“I felt lost,” the undergraduate I was interviewing told me regarding his experience with a particular instructor. “I had believed that idea all my life,” he continued. “Maybe other people believe something totally different and I’m on this island. Maybe I need to change my views so I can fit in with this college group because that’s what people want from a college kid.” The student summed up the experience many college students have when they are forced to wrestle with new ideas and perspectives after leaving home for the first time. College is a time of exploration and I have seen many of my own students struggle. It is natural to be concerned about who we entrust to guide students through that experience and what hidden motives they may have.
The concern that academia is a leftist bastion working to brainwash undergraduates into holding liberal views is a perennial issue for American higher education. The 2012 Presidential election cycle brought the issue to the forefront once again. During the Republican primaries Senator Rick Santorum called U.S. colleges “indoctrination mills.” The official Republican national platform, ratified at the Tampa convention, urged state officials to “ensure that our public colleges and universities be places of learning and the exchange of ideas, not zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the Left.” In a particularly interesting flipping of the scripts, Bill O’Reilly recently called for affirmative action in the hiring of conservative academics in higher education.
Organizations and pundits critical of the current status quo have published repeated scathing critiques of the role ideology plays in academia. Such critiques are typically heavily reliant on anecdotal evidence, including student narratives describing bias in the classroom and cherry-picked course descriptions. Criticisms of the “politicization” of higher education thus far lack one important factor to warrant action: a clear link between liberal faculty and any negative outcome.
Critics of higher education are correct about one thing. While the exact numbers are debated, university professors are largely politically left-leaning. Various reasons for the imbalance have been proposed. Some research suggests there are social psychological reasons for the difference. Critics, on the other hand, claim there is a bias in the hiring process. Whatever the reason, if liberal professors are using the classroom to indoctrinate pliable young minds, their efforts have been entirely unsuccessful.
Peer-reviewed research has shown college has no impact on students’ ideology over four years. College aged students do become very slightly more liberal, but at the same rate as individuals in the same age range who do not attend college. Additional longitudinal research has found that students are not graded by their instructors differently depending on students’ ideology (the one exception being business classes, in which conservative-minded students actually do somewhat better). It seems possible that while faculty may be liberal, they are also professionals capable of separating their political views from their job. A liberal professoriate does not necessarily result in a liberal classroom.
The lack of any macro effect is not meant to dismiss particular student concerns regarding bias in the classroom. There are certainly cases where faculty members abuse their position. My research over the past five years has made an effort to understand the student experience in these cases. In interviews I have conducted with students, I have heard terrible indictments of individual instructors. Students have expressed to me emotions ranging from anger and frustration to fear. Such individual stories specifically solicited by researchers such as myself, however, are limited in what they tell us regarding how pervasive these experiences really are or how they should be addressed. No existing national data addresses how common the student perception of instructor ideological bias really is. Even if it did exist, my further research on the topic suggests that it would be very difficult to evaluate. I have found that students are more or less likely to perceive an instructor as biased depending on various student traits. Specifically, students who are strongly tied to their beliefs are more likely to perceive an instructor as biased, suggesting at least some of this perception may be in the eye of the beholder.
There is hope, however, and it can come without institutional reform or calling out the thought police. My recent research suggests that proper argumentation and debate skills may mitigate the false perception of bias while also allowing students to appropriately respond to faculty if they perceive bias. Communication classes can arm students with the skills to better and more appropriately engage with both faculty and their fellow students should they invoke a partisan argument. Vital to civil discourse is the ability to differentiate between argument and verbal aggression, and these are skills that can and should be taught (to students and faculty alike). With political polarization at an all-time high, these skills may have long term benefits not only for students and society, but in mitigating some perceptions of bias they may improve the future of higher education as well.