'Lost' Generation

Academics fact-check the persistent idea, promoted at GOP convention, that liberal professors politically indoctrinate their students.

July 25, 2016
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Is an entire generation of voters “lost” to the Grand Old Party, and is academe at fault? That’s what conservative pollster and pundit Frank Luntz told a roomful of delegates at the Republican National Convention last week.

Yet academics who study the issue disagree.

“Luntz doesn’t have his facts straight,” said Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology at Colby College, who has studied politics and the professoriate. “Young Americans are leaning to the left these days, but it has very little to do with what they’re being taught by college professors.”

Speaking to a group of South Carolina delegates at a breakfast meeting in Cleveland, Luntz declared his No. 1 priority to be “what happens at universities,” The Hill reported.

“Capitol Hill matters, yes, politics matter, but a whole generation is being taught by professors who voted for Bernie Sanders,” Luntz said. “That’s a problem that begs for a solution.”

Recycling the notion that college and university campuses are fertile recruiting grounds for an army of liberal academics, Luntz declared millennials “lost” to his party.

“It's not like we are losing -- we have lost that generation,” he said.

As proof, Luntz offered the following data point: that 58 percent of millennials -- in his words -- “say socialism is the better form of economics.” That, he said, “is the damage of academia.”

Luntz presumably was referring to a 2015 poll by Reason-Rupe, which found that 58 percent of college-age Americans have a positive view of socialism, compared to 56 percent for capitalism.

The finding apparently jarred the GOP audience. “We are screwed,” one delegate said aloud, according to The Hill.

But other data don’t support Luntz’s argument.

First, the Reason-Rupe poll also found college-age Americans to be much more supportive of a free market system than a government-managed economy, at 72 vs. 49 percent favorable, respectively. This suggests that the data on positive views of socialism may be more about their views of, say, Sweden than of the former Soviet Union.

A healthy body of research also suggests that -- contrary to popular belief -- students are not indoctrinated by their professors, liberal or conservative. And much of that research doesn't dispute that professors may be to the left of American society -- the disagreement is about the alleged indoctrination.

Joshua M. Dunn Sr., an associate professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, cowrote Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, released earlier this year. Among other points, the book argues what Dunn reiterated recently via telephone: that “attempts at indoctrination don’t work.”

Instead of faculty, he said, “there’s evidence that the most powerful effect on students comes from their peers. So [Sanders] could have had that effect -- the peer group effect, if you have lots of friends going and campaigning for him.”

It’s probably important to note that college students in particular may have been motivated this campaign season by Sanders’s focus on college debt. Whether or not free or debt-free college is a good idea remains hotly debated, but it certainly caught the attention of tuition-paying and student-loan-repaying millennials.

Moreover, Dunn said, economists in the U.S. overwhelmingly aren’t socialists, and even the most left leaning tend to believe strongly in markets. “They might favor some kind of redistribution [of wealth] but they probably aren’t going to self-identify as socialists,” Dunn said of liberal economists. “And most of the basic economics education that students will get, such as required microeconomics classes, will not have a socialist orientation.”

That said, Dunn noted that disciplines that tend to have the highest percentage of self-declared Marxist or socialist faculty members, such as sociology and literature, do have relatively large numbers of majors or served students.

But additional research supports Dunn’s point that indoctrination -- at least by faculty members -- doesn’t work. A 2006 study found, for example, that students who sensed a gap between their professors’ political beliefs and their own tended to be less engaged in the course and offer the instructor lower teaching evaluations.

“The results, while not earth-shattering, demonstrated that students do not passively accept disparate political messages but tend to push back against faculty members they perceive as presenting a hostile point of view,” Matthew Woessner, the co-author of that paper and a self-professed conservative, wrote in a summary of his research.

Woessner, an associate professor of political science and public policy at the Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, followed up that study with another that defied his expectations. Investigating why academe does indeed skew so liberal, Woessner said he expected to find that conservatives were driven out of the Ph.D. pipeline by bias against them, lack of mentoring or other kinds of isolation. Instead, he found that left-leaning students are much more likely to enter college wanting to pursue advanced degrees than their right-leaning peers.

“Whatever impact college might have on students’ academic ambitions, left-leaning first-year students begin their education with a far greater interest in eventually pursuing a doctoral degree than their conservative counterparts,” he wrote. “Whereas liberal and conservative students have very similar grades and nearly identical levels of satisfaction with their overall college experience, right-leaning students are far more likely to select ‘practical’ majors that are less likely to lead to advanced degrees. Their emphasis on vocational fields such as business and criminal justice permits them to move directly into the workforce.”

Woessner’s source for that study was survey data regarding brand-new (read: unindoctrinated) freshmen from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Gross, at Colby, also pointed to those data for the basis of his argument against Luntz.

Gross highlighted various findings from the 2015 report, including that for the past several years, greater proportions of students have identified as liberal or “left.” About 34 percent of students leaned that way in the most recent survey -- about four percentage points higher than in 2012. The 2015 proportion of liberal students was the highest it’s been since 1973, when it was 36 percent. In other words, Gross said, “the progressive bent of today’s students is already evident before they get to college.”

We’re witnessing “a generational change caused by many factors, foremost among them rising levels of inequality -- which have made young people nervous about their future -- and the spread of more fluid and open views of sexuality,” he said. “If the GOP can’t or won’t adapt so that their platform lines up with the opinions of these young voters, that’s the party's fault, not the professoriate’s.”

Regarding any possible Sanders effect, Gross said he hadn’t seen reliable data on the percentage of professors who backed him.

Amy J. Binder, professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, also found challenges to the liberal indoctrination theory with her 2012 book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives. Namely, her study found that conservative students’ experiences vary from campus to campus, but that most professors don’t proselytize their liberal views. And students’ conservative views are sometimes strengthened by proselytizing when it does happen. (For what it’s worth, Binder heard more reports about teaching assistants sharing partisan ideas than about faculty.)

Regarding Luntz, Binder said polling suggested he was right on one point: that the Republican party has a problem attracting millennials, including more highly educated ones.

Challenging Luntz’s broader argument, however, Binder said the reason Republicans have a problem attracting millennials “is that the party is completely out of step with what a significant number of voting millennials care about,” including the environment, the economy, immigration reform, expanding civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and educational and job opportunities.

“The idea that colleges and universities are indoctrination mills is an old one,” Binder said, tracing its lineage back to William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. Buckley and, later, Lewis Powell argued that college “campuses are overrun with faculty and administrators who are godless and socialist, and that they have undue influence on young minds.”

Multiple contemporary organizations continue to advance that message today, she said, though the mechanisms by which the indoctrination is said to occur are “hazy.”

Borrowing an idea from Ivanka Trump’s convention speech on Thursday evening, Binder said it’s possible millennials are simply more candidate- than partycentric. If that’s true, she said, “the issue for Republicans isn’t that Sanders is a socialist who had some support among academics -- especially since, anecdotally, I know far more academics who supported [Hillary] Clinton over Sanders -- it’s that the GOP has offered such unattractive candidates to young people.”


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