Liberal But Tolerant

Controversial survey of political climate at University of Colorado finds (to no one's surprise) that conservatives are in the minority, but also found that 96 percent of students believe their instructors promote respectful classroom environments.

June 30, 2014

Sure, the University of Colorado is notoriously liberal, but does it have a political diversity problem?

That’s what the four-campus system’s Board of Regents wanted to know last year, when it commissioned a study of diversity. At the time, Sue Sharkey, a board member, said she’d heard anecdotes about conservative faculty members and students not feeling free to share their political beliefs and affiliations, particularly at the flagship Boulder campus. Many faculty members objected at the time to the survey, saying they worried it would be used to push for the hiring of more conservative professors, and to interfere within the process.

But the study went forward, and now Sharkey and the rest of the board have data on the matter. Faculty members remain less than impressed.

In campus climate survey results released last week, just 9 percent of faculty members and 17 percent of students report Republican Party affiliation, compared to 42 percent of professors and 29 percent of students who identify as Democrats. Some 49 percent and 59 percent of students and faculty members, respectively, describe their political philosophy as “liberal,” while 23 percent of students and 13 percent of professors say they’re “conservative.” Independents make up 30 percent of students and 24 percent of the faculty.

 At the same time, 82 percent of students and 75 percent of faculty members agreed that the University of Colorado promotes campus environments that are respectful to all students, faculty and staff, regardless of their “social identities.”

U. of Colorado Students and Faculty and Political Party Support


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The survey also asked students and faculty to consider whether students, faculty and staff members were respected “regardless” of various, specific social identities, including political ones. Gender was the most-respected social identity among students, at 88 percent. Eighty percent of faculty said so. Sexual orientation, age, national origin and race and ethnicity had similarly high rates for both students and faculty.

Political affiliation and political philosophy were the social identities for which students reported the least on-campus respect, although still only a minority of students felt a lack of respect. Some 70 percent of students and 71 percent of faculty said they were respected regardless of those identities (only “mental impairment” was ranked lower by faculty members, at 53 percent).

In the classroom, however, 96 percent of students reported that their instructors created a respectful, nonjudgmental learning environment. Some 94 percent said all or most of their instructors were tolerant of diverse opinions.

Still, some 31 percent of students said they were intimidated to share their beliefs or ideas in class due to their social identities either "sometimes" or frequently. (Rates were similar for faculty members.) Of those students, 23 percent said they were intimidated to share due to their political philosophy.

About three-quarters of professors and students reported an on-campus environment respectful of religion or spiritual beliefs. Systemwide, the biggest religious group among professors is Protestant, at 18 percent. For students, the biggest group is “other,” at 19 percent, followed by Protestant, at 17 percent. Atheists and agnostics also are strongly represented among faculty and students, at between 14 and 17 percent each.

Some 9,300 faculty, students and staff across the system completed the online survey, making for about a 12 percent response rate. The outside firm that conducted the survey, McLaughlin and Associates and Frederick Polls, has said that the survey sample was representative of the institution.

Responses were relatively uniform across campuses, although – perhaps as expected – the Boulder faculty respondents were less likely than those across the system to report Republican Party affiliation (just 6 percent). Atheism also was the most popular affiliation at Boulder, with 18 percent students and 22 percent of faculty reporting it.

Other significant findings include that 66 percent of respondents agree that the university system is racially and ethnic diverse, and that just 61 percent of students would know how to make a discrimination complaint if need be.

And while the majority of students report an on-campus culture of respect for various social identities, some 17 percent of students said they'd been discriminated against "sometimes" or frequently.

Sharkey, the board member whose concerns about conservative biases on campuses helped launch the survey, said she was pleased over all that a large majority of students and faculty report an on-campus environment of respect. But she said that the lack of political diversity on campus among faculty and students was concerning.

