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Pundits and lawmakers sometimes accuse professors of being liberals who indoctrinate their students. The research says they are right on one of those points, not both. Faculty members’ political beliefs do run left, according to numerous studies. But, counter to what Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and others have alleged, even conservative students don’t generally feel pressured to think a certain way.
Preliminary data from a new study suggest that this dynamic might be changing, however -- yet not for the reasons one might assume. Ten percent of students in this study, especially conservative ones, did report feeling pressured to align their thinking with their professors' politics. Yet the authors say that this might be because the overall political environment is now so charged, not because professors are telling students what to think.
“There are so many different ways now that students are being cued to think politically, whereas maybe they weren’t before,” said co-author Matthew Mayhew, the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration at Ohio State University. “If I’m a professor and I’m talking about health care, students in the room might be cued to think politically about it, but 20 years ago that wouldn’t necessarily have been the case.”
What does this mean for teaching? Mayhew said that professors don’t need to change the way they teach, but that they might tell students that “discomfort” with new ideas is part of learning. And that shouldn’t be confused with pressure, anxiety or trauma, he said. This, of course, echoes much of the advice academics have shared with students in campus speech debates.
Mayhew further guessed that higher education -- generally, and not just whether it should be free -- might become one of these automatically “political” topics within the next five years. That’s a “scary” prospect, Mayhew said, as higher education is not exclusively part of any one political party's "agenda."
For this part of their study, Mayhew and his colleagues asked 3,486 college seniors from institutions across the U.S. about their observations of faculty members’ politics. Forty-nine percent of the sample said that their professors expressed politically liberal views “frequently” or “all the time.” Just 9 percent said the same about conservative professors.
As to the indoctrination question, 10 percent of students said they sensed pressure of any kind from professors when it comes to politics. Conservative students were more likely to feel pressure than those who identified as liberal.
Some 47 percent of students reported that they had changed their political leanings during college. Of those, 30 percent said they became more liberal, and 17 percent said they became more conservative. The share of “liberal” students increased 5 percentage points and the share “very liberal” grew by 4 percentage points.
What about students who felt pressure from professors about politics? Of the 10 percent who reported feeling this pressure “frequently” or “all the time,” half changed their political leanings by the end of their senior year. And that’s just slightly higher than the share of students who changed their political leanings without feeling any, or just occasional, pressure from professors.
Interestingly, the data suggest that students who felt pressure from conservative faculty members “frequently” or “all the time” felt more pressure than did students with liberal professors.
About 30 percent of students say they became more liberal in college, whether or not they felt any pressure from faculty members.
Co-author Alyssa Rockenbach, Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor of Education at North Carolina State University, said her team’s findings “add nuance to and in some ways challenge the narrative that colleges are exclusively liberalizing environments.” That is, the data hint at potential shifts in the student experience but also underscore what we already know: that colleges and universities are not indoctrination factories.
While students on the whole tend to perceive liberal perspectives from faculty members more often than conservative perspectives, Rockenbach said, only a “small proportion” -- that 10 percent -- feel pressured on that front.
Although conservative students feel somewhat more pressure than liberal students, she added, “we don’t see evidence that feeling pressured actually results in substantial changes to these students’ political inclinations.” And when pressure from faculty members does "appear to have an impact, it actually encourages slight conservative shifts among students."
A key piece of the study is that perceived pressure from faculty members depends on academic major. To Mayhew’s point on health care -- where topics such as universal coverage and abortion might come up -- conservative students in nursing, medicine, pharmacy and therapy were more likely to say they felt pressured. That was also true for those in the arts, humanities and religion and for double majors.
Meanwhile, liberal students majoring in the social sciences, education or business were more likely to report feeling pressured. Business, in particular, is known to have more conservative professors than academe over all.
As for the current political climate, Rockenbach said that it “probably” plays a role in students’ perceptions of pressure because political conversations in class "may be more salient right now.”
So maybe classrooms feel like many other public or semipublic spaces in our political moment. If that’s the case, Rockenbach and Mayhew’s data offer some hope. Asked if they’d had significant disagreements over political issues with friends during college, 65 percent said no. Twenty-nine percent said they had, but that they remained friends anyway. Just 6 percent said they’d had significant political disagreements and did not remain friends. The study had three check-in points, from 2015 to 2019, when the students were seniors. So these peer-to-peer arguments happened before and after the contentious 2016 election.
Back in the classroom, Rockenbach said that more frequent discussions open up opportunities for students to feel pressure from certain professors, "particularly if the students’ own views are on the other end of the political spectrum." So are such conversations a no-go? Rockenbach’s answer: “I don’t think so. These exchanges have strong potential to enhance student learning, help them refine their own beliefs and values, and empower their political engagement.”
At the same time, Rockenbach cautioned that it's “critical for faculty to create classroom spaces that encourage authenticity and respectful dialogue.” When and if professors decide to share their own perspectives, she added, it’s “important that they simultaneously encourage students’ freedom to disagree and offer different viewpoints.”
The group’s findings were published for the first time as an op-ed in The Washington Post. Rockenbach and Mayhew led the study with the Interfaith Youth Core group. The data, drawn from their Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, also contain insights about students’ perceptions on LGBT issues, spirituality and religion, but those figures aren’t quite ready for prime time.
Amy Binder, professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, co-wrote a book on college students’ political experiences in 2012 and is working on another one. Of the new study, Binder said the “devil is in the details,” in that she’d like to know more about what kind of pressure students sense. “Do they feel pressure to write their exams in a particular way to get a good grade? To speak up in class parroting a professor’s perceived ideology?” she asked. “To become liberal or conservative because they are majoring in a particular discipline? To attend, or not attend, rallies or protests?”
Binder further noted that “influencing” an opinion is different than pressuring someone to change theirs. She guessed that numbers might be at play, at least in the finding that conservative professors influence their students more. Maybe if there are more liberal students taking business courses than there are conservative students taking humanities courses in the sample, she wondered, “you can see a pattern where conservative faculty are more persuasive in sheer numbers.”
Mayhew said that more students identifed as liberal than conservative, and students appreciated politically liberal ideologies to a greater degree than conservative ones across three time points. But he said that the finding about conservative professors might be more about students' expectations. College is seen as "liberalizing," he said, so students "might be surprised and possibly intimidated by the mere expression of their professors’ conservative ideologies." Reiterating his point about discomfort, he said that feeling often arises "when expectations misalign with experience."