Several recent studies have shown that university students may not be as vulnerable to liberal indoctrination as some would have you believe.
In the politicized atmosphere of the recent elections, some have raised concern that liberalism in universities has caused discrimination against conservative professors and ideas and created a disproportionately liberal student body.
David Horowitz, one of the biggest proponents of depoliticizing universities, has gone so far as to call for an Academic Bill of Rights. In response, several studies examined the validity of such claims and found that professors do not have very much influence over students‘ political ideology.
“Students remain as conservative as they’ve ever been,” said A. Lee Fritschler, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. “So the accusations that liberal professors are indoctrinating students don’t hold up.“
Fritschler, along with co-authors Bruce L. R. Smith and Jeremy D. Mayer, recently published the book Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities.
In their study, the three political scientists conducted a major survey of university faculty. They used the same question from a similar study conducted 35 years ago, adjusted them to fit current issues, then compared the results.
Fritschler said the results found a liberal tilt in faculty, especially in specific departments like the social sciences. The political bias was skewed the other direction in other departments like business. Despite shifts in professor bias, the political make-up of students did not change significantly.
He also said faculty surveyed, even conservative faculty, don’t feel they are being discriminated against.
According to Bob Huckfeldt, professor of political science at UC Davis, university students generally get information from a variety of sources. This allows them to filter the information as they see fit and come to their own conclusions.
“I think a lot of students today are sophisticated enough to be exposed to a diversity of messages,” Huckfeldt said. “And I think students are really good at ignoring professors,“ he said, laughing.
Another study published in the peer-reviewed journal PS: Political Science & Politics came to a similar conclusion. The study, “Indoctrination U.? Faculty Ideology and Changes in Student Political Orientation,“ was conducted by Mack D. Mariani of Xavier University and Gordon J. Hewitt of Hamilton College in response to Horowitz’s book Indoctrination U.
By using data from the CIRP Freshman Survey, the College Student Survey and the Higher Education Research Institute Faculty Survey, the study examines the effect of professor ideology on students over a four-year period. The study found a shift in student ideology for some but attributes the change to other sources.
“Student political orientation does not change for a majority of students while in college, and for those that do change there is evidence that other factors have an effect on that change, such as gender and socioeconomic status,” the study states. “Based on the data presented in this study, college students appear to be more firm in their political beliefs than conventional wisdom suggests.“
Fritschler said the proposals of Horowitz and similarly minded conservatives would do more harm than good if accepted. He said that passing a “bill of rights” would be a lawyer‘s dream.
“It would give students the right to sue their university if they felt a professor was overly political in a class,” he said. “Of course if a student failed or got a grade they didn’t like they could sue. These things can’t be translated into law.“
While the studies show that liberal professors are not systematically changing the political ideologies of their students, the political scientists do not assert that the university system is without problems.
Fritschler said their study concluded that there is not too much politics in universities, but too little.
“Universities want people who are kind of middle of the road and won’t embarrass the institution,” he said. “We think there is not enough civic discussion.“
Fritschler said political discussion can lead to controversy, so many institutions and professors avoid it. As a result, many university students graduate without basic knowledge of American culture and politics. He said that legislation like Horowitz is endorsing would therefore make the problem worse.
“If you’re going to have people on you from the outside, the safest road is to keep your head down and avoid controversy,” he said.
Huckfeldt also said there should be more political discussion, but professors should present many points of view. He also said that from his experience, the image of an entirely liberal faculty is not correct.
“I know my department is not like that,” he said. “It’s not quite as homogenously liberal as people seem to think.“
ELYSSA THOME can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.