Day 31 – On Politics and the Classroom – #100DaysofHigherEd

For nearly 100 years the political views of college faculty and the potential suppression of free speech and ideas has been the subject of curiosity and criticism. The specter of the overreaching faculty member is boosted by an almost urban legend level of suspicion and recently lawmakers have shown a willingness to take this issue head on. The campus viewpoint diversity debate is heating up and no where is that more apparent than here in Florida where lawmakers have invested their time into ensuring the college classroom is safe for all students, regardless of their political or social leanings to be able to express themselves. 

The interest in the political views of American academics dates back to the 1930s. In 1938 the House Un-American Activities Committee completed investigations which included an investigation focused on if college faculty were promoting and supporting communist thought and indoctrination in their classrooms. This concern reached a crescendo in the 1950s when the University of California Board of Regents asked all college faculty to take a loyalty oath. And many faculty were investigated as part of Joseph McCarthy’s senate committee. However, it was not until the late 1960s that researchers began attempting to measure the political compass of faculty. What they found was not surprising. Faculty members did tend to be more liberal in political practice and thought with registered Democrats outpacing Republicans by a about a two and a half to one margin (57% to 24%).   

Despite the historical perspectives, the claim that America’s college campuses are in some sort of a free speech crisis is made so often and so emphatically that is has widely been accepted as fact. According to media, parents, politicians and just about anyone who has an opinion, liberal professors are on the prowl for unsuspecting college students to indoctrinate and enlist into their elitist corps. And this is in addition to the continued suppression of free speech, thought and expression. But here is the problem? Do we really know this is happening? Or is it just an assumption based on long held narratives? This post looks to think out loud about that topic and offer assessment opportunities to get to the bottom of this topic. After all, no one can really prove either way if the college environment is making students liberal or not.

The Rise of Cancel Culture?

Cancel culture is here and is here to stay. At least that is according to many of the stories to hear and read on the internet. From campus speeches shut down by students in as diverse a university mix as Beloit and UCLA (College Fix, 2018) to Greg Lukianoff’s 2015 essay in the Atlantic, The Coddling of the American Mind, where the terms “safe spaces” and “Trigger Warnings” were first popularized there is a continued and sustained effort to paint college students as unwilling or unable to handle the views of others. But is this true?

The data, understandably, is mixed. According to a 2019 study by the IDEALS Project, Conservative students were seven times more likely to feel pressure to align their political views with faculty teaching than liberal students did (IDEALS Project, 2019). On the face this seems damning but dig a little deeper and the numbers say otherwise. While conservative students were more likely to report feeling pressured the overall sample was only 10% of all students surveyed. Essentially, 90% of students, when asked, did not feel any pressure to modify their political views in the classroom. In addition, there are lots of questions that need to be asked. What did the pressure look like? How did the student feel an opposing view would impact them academically?

In the same study students also identified that, as a result, of their college experience 47% of students reported their political views had changed. However, for a majority of students the change they are referring to is they became more moderate in their views. 53% of students surveyed reported moderating their views because, according to the respondents, exposure to people with opposing viewpoints helped them evolve their perspective. 30% of the students said they became more liberal while 17% reported becoming more conservative. Significant but when you consider this is a slice, of a slice of the pie it is hardly a sea change.

In their more recent work, researchers Stevens and Haidt (2017) acknowledged that although most people are supportive of free speech they felt there was a troubling trend for Generation Z students. They presented research that students born after 1995 were less likely to support free speech on campus. They argued that because more and more faculty tended to identify as liberal (see Figure One) then, by proxy students became less likely to support free speech on campus.

Figure One – Political Leaning of Faculty

Source: HERI Data

While this data can be a cause for ideological alarm when in 2017 the Cato Institute and YouGov surveyed, college aged students, 18-24 years old, found 43% of students agreed with the statement “Would you favor or oppose a law making it illegal to say offensive or insulting things in public.” While this number is certainly higher it was not significantly higher. For older people aged 65 and older 33% of citizens agreed with that statement and for those aged 25-54 over 40% agreed with their young friends.

