By Michael A. Smith of Emporia University
The allegation that professors are biased toward liberal, progressive, or even radical points of view has been part of American political discourse at least since the publication of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s God and Man at Yale in 1951. The allegation seems to re-emerge periodically, for example in the late 1980s and early 1990s. William J. Bennett, Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration, was a major proponent. A spate of books followed, including Richard Kimball’s Tenured Radicals and Thomas Sowell’s The Vision of The Anointed.
We may be seeing a resurgence today. A particularly disturbing example is the “Professor Watchlist” maintained by conservative group Turning Point USA, which seeks to expose professors whose views are perceived by the group as too radical. In particular, many conservatives argue that they are not angry so much because their professors are liberal or radical, as because (according to them) conservative views are being silenced or attacked on campus. Even President Trump has gotten into the act, recently signing an executive order denying federal funding to campuses which restrict free speech. In practice, it is not clear how this is going to be implemented.
The situation today is complicated by the fact that much campus activism is now occurring among students, not faculty. Even the President himself once said that the allegations of conservatives being suppressed are “highly overblown,” though he has been “sticking to script” more recently. Furthermore, conservatives, including U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, maintain that professors are still involved in this liberal or radical assault on free speech.
What are the hard facts, here? Several recent surveys confirm that most professors do lean liberal. However, the evidence for conservatives being ostracized or targeted, is far more mixed. Studies and even a new book show that conservatives can be successful in academia, while others show that that conservative students do not change their political views when being taught by liberal professors. There is also a broad variation by region, type of college, and discipline, with liberal-arts colleges and the Northeast being the most lopsidedly liberal, while pre-medical and business programs, community colleges, and the West are much less so. One of our sister social sciences—economics—is among the least liberal of the academic disciplines. As for our discipline, political scientists are known for being ruthless de-bunkers of assumptions on both left and right.
Despite this complexity, professors are still under scrutiny from the White House, state legislators, alumni and donors, and activists. What to do? I maintain that the best policy here is the same as it is for campaign finance — disclose, disclose, disclose. When it comes to money in politics, a century of would-be reforms have only shifted the incentives on those who seek to influence politics through donations. From “soft money” given to political parties a few decades ago, to today’s “independent expenditures” and “dark money,” the cash always seems to find a way back in. Requiring full, transparent disclosure of who is giving the money and how much, is fully allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. Congress need only pass the appropriate legislation to make it happen. Some states are doing this already.
I maintain that disclosure works in the classroom and research, too. I am a centrist Democrat teaching in deep-red Kansas in the small town of Emporia, made famous by a journalist William Allen White as an exemplar of small-town America, though voting patterns in Emporia make the town one of Kansas’ true electoral battlegrounds. I am also a department chair, a quasi-administrative role in which being a political firebrand could be a major liability. How do I survive?
I survive just fine, thank you. Kansas officials from both parties regularly accept my invitations to speak to class.
I disclose my own political views while teaching and am careful not to teach my views as fact. I reveal them as my own opinion, a window to explain my own real-world political experiences, which I use to inform my teaching. I make an effort to welcome those who wish to present other views.
For me, it is disclosure that made this all possible. I am not afraid of the critics of bias in academia. I own my values, beliefs, life experiences, and affiliations, and in so doing, I seem to have earned the respect of politicos whose views are sharply different from my own. In my experience, political actors do not trust professors who claim to be nonpartisan. They suspect (and I agree) that most of us do have political leanings, and feel far more at ease if we just reveal them up front. Claiming to be above partisan politics does not wear well with this crew.
I also maintain that politicos from both parties and I do in fact share something in common with me– an appreciation of political parties themselves. We may not all affiliate with the same party, mind you, but we do believe in the process.
Most professors are more liberal than the American public as a whole. Yet this is due in part to a self-selection bias among those who choose to be professors in the first place. Diverse views need to be welcome in academia, while those of us that have been and continue to be politically-active off campus should consider owning our own values and life experiences in the classroom. We should give our students, colleagues, and readers full disclosure so they know our perspective, and can also formulate and speak for their own points of view.
About the Author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.