Scholar, Survey Thyself

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Q: How do you look at what is happening on college campuses today and not find a left-wing bias?

A: You interview professors and ask them if there is one.

Despite an admirable, earnest and exhaustive attempt to do otherwise, this winds up being the tack taken by the authors of Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities. “Our national survey of faculty political attitudes in 2007, like most earlier surveys, showed that faculty members were generally left-liberal in their political orientations,” the authors of Closed Minds? write. “We also found that some fields, notably some of the sciences and engineering fields that previously were more conservative, have become more liberal—in short, more like the social sciences and humanities.”

“But we did not find any sharp increase in the degree of liberalism overall during the past decade.” Then again, it would be hard to notice an extra foot of snow on the Alps.

The authors of Closed Minds?Bruce L. R. Smith, Jeremy Mayer and A. Lee Fritschler—all teach at George Mason University. The Brookings Institution published the book.

“But we found that students also do not believe that their professors are biased to any significant degree, although conservative students are more likely to think their professors are somewhat biased than liberal students do,” Smith, Mayer and Fritschler write.

They also include a chapter on the Pennsylvania assembly’s attempt to examine academic freedom in the Keystone state in 2005 and 2006 to prove that political bias is “rare,” as the legislative committee tasked with investigating such matters concluded. Yet and still, while they have done a commendable job of combing through the official record on this inquiry, Smith and company miss the back story.

“Procedural safeguards of various kinds were adopted before the hearings began,” they admit. “For example, no names of particular individuals or mention of specific courses that could identify individual professors at any schools were to be allowed in the testimony.”

This proviso left the most damning evidence off the table along with the witnesses who could deliver it. For instance, Christian De John, a sergeant in the Pennsylvania National Guard denied a master’s degree at Temple for challenging his professor’s left-wing lectures and syllabus, was not permitted to testify before the state tribunal.

Incidentally, a federal court recently gave De John standing to sue his alma mater. Indeed, during the day and a half that committee members were at Temple, they were wined and dined by the school as though they sat on the board of trustees.

From the continental breakfast to dinner and including the shuttle to and from the hotel they stayed in, the pols were given the red carpet treatment by university administrators, who, of course, supplied all of the witnesses on day one of the Philadelphia conclave. On the second day, an abbreviated session featured a morning of witnesses drawn from left and right, with some sense of balance.

In their attempt to assess trends in higher education in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, Smith, Mayer and Fritschler strive to achieve an evenhanded approach. Accordingly, they claim to represent a broad cross section of American politics. Perhaps they do.

Nevertheless, their own biases come through, although the editorializing may be unintentional. Hence, they write of a university of recent vintage that “Patrick Henry is already experiencing predictable problems in serving a student body made up of less academically advanced home schoolers and more intellectually assertive, skeptical students who resist the school’s orthodoxies.” Somehow these “less academically advanced home schoolers” keep winning spelling, geography and history bees.

Similarly, they write that “It appears that going to college produces a change in attitudes among students on specific issues such as gender equality and gay rights, just as higher education in the past produced more tolerance and support among whites for African-Americans’ civil rights.”

1. To take this sentence out of passive voice and clarify the agent of action, note that the “change in attitudes among students” moves them towards their professors’ outlook.

2. African-Americans can, and understandably do, object to equating their historic and heroic struggle against inhumane civil laws with the gay community’s attempt to acquire arguably undeserved privileges.

In fact, that’s why they called it the Civil Rights Movement. This objection might
also explain why two-thirds of black voters in California voted for the ban on gay marriages on the ballot there even while they were helping to give Barack Obama a landslide in the state.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.