I worked at a website that rated professors for political bias. This is what I learned.
Conservatives are only getting more skeptical of the academy.
New Pew Research Center survey results show a dramatic and growing split in American views on higher education, with a divergence that runs along partisan lines. While Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters have maintained a positive attitude toward academia, the sentiments of their GOP counterparts took a nosedive between 2015 and 2017. Before 2016, about a third of Republicans and Republican leaners said "colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country," while more than half said the effect was positive. Since then, the proportions have reversed, with six in 10 now taking the negative view.
Core to this dynamic is a deep wariness about the intentions of university educators. Republican respondents in the Pew poll expressed exceptional suspicion of college professors, whom more than half suspect do not act in the public interest. And their single most common diagnosis of what ails American higher ed is faculty bias, with eight in 10 convinced "professors are bringing their political and social views into the classroom."
Of course, it's not just any political and social views that are cause for concern. Seven in 10 Republicans told Pew that politics on campus "lean toward one particular viewpoint" and "this is a major problem" — and we all know the direction of the lean is left. "The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think," accused Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2017. "They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you're a threat to the university community."
But do they really? I've been thinking about this question for a long time thanks to my first job after college, and I've concluded the bugbear DeVos describes is mostly — though not entirely — a myth.
My graduation came one month before the official end of the Great Recession, a perilous time to enter the job market. While many of my classmates were stuck back home, unemployed or working service industry jobs, I landed a role helping launch a new website pitched as a comprehensive resource for conservative and libertarian college students who wanted to do political activism on campus.
The site was CampusReform.org (CRO), which presently functions as a single-subject news site with an explicit editorial perspective. Back then, however, it was designed more as a social media network for college students to connect with like-minded peers and form activism clubs. There was a kitchen sink of other features, too, such as blog posts, guides to the nuts and bolts of campus activism, and resources to help attract and promote speakers on campus.
Then there were the professor ratings. They were supposed to complement the college-specific sub-networks, and they worked along similar lines to RateMyProfessors.com, albeit without the attention to faculty hotness. Our ratings focused instead on faculty members' politics, and especially how those views appeared in the classroom. The system was conceived as a grassroots watchdog helping students warn each other about professors who were unfair to those with differing opinions, whether by creating a hostile classroom atmosphere, discouraging open debate, or, worst of all, grading down for political disagreement. This was typically cast in terms of progressive professors making life difficult for right-of-center kids.
I was not sold on the utility of this feature the way I was on the rest of the site. My favorite political science professor was a committed progressive who was scrupulously fair and supportive despite our substantial differences. I loved a literature class I'd had with an old-school Catholic socialist who gamely signed my petition to get Ron Paul on the primary ballot though he never would have dreamed of voting for him (or any Republican at all). My experience of left-wing academia had been entirely positive.
Yet I also remembered the results of research I did at school. I had attended a campus dinner where a professor said that during the 2000 election, our school's faculty split almost evenly between the two major parties, but by 2004, they swung heavily Democratic. With my adviser's help, I polled the whole faculty seeking to determine if this shift really happened, whether the trend continued into 2008, and what causal or correlative factors might be involved, like age, academic discipline, or opposition to the war in Iraq.
I won't bore you with the details — suffice it to say, there was a shift, though not as dramatic as I'd heard, and the biggest gains went not to the Democratic Party but to independent and third-party votes. Across all the years I studied, our faculty leaned further left than the local population, and left-of-center views were particularly common in the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences, where political subjects are most likely to enter class discussion.
My school was not unique in this regard. On this the academic literature was clear. And so, I reasoned at CRO, if there were professors putting ideology above pedagogy, it was statistically likely that the scenario would be as CRO's rating function warned, with conservative or libertarian students suffering the bias of a progressive teacher. Plus, I figured, if we encountered a situation with the ideological roles reversed, that could go in the ratings, too.
But I was wrong. CampusReform.org shuttered the rating system in 2012 after it failed to hit any critical mass of reviews. And the reason, I think, is pretty simple: Most professors are not trying to indoctrinate their students in a sort of vast left-wing conspiracy.
Yes, most academics, especially in the soft disciplines, are far from conservative. That doesn't mean they have any intent of forcing their students to think as they do. In fact, good teachers will do exactly the opposite, challenging and debating their students — maybe even attempting to persuade them — but never abusing their position to demand ideological conformity. (Honestly, many professors are so desperate for constructive student participation that they'll be delighted by any thoughtful engagement, even by students with whom they have serious political differences.)
That CRO's professor rating system never took off is a good thing for all sides: It means the egregious cases of professorial misconduct that make the news are unusual. We didn't have students battering down our digital door with stories of unethical professors suppressing students' academic freedom because there aren't that many of these incidents — and when they do happen, people already take notice, just as they should.
It is telling that a similar, extant project by Turning Point USA (TPUSA), a pro-Trump student group not affiliated with CRO, has just 161 schools in its database, typically with a single professor listed per school. This means a national search has turned up about 200 documented cases of, as the site puts it, "college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda ... [and] a radical agenda in lecture halls." In a nation with more than 4,000 colleges and universities, that's an impressively low rate of documented faculty malfeasance.
