asked about whether something is a problem, and there is a strong tendency in polls that if you ask people if something is a problem, they say yes," he said. "The real issue is how big an issue it is compared to other problems."

Gross stressed that he was "not trying to play down the fact that a substantial minority of Americans think political bias in the academy is a concern, or the fact that the public isn't as supportive of the institution of tenure as some might like." But he said that the lack of sophistication in the Zogby poll limited its value as tool for understanding those trends.

Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said that the various polls being conducted by the AAUP, Zogby and others are actually consistent in finding skepticism among members of the public about higher education. She urged academe to view these polls as a "wake up call" to pay attention to critiques that her group and others have made.

"Clearly, studies by ACTA and others -- indicating declining academic quality and pervasive politics -- have made their way into the public consciousness," Neal said. "Yet the higher ed establishment seems to think that if it invokes 'Academic freedom! Give us your money and leave us alone,' nothing will come of it."

Colleges should respond by taking "immediate steps to be publicly accountable," said Neal.

One of the most notable findings in the polls, she said is that the "numbers suggest that going after the special protection that higher education most treasures, tenure, would be broadly popular." She asked: "Is that what the academy wants?"

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