Are Conservative Fears of Campus Indoctrination Overblown?

Maranto and Woessner reply to Peter Wood’s excellent critique:

Our recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay makes the case that while conservatives and libertarians are dramatically outnumbered among higher education faculty by those on the left, fears that college students suffer ideological indoctrination are overblown. In his sensible, nuanced reply, our friend Peter Wood suggests we understate the dangers. Peter’s collegial response is a model of what academic discourse should be, and too often is not.

We agree with Peter that academia’s monoculture, particularly the absence of social conservative faculty, is a real problem, which to some degree reflects discrimination in academic job markets. Hiring discrimination does not make university faculty bad people; it just makes them people. As Louis Menand points out in The Marketplace of Ideas, many academic job postings see hundreds of applicants so naturally, facing large numbers of highly qualified candidates, faculty committees tend to hire people much like themselves.

 A Monoculture in Certain Fields

The problem in academia is that the relative political monoculture in certain fields and in particular at elite universities, which have the most impact on the national conversation, limits the research questions professors can ask without informal and sometimes even formal sanctions. One wonders, for example, given the discussions about rising income inequality, why professors have largely ignored the greatest statistical correlate of increased inequality, the rising numbers of single parent families.

Yet we disagree with Peter about widespread indoctrination of undergraduate students, and here our disagreements reflect fairly technical issues. First, while it is true that we cite The Still Divided Academy, a 2011 book using data from the 1999 North American Academic Study Survey (NAASS), the same findings obtain using other data, including the recent Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) data that we’re currently working on. Using unique data, one of us (Woessner) with April Kelly-Woessner, tracks individual students over time finding little ideological change and discovering that students can usually identify the political party of a faculty member, which may lead them to discount efforts at professorial persuasion. (See “I Think My Professor is a Democrat: Considering Whether Students Recognize and React to Faculty Politics” in PS: Political Science and Politics Vol. 42, No. 2 (April 2009), pp. 343-352).

Overall Impacts Are Subtle

Other studies, based on recent data, also fail to find strong evidence of indoctrination, suggesting that overall impacts are subtle. Relatedly, while it is true that students have grown far more supportive of homosexuality since the 1990s and more apt to agree that “helping others in difficulty” is very important, these seem to reflect broader social trends affecting young people and to some extent their elders both inside and outside of the academy. (The latter may reflect the Great Recession.) Interestingly, we could not find much evidence of more than modest shifts in these views between the freshman and senior years of college.

We agree with Peter that more than a few leftist professors attempt to indoctrinate students, particularly professors from what Michael Munger calls “departments of indignation studies” focused on ethnic or gender oppression. The extant data, however, does not suggest they enjoy much success at doing so.

To be clear, as we said in The Chronicle, this does not mean all is well in academe. As Peter perceptively points out, not all things that matter are measured. To engage in a thought experiment, suppose elite universities like Columbia and Harvard, where a young Barack Obama studied, had roughly equal numbers of liberal and conservative faculty. The young Obama, a rising star anxious to please grownup authority figures, would have had exposure to conservative and even neoconservative foreign policy.

Years later, this might have made President Obama less apt to accept outlandish Russian demands in Syria, the Ukraine, and elsewhere, for fear of being labelled a Cold Warrior. (One Washington joke proffered that incoming President Trump planned to outsource foreign policy to Russia—and thus would retain Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry.)

Along the same lines, in a range of problems and policies from the decline of traditional marriage to health care reform (and reform of that reform), there is no doubt that media coverage and ultimately the policies made would look and feel different if elite universities which set the rules of respectable discourse had adequate stores of conservative thinkers. That sort of representation would also make Republicans less likely to quickly and sometimes properly discount academic expertise.

We end with a plea for civil, and to the degree possible, empirical debate on the causes and consequences of higher education’s ideological homogeneity. This exchange with Peter is a nice start, but the next stop needs to be in the center of universities. Regarding debates of any kind, fields like Sociology are both beyond the pale, and increasingly marginal to the academic enterprise. (Save at hapless Evergreen State, can anyone think of a sociologist who leads an institution of higher learning?)

In contrast, our own academic association, the American Political Science Association, might well be game to host a debate. Or it might be a suitable topic for debate at future gatherings of the National Association of Scholars (NAS) or the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).

Let’s make that happen.

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