Is Leftist Bias on College Campuses a Myth?

Conventional wisdom has long claimed that campuses are hotbeds of leftist thought with professors far more likely to be Marxists than Republicans. Recent research has taken steps to substantiate these claims. Eight separate studies of faculty politics and campus climate have demonstrated that professors with a leftist philosophy vastly outnumber those with a conservative or libertarian philosophy at four-year universities across the nation. The various studies address two major themes: that faculty members are liberal and that their liberal inclinations can affect classroom performance.

Now, a new study conducted by John B. Lee for the American Federation of Teachers concludes that those studies documenting liberal bias on campus might be incorrect, or at least inconclusive. “The ‘Faculty Bias’ Studies: Science or Propaganda,” takes eight of the recent studies on faculty politics and judges them by five general tests of social science research. According to Lee, “basic methodological flaws keep a critical reader from accepting the conclusions suggested by the authors.”

Unfortunately, Lee misses the point. Instead of refuting the results, Lee devotes his time to dissecting the methods employed by the researchers who have found evidence of leftist domination. Quibbling over details shouldn’t detract from the seriousness of the problem. Whether the number of professors who use their classrooms to peddle their own socio-political views is in the millions or in single digits, it shouldn’t be tolerated at all.

Lee attacks the two basic premises of recent bias studies. First, he takes on the assertion that biased hiring practices create a biased academic climate, suggesting the demographic evidence is inclusive or incomplete. Specifically, he notes that the studies tend to exclude community college faculty members and to focus on faculty at elite institutions. He also suggests that demographic bias doesn’t prove a systematic hiring bias, contending that individuals with a leftist philosophy are more apt to want to pursue a career in education than are individuals with a conservative or libertarian philosophy.

On his first point, even the evidence that Lee uses in his own study undermines the claims that faculty are not predominantly leftist. He states that the studies may be biased because they exclude community college faculty, implying that community college faculty may be more conservative than four-year faculty. If there is no bias, how does he know this? Second, his statement buttresses the point made by many others, that right-of-center faculty cannot secure tenure track positions at many elite and four-year colleges and thus end up at community college jobs or in non-teaching work. Self-selection alone cannot explain the discrepancy between faculties at elite, four-year schools and their community college counterparts.

But demographics and hiring procedures are not the primary concern. The composition of academia becomes a serious threat to academic freedom and thought when professors use the classroom as a political soapbox rather than a place of objective academic learning. What non-leftists are complaining about is not the statistical disparity between liberal- versus conservative-leaning faculty members. The complaint, rather, is that too many professors feel that it is their place to use the classroom for preaching instead of teaching. On that, there is a lot of evidence, even if it doesn’t satisfy Lee’s quantitative demands.

Lee’s second argument is that bias in classrooms is undocumented or perhaps just imagined by non-leftists. According to Lee, “All of the reports use description, but some of them suggest that the political preferences of the faculty cause other things to happen. Several of the authors speculate on the implications of their research; in most of these cases, the speculation appears to be based on an expression of their perspective and not as an inevitable result of their research.”

Nonetheless, eight separate studies found similar results: that bias existed in classrooms across the country. Some of the bias found comes directly from the professors in the form of class syllabi. Other evidence comes from firsthand student accounts or surveys. Moreover, no research yet exists to prove otherwise. Every study conducted on this topic has returned the same results; bias in the classroom exists. Lee may contend that the prosecution’s case is unproven, but most observers think that we’re well beyond reasonable doubt.

Faculty bias is very difficult to quantify, but whether there is a lot of it or only a little doesn’t really matter. If, say 30 years ago, a feminist had said that there is a lot of sexual harassment on campus, would it have been an appropriate response to demand exact quantification of the amount that occurs before taking any steps to guard against it? No.

Bias in the classroom is a serious problem and its existence has been cheerfully admitted by some of its practitioners. Professor Donald Lazere, for example, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that he thought it was his duty to bring students out of their “conservative culture” so they could see the world more “objectively” – which is to say, the way he sees it. Such conduct is unprofessional, unproductive and a disservice to students who want to learn something about an academic field. Honest, responsible professors and administrators have a responsibility to seek and eliminate classroom bias wherever it exists – not to hide their heads in the sand or to waste time disagreeing on methodological minutiae.

Lee’s analysis is a classic example of confirmation bias — subjecting conclusions with which we are uncomfortable to a higher (perhaps unreasonable) level of scrutiny than we do conclusions with which we already agree.

One of the authors whose work is criticized by the AFT took issue with Lee’s conclusions, and questioned whether the organization could fairly look at these issues. Daniel Klein, a professor of economics at George Mason University and the co-author of two of the studies reviewed in the report told Inside Higher Education, “Critical commentary is always socially useful, and this new report is no exception. Even just a cursory reading will teach us much about the moral and intellectual character of its sponsors — the AFT, the AFL-CIO, and Free Exchange on Campus.”

Bias in the classroom – whatever its underlying cause – is inherently difficult to measure. It’s even more difficult to combat. It will be a sad result indeed if Lee’s study is used as an excuse for not proceeding at full throttle against the evil of professors who abuse their position to indoctrinate students rather than teach them.