“Those aren’t good numbers, especially within the faculty community – I’d like to see this issue addressed,” she said. Still, Sharkey said she wasn’t sure what if any corrective action the university would take regarding the faculty dynamic. She said the survey was the beginning of talks about making the system more inclusive and diverse, but that any reforms or changes would be monitored by similar surveys in subsequent years.

She also noted as concerning that just two-thirds of respondents thought the university was racially and ethnically diverse. It’s any university’s goal to stamp out discrimination, she said, but the public university especially must serve Colorado’s students well.

Brenda J. Allen, associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion and a professor of communication at the Denver campus, was one of a handful of faculty members to work on the survey with Sharkey and other board members.

She said the survey took a “comprehensive” approach to diversity and provided valuable information about the topic at the campus and system level. She said the university was only now digesting the information, but that system and campus leaders were dedicated to the issue and would be “proactive” in addressing any and all concerns raised.

Rather than ask whether or not the university has a diversity “problem,” Allen said it was better to say that the university takes seriously “if anyone for any reason, in terms of their identity, feels that they’re not treated equitably or fairly.”

It’s important to find out “what’s going on with even the smaller percentage of respondents who indicated that there are challenges with the climate,” she added.

Faculty members on both sides of the political aisle said they were unimpressed by the survey.

Mark Bauerlein, a self-described conservative professor of English at Emory University who was recently a visiting professor at Boulder, last year supported the survey idea, saying he experienced faculty bias regarding his political views. He described the results as coming up "with no surprises -- everything could have been predicted."

But , he said, via email, "it ignored the real issue, which is whether the gross imbalance of political orientation yields a tendentious and inferior education. I think it does in the less empirical fields -- I've seen it so routinely (and mindlessly) enacted that the question for me is closed."

As for fixes, however, Bauerlein said he saw "no way to manage the problem at this point. It's a culture problem, not a political one, and it takes many years to change a culture, and you don't do it simply by shifting resources."

Paul Chinowsky, a professor of engineering at Boulder, last year opposed the survey as head of the Boulder Faculty Assembly. He said that the faculty continued to oppose the survey, based on its "premise" that professors create hostile on-campus environments for fellow professors and students due to political beliefs. But as the survey went ahead anyway, he said, faculty cooperated in answering questions.

The professor said his primary comment on the survey results as reported is that "the only number that really matters is that 96 percent of students system-wide reported that their instructors created a respectful, non-judgmental learning environment" -- what the faculty said all along. "Where there are issues, we want them taken care of immediately. However, as the survey points out, issues are few, and the vast majority of classroom experiences are respectful."

Amy Binder, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego who has written about faculty and student politics, and whose book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives featured an unnamed campus that was similar in many ways to Boulder, including a mountain skyline and overwhelmingly liberal faculty, said the study, as released, seemed lacking. The survey failed to ask about libertarian affiliation, a stance that attracts considerable support from young people, for example, potentially skewing the results. The data, at least as released, wasn’t cross-tabbed to indicate whether or not Republicans were more likely to report less-than-respectful environments.

Plus, she said, the study doesn’t tell how students feel discriminated against, and in which specific environments.

“Let me clarify to say I don’t doubt that it’s difficult being a Republican at Boulder or other campuses in some, or even many, settings,” she said. “But this poll isn’t telling doesn’t tell us anything about that. Which settings? Is it the same in the political science department and the business school? How is it uncomfortable? What do they mean by disrespected — when they walk through the quad and people are staging an event, or during faculty meetings, or what?”

Ken McConnellogue, system spokesman, said he believed cross-tabbed data was available but had not yet been released or examined.

But the data so far allow the university to “move past the anecdotal evidence that is often pervasive in the discussion of diversity, particularly related to political and intellectual diversity, and to base our efforts on hard data.”

While there are “pockets” of respondents who feel their identities aren’t respected, McConnellogue said the data make clear that instructors are creating inclusive learning environments. But the university is concerned that only 61 percent of students would know how to make a discrimination complaint.

The university will act on concerning data expects to replicate the study every two years, he said.


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