The “Politically Correct” Campus is a product of Liberal Ideals

Here is a place where many of our lawmakers and critics may be correct in their assessment. As mentioned before faculty members tend to lean more left in terms of their politics and these leanings will inevitably show up on campus from time to time. Where we see a wide gap in political leaning is among university administration. According to a 2018 survey completed by the New York Times, liberal leaning college administrators outnumbered conservative administrators by a 12 to 1 margin. Of course, that does not imply that college administrators are doing their best to indoctrinate students but it is not a stretch to understand this political lean will be reflected at some point on campus.

It is likely accurate that liberal students have an easier time on campus expressing themselves. In 2017 a FIRE/YouGov survey 7% more students who reported they had to censor themselves and their political views both inside and outside the classroom more than their liberal student counterparts. It is important to note that the same survey found that most students reported self-censorship not because they felt external pressure to self-regulate but because they had a desire to “fit-in” or avoid hurting a fellow student’s feelings which on its face seems admirable. And while rare when students did report self-censoring based on fear of receiving a poor grade or getting into trouble conservative students maintained that fear at the 3 to 1 margin versus their liberal counterparts.

Is the Political Left a Threat to Free Speech on Campus?

This seems to be the core argument and the reason we are seeing so much push toward a desire to survey students. And, as previously stated, there is some evidence that college faculty and staff tend to skew to the left. However, the idea that the political left is a larger threat is a very subjective argument and almost impossible to answer. Threats to a diversity of thought can and do come from many directions and the source can include student protest, faculty involvement, community demands, administrative staff, alumni, media, and politicians. To make any group or side happy is all but impossible.

However, we need to understand that politics do factor into these perceptions and one of the best ways higher education can acknowledge this debate is to collect data in an honest way. If we leave it up to outside forces to set the narrative then we open ourselves up for criticism with little rebuttal. Besides, part of academic inquiry is holding a spotlight up to perception and testing a hypothesis. If, after a careful review, we find higher education does hold a verifiable bias then it is important for our leadership to enact change to address these issues.

But we have a right to be skeptical of the assumption because it calls into question our ability to be non-partial and to do our jobs effectively which I would think most higher ed professionals reject wholesale. And we must be clear. Just because students rally on campus to disinvite a controversial speaker or a faculty member is found to improperly show bias in class it does not mean that the university condones this decision. Universities are permeable environments and if we are to truly say we support a diversity of thought then we have to understand that diversity can and will be hard to accept at times and will embarrass our community from time to time.

It is important to point out that our history shows that when bias is a factor in the firing or removal of a faculty member in the past these dismissals tend to skew more toward liberal leaning faculty being asked to step down. The Niskanan Center in 2017 reviewed a number of cases of faculty dismissal and found that of 45 cases where a faculty member was dismissed for being too political a clear majority were seen as too liberal. One could argue that since liberal faculty are more numerous then it serves to make sense then and I would agree. But that also shows that the system works and if you infuse inappropriate or unnecessary levels of political leaning into your classroom you risk dismissal regardless of political ideology.

Source: Niskanen Center, 2017

So how do we measure all of this?

If the worry is that universities either dampen a diversity of ideas or improperly subject students to scrutiny simply because of their political views then how do we show if that is true or not? Luckily there are quite a few peer reviewed survey and assessment instruments that can give us good insight into this perception. There are also lots of groups who work in this space so finding expertise to assist us will be easy. From the CIRCLE (the Center for Civic Engagement) to the National Institute for Civil Discourse we can build a network of folks who will help us explore this question further. There are also lots of instruments to measure and evaluate student attitudes and experiences. I would love to assist on such a project. I have listed a number of resources we can begin with and was careful to have them come from a diversity of thought on the subject from the AAC&U to the Cato Institute to FIRE. This will give us a wide lane to craft our own instrument if that is warranted.

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