Tolerant Faculty, Intolerant Students

Seeking to respond to critics of perceived lack of intellectual diversity on campuses, Georgia higher ed system conducts statewide survey and finds the problem isn't professors.
August 20, 2008

Inspired by David Horowitz and others, legislators in many states have proposed legislation that would insist on annual reports from public colleges on their efforts to promote "intellectual diversity." These efforts -- which have attracted considerable attention while not moving very far legislatively -- have been opposed by most educators. Faculty groups and presidents tend to fear that the measures could pressure colleges into political quotas on hiring or campus speaking engagements, and that these proposals respond to a problem that doesn't really exist.

The University System of Georgia on Tuesday unveiled an unusual response to this sort of debate. The system -- whose member campuses include just about every kind of public college, in both urban and rural locations -- released a statewide survey of student views on free speech and discussion at their campuses. The survey was planned in consultation both with faculty groups and with Republican legislators who have previously called for intellectual diversity legislation -- thus making it difficult for either those in higher ed or those who like to criticize it to write the study off as politically fixed.

The results suggest that there may well be a problem with lack of tolerance of political views of others. But according to students (the supposed victims of intolerant professors, according to those who say there is no intellectual diversity), the problem isn't professors, but fellow students. Only 47 percent of students reported that they believed other students were tolerant of the political views of all students, as opposed to just those whose views they supported (and of that 47 percent, only 17 percent said this was true to a great degree). About 21 percent of students feel that other students aren't tolerant of the political views of others while the remainder are somewhat in the middle.

Some students characterized the political intolerance as reflecting a particular bias, and here roughly equal proportions saw bias leaning left or right. Among students, 12.9 percent saw an anti-Democratic/anti-liberal bias, while 10.1 percent saw an anti-Republican/anti-conservative bias. (Of the students in the survey, 34 percent identify as Republicans, 34 percent as Democrats, and the rest as independents or other.)

Students had the opportunity to submit written comments with the surveys, and the responses include some that back up the claims of intolerance by being intolerant, along with many thoughtful expressions from a variety of political perspectives. (While names were redacted by the system, crude language wasn't.) "Being a conservative while being in college has given me the chance to be told that I'm wrong by many students. One topic that I feel very passionately about is the right to bear arms, and never have I expressed my opinions on this issue without another student attacking my opinion as though the mere thought of someone with an opposing view was someone worth crushing to wipe away that thought," wrote one student.

Another wrote: "It seems that so many students in my classes are extremely right-wing for either religious reasons or because they're against taxes or because they are following in their parents' footsteps. I feel like being liberal in any way (not solely on the whole) is frowned upon, especially if these liberal opinions on certain topics are not consistent with Christian views (i.e. pro-choice). I've seen students get attacked just because someone thought the person might be a liberal...."

When it comes to professors, the students generally gave better grades when it comes to tolerance.

This finding may be significant because many Georgia students indicated that they don't want to be challenged on their views by their courses. Thirty-one percent of students said it was somewhat or very important to them that instructors not challenge their personal beliefs. (While some had no opinion, 52 percent said that to be exposed to new ideas, they thought it was important to have their beliefs challenged by what they learned.)

Asked about what professors do in the classroom, only 13 percent of students said that they believed professors had presented their own political views in an inappropriate way. A larger percentage -- 23 percent -- said they had felt that they had to agree with a professor to get a good grade -- although the majority of those students felt this had only happened once in their time in college. Even with these findings, there is evidence that suggests classroom expression isn't necessarily squelched. For example, of those who believed that professors had inappropriately presented their views, 62 percent said that they felt free to argue with the professor. And of those who said they had felt they needed to agree with a professor to get a good grade, only 42 percent said it was because of something the professor said.

Majorities of students also felt free to discuss important topics and religious topics in class, and said that their campuses had a wide range of speakers and student organizations -- although most students said that they weren't active in those activities.

Susan Herbst, executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer of the university system, said she was pleased with the overall results of the survey. She said she is bothered by the idea that any student would think politics are linked to grading, but in light of the percentage of students who don't want to be challenged, she said that these figures were not surprising.

While all students should be comfortable in feeling that they are secure and respected, she said that she was hoping "for students to realize that universities are a place to go to feel uncomfortable intellectually." While most students didn't encounter professors grading based on politics, and the minority who said that they had experienced it didn't see it as typical, and the self-reporting was not solid evidence, Herbst said no students should be graded in that way. She noted that in conjunction with the survey, campus grievance policies were reviewed to make sure they were clear and provided open avenues to students.

Throughout her career, she added, she has always found that professors "want to be challenged" by students, and she believes that is the case throughout the system, although some students may not understand that.

The significant conclusion of the study, Herbst said, isn't about professors but students. "The big finding is that we need to do a better job in how we talk to students about how they talk to each other. Students don't seem to have the tools to argue passionately and not hurt each other's feelings," she said. "This is an opportunity for us. This is something we can work on," especially with a campaign season making political debate likely on campuses this fall.

Herbst said that the study was valuable for pointing to that need. But she also said she hoped it would answer complaints from legislators that higher education is engaged in political indoctrination. The study shows, she said, that "we don't have a systemic problem."

While some have argued that higher education should be skeptical of legislators who raise questions about ideological diversity, Herbst said data may be the most effective tool in reaching out to such lawmakers. "We are a state supported institution. Legislators are elected by the public, and we need to be in dialogue with them," she said. "I don't think there's any need to get defensive. There's a need to do empirical work."

And based on that work, Herbst said, the university system would have the basis to oppose legislation in the future to try to dictate intellectual diversity guidelines.

There is evidence that the strategy is working. Bill Hembree is a Republican who is chair of the Higher Education Committee of the Georgia House of Representatives. He has previously been a co-sponsor of intellectual diversity legislation and held hearings and discussions on the topic -- and he was consulted on the survey and provided an advance look at the results.

He said he wanted the issue on the table previously because "I had heard from a number of individuals -- students, citizens, voters -- that they were concerned about what may be happening." Now that he's seen the survey, however, he said he believes that any problems are "isolated" and that the "universities have a way to resolve the problems."

At this point, Hembree said, he would not favor legislation. "I believe that by doing this, the university system said: 'We don't need a new law. We can deal with it.' It's shown me as a legislator that they are willing to step up."

The process is also being praised by faculty leaders. Hugh D. Hudson, chair of history at Georgia State University and executive secretary of the Georgia Conference of the American Association of University Professors, was also in on planning the survey.

He said that he was struck that while some students "have a difficult time dealing with conflicting opinions," he thinks the overall results suggest a system where professors are open to discussion, and where most students speak freely in class. At the same time, he said that the university system was defending the idea that faculty members "should offered reasoned interpretation and challenge students, and that it's impossible for every idea -- including the idea that the world is flat -- to be treated by professors as a legitimate interpretation."

Hudson said he hoped the survey would shift the political debate away from accusations about higher ed being dominated by professors trying to impose a political agenda. But he still expects complaints from some. "It's good to have data and reasonable people will see what the data say -- that there is no problem," he said. "But people with a political agenda don't care about data in the first place."


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