Online Courses and Academia’s Liberal Bias

Academia’s leftist tilt creates unique challenges for conservative students. While liberal students are taught by faculty who largely share their political and ideological worldview, conservatives students are often forced to take courses from faculty who fundamentally reject their core beliefs.

That problem is especially difficult for social conservatives, whose opposition to abortion, affirmative action or same sex marriage opens them to criticism from faculty who sometimes equate traditional values with sexism, racism or homophobia. Whereas findings outlined in my book The Still Divided Academy suggest that serious mistreatment based on a student’s politics is uncommon, even the perception that conservative views are unwelcome is a problem.

In our 2012 article “Diversifying the Academy: How Conservatives Can Thrive in Liberal Academia” published in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics, Robert Maranto and I argue that part of the solution to higher education’s ideological imbalance rests with conservatives themselves. Rather than flee from higher education or retreat into conservative colleges like Hillsdale, the right should make a concerted effort to join the ranks of the faculty, particularly in minimally ideological disciplines like political science.

If conservative students had more right-leaning mentors on the faculty, it would go a long way to mitigating the problems posed by higher education’s slant toward liberalism.

Some education reformers have very different ideas about how to deal with academia’s ideological imbalance. The Pope Center’s George Leef, for example, argued in “The Plight of College Conservatives” that:

The solution to the problem of politicization is the looming “unbundling” of higher education that will occur when students find that they can “hack” their degrees by taking the best courses available online…. Instead of having to choose among a few sections of sociology or history taught by the faculty at the college where the student is enrolled, he’ll be able to shop online for the best courses available. There will probably be plenty of advice as to which ones are good and which ones to avoid, just as with music recordings. As for the professors, having a prestigious academic post—or even any at all—won’t be so important. Teaching online, to paraphrase Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., will be judged by the content of its character rather than by the prestige of the professor’s institution.

As a general matter, I agree that competition tends to promote excellence. When the American automotive industry was besieged by foreign competition in the 1980s, the rivalry spurred needed improvements in domestic automobile manufacturing, compelling the big three carmakers to produce better cars at lower prices.

Unlike most markets, however, education does not produce a tangible product that students, or prospective employers can readily evaluate. Sometimes students select a college based on its academic reputation, but once there they often seek out the easiest possible courses or professors. Many deliberately avoid courses where they’ll be expected to do too much work, or where they risk harming their GPA.

While Mr. Leef is correct in that some students would select courses based on excellence—and avoiding politicization—many (perhaps most) undergraduates would gravitate toward courses with a reputation for ease.

I first observed this phenomenon at Penn State Harrisburg, where I teach the undergraduate constitutional law course, typically required of pre-law students and those seeking certification to teach high school social studies.

Over the years, I have cultivated a reputation for being extremely demanding of my students. In my law classes, I have an extensive reading list. I call on students randomly and then grade them based on their ability to brief the assigned case. My in-class exams consist of hypothetical court cases in which the students, acting as judges, have to render decisions on difficult legal controversies.

Due to enrollment demand, we initially offered two sections of constitutional law, one taught by me, the other offered by one of our part-time instructors. The result was very lopsided enrollment. Reasoning that, regardless of who taught the course, the mark on their transcript would be the same, most students chose the “easy” version of the course.

In taking the path of least resistance, most of the students opted to take the course from a less knowledgeable, less experienced instructor who didn’t have the benefit of regular meetings with Supreme Court justices, or a long list of stellar teaching evaluations. All the students knew was that the part time teacher was not as difficult.

Recognizing our dilemma, and determined to maintain high academic standards, we eventually terminated our second constitutional law class. From this experience I learned that some students care about quality, but many more want the easy ‘A.’

More recently, I came to appreciate student’s willingness to tolerate marginal and dubious online courses when I conducted an audit of an introductory American government course offered by Penn State Harrisburg.

The summer class, designed and run by a part time instructor, didn’t have any of the hallmarks of a high quality online course. The online class had no video presentation, no audio lectures, no webpages, no diagrams, and no animation. It consisted of students reading a series of badly designed PowerPoint slides meant to replace roughly 30 hours of traditional lecture.

To give just one comparison, when I teach the intro American government class, I spend approximately 2-3 hours of lecture on the federal court system. In place of hours of traditional lecture, online students were only asked to review ten PowerPoint slides, containing a mere 536 words of text.

Despite the fact that the course is entitled “American National Government,” the PowerPoint slides focused entirely on state courts, completely ignoring the federal judicial system, the lifetime tenure of federal judges, the confirmation process, or competing theories of constitutional interpretation. Astoundingly, the judicial “lecture” made no reference to Marbury v. Madison, nor even mentioned the concept of judicial review. Although the online syllabus suggested that students read chapters in the textbook, which presumably covered basic concepts in the federal judiciary, I argued that this online course simply didn’t meet minimum academic standards.

What’s most remarkable about my review of this online summer class was that it had run for three years without catching anyone’s attention. Despite the curricular shortcomings, the administration informed me that the student evaluations of the class were “good” and there were no complaints about the quality of the course. Until I raised curricular objections, everyone seemed perfectly satisfied.

To the university’s credit, once I filed my report, it terminated that online course. Nevertheless, this experience illustrates the problem with rating course quality in the same manner as people rate music on iTunes.

Recognizing that this is but a single example of online education gone awry, it nonetheless illustrates that, since students are often more concerned with getting course credit than being academically challenged, it’s dangerous to rely on them to judge the quality of a college level course.

That dozens of Penn State students were seemingly content to take a hollow online course demonstrates that, for many undergraduates, quality is not the priority.

The coercive power that some faculty use to politicize their classrooms is the same coercive power that good professors use to demand high standards. Once students are in a position to shop around for their preferred online courses, I fear that faculty will lose the ability to demand excellence in the classroom.

Still, Mr. Leef’s idea raises an intriguing possibility, but I suspect one that is subject to an academic Catch-22. For an a la carte online course selection to truly benefit students, and give conservatives an alternative to ideologically charged classrooms, online classes would have to undergo meticulous quality controls, both to guarantee that the grading is rigorous, and to ensure that the course covers all of the relevant material.

Unfortunately, a certification process, overseen by experts in the relevant fields, would probably be subject to the same ideological biases present in the existing university system.

In a leftist field like sociology, a conservative professor might have a more difficult time getting an ideologically balanced course approved. Conversely, liberal faculty could stack their online courses with predominantly left-leaning texts, safe in the knowledge that they probably wouldn’t be challenged by their liberal peers.

Giving students a trap door through which they can escape the faculty’s liberal domination would provide students of all political persuasions with a path to escape academic rigor altogether. Until we find a way to offer students choices, while maintaining high academic standards, I’m doubtful that permitting students to shop around for courses will mitigate the challenges posed by academia’s leftward tilt.