Some of the TPUSA site's accounts, if accurate, are clearly inappropriate. Yet a little digging into the reports suggests many others are not exactly serious violations of student rights. The sole story from my graduate alma mater, for example, is an account of hard feelings between a Native American professor and a student who wore a Blackhawks sweatshirt to class. As the campus paper reported, the two had a productive conversation and reconciled shortly thereafter, with the professor asking the university community to refrain from sending the student "discouraging messages." Other accounts have no apparent connection to politics at all, like this professor from a Massachusetts community college who "is on the list for abusing his academic freedom by making final exams worth 50 percent of the grade" — the horror! — and allegedly being rude to students in class.
If this is the great leftist exploitation of the American academy, I think we're gonna be okay.
Many on the right do not share my sanguinity, as those Pew survey results newly demonstrate.
And again, DeVos and other conservatives are right about the bare data of professorial politics. Just as I found on my campus, faculty have long been more liberal than the average American, and the difference between them and the rest of the public is expanding. Student populations are generally more conservative than their professors, so if young people are changing their politics because of their teachers' influence, chances are the shift is away from conservatism. In fact, UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute has found that in the class of 2009, "the proportion of students who characterized their political views as liberal or far left increased 9.2 percentage points from freshman to senior year."
This shift is not inconsequential. But neither is it indicative of a crisis of report card-enforced indoctrination on campus. On the contrary, research shows student political leanings are fairly constant.
Matthew Woessner, a Penn State political scientist who is himself a conservative, has worked on a series of studies of student and professor politics. His conclusion, as he wrote at Inside Higher Ed, is not that "faculty refrain from shaping student values, or even trying to influence their political views." Rather:
Whereas some disciplines, such as political science, often shun partisan advocacy, many fields, including sociology, ethnic studies, and social work, openly advocate a distinct ideological worldview. If these and similar studies are correct, it suggests that student beliefs are surprisingly resilient. For every one student who is actively recruited to a leftist political cause, a vast majority complete their education with their values largely intact. [Matthew Woessner via Inside Higher Ed]
Woessner dubs this phenomenon academia's "Persuasion Paradox," and, after working through possible explanations, he argues it is probably "driven by a combination of faculty restraint, conflict avoidance [by conservative students, who sidestep institutions and disciplines favored by liberal activists], and outright political uninterest." More research is needed, he adds, to sort out the relative influence of each element.
Whichever of Woessner's three factors is most influential, his Persuasion Paradox is likely why we see a substantial difference in the Pew results among Republicans of different ages. In the 65-and-up crowd, fully 96 percent of those "who think higher education is headed in the wrong direction say professors bringing their views into the classroom is a major reason for this. Only 58 percent of Republicans ages 18 to 34" — i.e., those recently in college — "share that view." Time in the classroom goes a long way toward realization that political bias, which we all have, is no guarantor of political misconduct, and even when professors do attempt to change their students' politics, whether by licit or illicit means, they only rarely succeed.
These distinctions matter.
I still agree with conservatives' argument that ideological diversity in academia is conducive to more generative research and dynamic debate, and in that sense I understand the right's interest in determining why higher education is so liberal and what can be done to bring it closer to balance. (On that subject, this 2017 analysis from The Week's Damon Linker makes a compelling case that progressivism will always more comfortable in a research-focused academy because the conservative temperament is better suited to mastery of old knowledge than construction of new.) Yet if the matter at hand is classroom experience, behavior is of greater consequence than belief.
My experience was a case of faculty restraint, to use Woessner's terminology. My progressive political science professor made a point to assign conservative texts for class reading and to bring in local Republican Party leaders as guest speakers. Though he certainly argued for his views, he also made clear distinctions between his own perspective and the material we were expected to learn. It would be silly to claim his beliefs didn't affect his students' time in the classroom, but it would be false to say they were pedagogically damaging. He took care not to misuse his authority for political gain, as any half-decent professor would.
That's how I left college more firmly set in my libertarianism than I entered, despite never once having a professor who shared my perspective. Conservative students can likewise grow in their own beliefs, even at very progressive schools, given an ethical professoriate.
"With many [campus conservatives], there was this sense that being in an environment they perceived to be overwhelmingly liberal did challenge them, but in ways that were positive and beneficial for them," explained Kate Wood, a University of California at San Diego researcher who co-authored Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, to Inside Higher Ed. "It made them clarify values and ideas about different issues or about what being a conservative means."
Our professor ratings system didn't last, and TPUSA's stock of actual cases of misconduct is statistically paltry, because that sort of positive challenge is not something students need warn each other against. It adds value to the college experience — if anything, left-wing students are losing out if their political orthodoxies go unchallenged by teachers with different views.
Free debate is a necessary feature of higher education, and we help preserve it by persisting in recognition of the distinction between professors who simply "bring their political and social views into the classroom" and those who abuse their authority to demand conformity and discourage dissent.
There's plenty of evidence that the views American faculty bring to class are disproportionately liberal; the good news is there's also reason to believe those who try to force those views on their students are few.