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Allegations that colleges are bastions of liberalism are not new. The reality is it’s always been impossible to peg higher education writ large across the United States into any one ideological corner, when it comes to individual faculty members or institutions. Still, during the Depression, Republicans used to ask each other “How do you get to Washington, D.C.?” to which the answer was, “You go to Harvard and turn left.”

Max Yergan, an African American professor at City College of New York, was hired in 1937 only to be fired in 1941 after complaints that he expressed liberal and progressive views. He was among those ensnared when the New York State Legislature in 1940 launched an investigation into the political beliefs of professors in New York City, and more than 50 faculty and staff members at the City College of New York resigned or were terminated as a result. Historian Carol Smith called this purge of people based on their personal beliefs a "dress rehearsal for McCarthyism."

During the Cold War, conservatives routinely saw colleges and universities as hotbeds of Communism. Many faculty members were required to sign loyalty oaths to the United States, and some 100 faculty were terminated due to their alleged sympathy towards Communism. The concepts of academic freedom and free speech turned out to be such a poor defense for professors who were caught in the crosshairs of investigators that Yeshiva University professor Ellen Schrecker titled her study of the McCarthy era “No Ivory Tower.”

In the 1960s, public concerns over civil rights, student conduct rules, Vietnam and Watergate led to regular campus protests that included demonstrations, building takeovers, strikes and the destruction of property. They also led to renewed charges of a liberal bias. Ronald Reagan launched his political career by using colleges as a political foil, particularly the Free Speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley. While running for his first term as governor of California, he criticized both the students and professors at Berkeley and vowed to crack down on protests. And a Gallup poll in the wake of the shootings at Kent State University in 1970 found that 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for the deaths and injuries, while only 11 percent blamed the National Guard.

What are the popular perceptions -- and the actual facts -- today? Extensive research has concluded that individual faculty members may be liberal but that the recent allegations of an institutional liberal bias are overstated at best or, more likely, just flat wrong. In 2017, a Princeton University Ph.D. candidate, David Austin Walsh, addressed those misperceptions directly in a Washington Post op-ed, concluding, “Higher education actually skews conservative. While it is true that large numbers of professors -- particularly in the arts and humanities -- identify politically as liberal or radical, it is emphatically not the case that institutions of higher education themselves are radical or even necessarily especially liberal. In fact, thanks to the power of regents, trustees, alumni, donors and -- at public institutions -- state governments, some of the most powerful voices in campus politics are politically conservative.”

But unfortunately, in today’s extremely polarized environment where facts, evidence and analysis are devalued or simply ignored, perceptions matter. So what voters think or believe matters a great deal.

That is why the question of how voters perceive the political orientation of colleges and universities is important. Do they see higher ed institutions as ideological or nonpartisan -- as left-leaning organizations, middle of the road or conservative?

Rating Higher Ed’s Ideological Orientation

To answer this question, pollster David Winston inserted, at the request of the American Council on Education, a question into a regular survey he conducts of 1,000 registered voters asking them to rate the ideological orientation of colleges and universities. Specifically, respondents were asked to rate colleges on a scale of one to nine, where one meant “very liberal” and nine meant “very conservative.” If voters thought the ideology of colleges and universities was in the “middle of the road” or moderate, they would rate colleges as a five.

Over all, the average rating of colleges and universities from all voters was somewhat left of center, at 4.48. But the complete picture is more complex and nuanced. Voters are not monolithic, and different subgroups of voters have different impressions.

Younger voters (those aged 18 to 34) gave colleges an average rating of 5.5 and are the subgroup that think colleges the most conservative. This group includes, of course, people who have had the most recent personal experience with higher education institutions. Other groups that think colleges and universities lean to the right include Hispanics (5.28) and African Americans (5.25). Voters with a high school degree or less (4.96), Democrats (4.91) and liberals (4.88) view colleges and universities as closer to the center.

By contrast, other subgroups of voters think colleges are very liberal places. Seniors (age 65 and above) rated colleges as 3.60 and see them as more liberal than any other subgroup. Other voters who believe colleges tilt in a liberal direction include conservatives (3.85), voters with some college (4.07), high-income households (4.20), whites (4.24), independents (4.25) and those with bachelor’s degrees (4.35).

At one level, this is not surprising. Groups that historically lean to the left politically see colleges and universities as institutions that are more conservative than they are. Indeed, during the 1960s student protests, one of the most common critiques people leveled at colleges was that they were impersonal, conservative institutions that did not care about individuals. Meanwhile, the subgroups of voters that tend to be on the conservative side of the political spectrum have long believed colleges are very liberal.

Again, it’s not that simple. On that same one-to-nine scale, voters over all rate their own political views as 5.53 -- significantly more conservative than where voters locate higher education institutions. In short, American voters over all, when asked to rate their own political views, choose a distinctly center-right position. When they look at colleges and universities, they rate them as center-left institutions. In short, a majority of American voters see higher education institutions as being significantly more liberal than they are.

When voters are asked to rate their own views relative to political actors, the very liberal senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont gets a 3.69 rating, congressional Democrats in general are at 4.18 and congressional Republicans score a 6.50.

Put another way: average voters (at 5.53) believe that their own political views are ideologically closer to congressional Republicans (6.50) than they are to colleges and universities (4.48). Similarly, voters believe that the ideological orientation of colleges and universities is closer to Bernie Sanders (3.69) than it is to voters themselves.

Interestingly, voters gave an ideological rating of 5.46 to corporations -- almost exactly where they place their own political views.

A Reinforcing Feedback Loop

In this hyperpoliticized era, voters will interpret events in ways that reinforce their world view. Especially given the rise of social media, with its tendency to reinforce messages for like-minded individuals, it’s hard to convince anyone to consider a different interpretation to a sincerely held belief.

Political polarization plays into this, as well. Those with a college degree are to a growing extent likely to vote for Democrats. Those without a college degree are favoring Republicans more and more, a sea change from the era when Democrats were more a part of the working class and Republicans more the party of business owners. But in a world where one set of voters watches MSNBC and another set sticks to Fox News, the public perception of all industries and organizations increasingly includes a reinforcing feedback loop.

Conservatives’ attacks on the alleged liberal bias of colleges, and mandates like the Trump administration’s Free Speech Executive Order giving the U.S. Department of Education the authority to investigate alleged suppression of speech on campuses, are, sadly, some of the results. This is bad public policy, but good politics.

This is a particular problem for colleges and universities because their core values -- academic freedom and institutional autonomy -- depend on widely shared respect for what colleges do and how they do it. Higher education needs -- and deserves -- broad support from across the political and partisan spectrum.

Higher education has been viewed as liberal or unpatriotic in the past. But that didn’t stop our institutions from becoming this nation’s greatest engines of economic and social mobility, not to mention the envy of the world and places that the globe’s most talented students and scholars have wanted to be. But as Americans increasingly divide individuals and institutions into “on my side” and “not on my side” categories -- and simply tune out those with whom they don’t agree -- we need to redouble our efforts to show all Americans that colleges and universities are a public good, not an ideological weapon.

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