UW-Fox professors weigh in on collegiate liberal bias

Heterodox Academy reported on findings collected by the Higher Education Research Institute, indicating an overall increase in liberal faculty members and a decrease in conservative faculty members from 1989–2014 • Data courtesy of the Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, plotted by Sam Abrams

Colleges during the last 50 years have been and are stereotyped as being strongholds for liberal thought. While this may not always be the case, according to a Washington Post article, liberal-leaning academics outnumber conservative-leaning academics 5 to 1, causing a disparity in political ideologies among staff at many universities. Sometimes this may cause issues in the classroom.

The reason that liberals outnumber conservatives in academia is debatable, though pundits and professors alike have their own opinions on the matter.

“Academics tend to suspend blind adherence to things and are much more open to questioning, challenging prevailing views and are more likely to come to their positions and think about things in terms of the evidence that supports conclusions and logic,” George Waller, assistant professor of political science at UW-Fox Valley, said.

Because conservatism and liberalism are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, each demands different ways of thinking about the issues.

“One of the tenets of conservatism is that things should not be subject to lots of change, and if things are to change, it is to be slow and incremental. I think that is something that gets challenged in academia,” Waller said.

Though traditional ideas and structures may be challenged within academia, some may argue that conservative-leaning academics are actively discouraged from entering the academic setting.

“Some academics have said explicitly in so many words [that] if they had two equally talented applicants for a job, and one turned out to be a conservative or an evangelical Christian, the academics would prefer to [hire] the other applicant. So it’s a self-increasing and self-perpetuating shift to one side,” Malcolm Allen, professor of English at UW-Fox Valley, said.

The lack of political diversity within universities could also affect curricula, according to Allen, who says that his courses World Literature before and after 1700 no longer exist on campus because of classic literature’s lack of diversity.

“[Students] go on to read English literature and American literature, if they do, without knowing about Homer, Virgil, Dante or the other people I taught in that course. Dead white males are not read, or they are far less read than they used to be. It’s a matter of the gender and political biases of the people who have influence, and lots of people think that dead white males have had too much of a shake of the stick, and it’s time for lesbian, female whatever to have their works read. I have no problem with reading lesbian females or whatever if they’re good writers, but we don’t know if they are good, really. They haven’t been around long enough. Homer has been read for 28 centuries, and the fact that he’s not read now by my students is of great pity,” Allen said.

According to Allen, the courses are no longer available on campus because UW Oshkosh no longer requires it.

“That has to do, I’m sure, with fashionable notions about the people who should be read, and where the funding goes as a consequence of those notions. If you don’t think we need to read the dead white guys anymore, then you’re not going to channel funds toward those classes,” Allen said.

Much of the worry among conservatives comes from the belief that liberal professors will influence the political beliefs of young people, but Greg Peter, associate professor of sociology at UW-Fox Valley, argues that universities strive to instill critical thinking in students. Ideally, therefore, they come to their own conclusions.

“If we’re doing it right, then we are helping students to figure out how to go about thinking and questioning things and looking at them from a critical thinking point of view,” Peter said. “I’m not teaching you how I think; I’m teaching you to help you think.”

Many people may have formed political opinions by the time they are taking college courses, but college is a time to inquire and test belief sets.

“I’ve seen students who have spent four years in high school and who seem very much predisposed to leftist rather than conservative opinions. They are 18 or 19 years old and they haven’t really had time to do very much thinking,” Allen said.

Though the majority of academics tend to lean on the progressive side of the political spectrum, many make it a point to ensure it does not affect the classes they teach.

“I think most take great care to ensure that that does not bleed over into a bias in the way they grade students or conduct their classes. For most, there’s a sense of integrity that would cause one to not consciously inject a political bias into the way they teach their classes,” Waller said.

Another thing for professors to be careful with when it comes to bias is to ensure that it does not affect the way students are graded.

“I do everything I can to keep my political and religious opinions out of the classroom. I never explicitly say anything in favor of one side or against the other side. This is my 27th year teaching here, and I’ve seen some very strange objections in student evaluation, but not one student has ever said, ‘you have to say such and such thing with Allen if you want an A,’ and that’s something I’m just a little bit proud of,” Allen said.

Everyone has political beliefs, and everyone is inherently biased. In fact, it is nearly impossible for someone to be completely objective, and though professors take good care to ensure that they are ethically teaching the classes, the students also share a great deal of responsibility when it comes to politics in the classroom.

“I would hope that a student learning critical thinking skills could see the political bent of their professors and know which way they’re leaning. Hopefully, [they’re] not getting too indoctrinated by them,” Peter said.

As much as it is on the students to not get indoctrinated, it is also the responsibility of the students to not let clashing political beliefs put a damper on their education.

“Sometimes the political climate does make teaching difficult; students occasionally make assumptions about me that are not true, and sometimes I think [that] inhibits their own learning,” Angela Williamson, senior lecturer of English at UW-Fox Valley, said.

Most recently in the collegiate setting, safe spaces have come under attack as being too sensitive or liberal and infringing on conservative rights.

“One of the things that safe spaces do is [support] students who are struggling with transgender issues or their sexual orientation. From the conservative perspective, it certainly is not part of the traditional structures of society, and many on the conservative side would see that as catering to a more liberal bias,” Waller said.

However, many would argue that conservative backlash of safe spaces actually risks infringement of liberal rights.

“So you might say that from the perspective of those on the progressive end, the denial of the opportunity for students who struggle with those issues to find [a safe space] might be an infringement on their rights,” Waller said.

According to Waller, political beliefs of young people tend to not be as polarized as one might think, often taking bits from both liberal and conservative ideologies. This may indicate that they are not as impressionable as many would assume.

“Most young people today are generally accepting of the idea that people should have freedom to express their sexual orientation or use marijuana, [for example]. It’s not an issue an issue that bothers them,” Waller said. “On the other hand, they [might] tend to be quite conservative when it comes to things like … the economy or taxes, so it’s hard sometimes to use the traditional liberal versus conservative [view]. You can be liberal on some of those lifestyle issues and very conservative on fiscal issues.”

Though, Allen indicates that as someone grows older and is presented with many new ideas and has more time to think about things, their beliefs may change.

“Maybe in 10 years they will have had time to look at the other side as well, and their opinions will change. But in the moment, I think that they think in some cases—climate change, for example—there is only one side. And if you’re against climate change, you’re a denier, and you’re on a moral level with a Holocaust denier,” Allen said. “Now, in five or ten years’ time when they are married or paying taxes or have to keep on the right side of their boss or that sort of thing, their opinion may change.”