Stop Blaming Professors

June 10, 2014

Part of the conservative critique of higher education is that liberal professors indoctrinate students, turning middle-of-the-road students into Young Democrats (or Young Socialists).

But a new study suggests that it's time to stop blaming professors (of any political leaning) for any leftward tilt that college students may show (and the study acknowledges that many do lean that way over the course of their college years).

The influence is coming from students themselves. In fact, the study says, the more engaged students are with faculty members and academics, the more their views moderate toward the center. But the more students become engaged in student activities, the more the liberals become more committed as liberals and conservatives become more committed as conservatives.

The study is by Kyle Dodson, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced, and it appears in Professors and Their Politics, a collection of research papers and essays, about to appear from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Other Studies in the Book

Professors and Politics, the book in which the Dodson research appears, is edited by Neil Gross, professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, Solon Simmons is an associate professor in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.

The book includes chapters on several much-discussed papers they have done (some with different collaborators) on related topics. Gross and Simmons review their landmark 2007 study that found that American professors are in fact liberal, but less so than many believe and that they are moderating. There is also writing on research by Gross and others about the idea that self-selection -- not bias -- is behind the liberalism of professors.

In his study, Dodson used data from the Freshman Survey and the College Senior Survey, both conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute on students attending four-year colleges. The former study is actually about pre-college attitudes as students are surveyed before enrolling. Dodson notes in his paper that there is no perfect way to study the way college changes students' political orientation as the same group of students can't be split into some who enroll and some who don't. So his approach was to see whether there are apparent relationships between some student behaviors in college and whether their political attitudes change.

The College Senior Survey includes questions about how students have spent their time (both hours and activities), allowing for analysis of those who have focused on academics (more time with faculty, doing academic work etc.) and those who have focused on student life (less time on academics and more with student groups or activities). In addition, the survey tracks measures such as talking about politics and civic engagement -- activities of people with a variety of political views.

Dodson's analysis of the data shows that students who get engaged academically are likely to increase their time talking about political issues and becoming engaged in civic life.

With regard to political views, academic engagement promoted moderation. "[T]he results indicate -- in contrast to the concerns of many conservative commentators -- that academic involvement generally moderates attitudes," Dodson writes. "While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement. Indeed it appears that a critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas -- a hallmark of the college experience -- challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions."

The data on student activities demonstrate the opposite impact: The more involved that liberal students get, the more liberal they become, while the more involved conservative students get, the more conservative they become."This finding suggests that students seek out and engage with familiar social environments -- a choice that leads to the strengthening of their political beliefs."

There is a part of the conservative critique of higher ed -- that some students become much more liberal during their college years -- that the Dodson study backs up. But the study suggests that professors aren't responsible.

Dodson said in an interview that the data don't break down different kinds of student activities -- so he can't tell if the impact of student activities is greater for participation in some organizations than others.

The patterns among students -- joining groups that accentuate rather than challenge their beliefs -- are typical of many people, Dodson said. It's the "birds of a feather stick together" theory, he said. "People fall into networks like themselves."

With regard to professors and their role, Dodson said, he viewed the results as a "fairly positive" finding about higher education. "If you think of the classic model of what higher education should do, that we should encourage political thinking and expose students to diverse experiences and perspectives," he said, higher education fares well.

Those who want students to think critically and not to dictate their views "should want them to be involved with professors," he said.

Dodson, who identifies as liberal, thinks these findings should make people hesitate to say that professors are indoctrinating students.

But asked if he thinks his will stop people from saying that professors do so, he said, "probably not."

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