By Matt Hershey
Our universities are supposedly the “market places of ideas.” They are lauded for their commitment to intellectualism and academic rigor. Ideally, when a student attends college or university, she is exposed to a variety of ideas and learns to how to examine the validity of her own beliefs. Unfortunately, higher education in America today rarely lives up to this ideal. Over the past several decades, colleges have become over-saturated with professors and administrators who not only subscribe to one political ideology, but also actively try to silence opposing views. Setting aside the irony of this article appearing in a journal dedicated to diversity of opinion, looking at this intellectual crisis of sorts on a national scale tells a much different story.
It is no secret that there are many more liberal professors in America’s universities than conservative ones. A 2005 study by George Mason University professor Robert Lichter surveyed 1,643 full time university professors and found that 72 percent identified as liberal, with only 11 percent identifying as conservative. At elite colleges and universities like Kenyon, even more professors identified themselves as liberal: a whopping 87 percent. While Kenyon might be somewhat of an exception to this statistic, the national figures are still quite jarring. What could account for these staggering differences? Are there simply more liberal intellectuals than conservative ones? This is unlikely, as there are twice as many conservative think tanks than liberal ones. In fact, the most prolific and famous think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and Cato are conservative. (Please note: this discrepancy is not due to some evil plan on behalf of the Koch brothers).
Could the disparity in the proportion of liberal to conservative professors be accounted for by something like discriminatory hiring practices? The University Of Iowa College Of Law recently found itself in hot water over such an allegation. Teresa R. Wagner, a conservative Republican who had previously taught at the George Mason University School of Law believes that she was refused a job at Iowa due to her political beliefs. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit seems to agree as it unanimously decided to hear her case, ruling that there was enough evidence to suggest that the dean of the University Of Iowa College Of Law denied Ms. Wagner employment because of her political beliefs. Indeed, out of the fifty faculty members at the University of Iowa College of Law, only two are registered Republicans. Even if colleges do not actively discriminate against conservatives, one might attribute the imbalance to a “bird of a feather” effect, where strongly liberal college faculties encourage those of a similar persuasion to pursue careers in academia, and dissuade conservatives from even trying. Ironically, colleges emphasize diversity amongst their student bodies, but not their faculties.
Many professors have even discriminated against students for voicing opposing political beliefs. At Georgia Tech, when a student told her professor that she planned to attend the conservative conference C-PAC, he let her know that she would fail his class. As promised, the professor failed the student on her first test and reportedly made anti-conservative remarks in class. The student eventually dropped the class. At Metropolitan State College in Denver, a student protested in front of the Colorado legislature that he was thrown out of a course because of his political beliefs. Instead of failing him, his professor politely informed him that he didn’t want his “right-wing views in my classroom.” To the credit of the administrators of the University of Colorado System, they eventually reprimanded the professor (after a strong push from the college Republicans and a conservative advocacy group).
Cases like these happen all the time. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) combats the abuse of university power to silence certain beliefs. A cursory search on their website reveals rampant discrimination: Auburn University banned a Ron Paul window sign; Binghamton University suspended a student for hanging posters criticizing The Department of Social Work and Government Agency; and Bucknell prohibited students from protesting Obama’s stimulus package and affirmative action, among countless other examples. Interestingly enough, Kenyon College received a red-light from FIRE, the organization’s lowest grade for colleges and universities. Kenyon has earned the unfortunately common red-light designation due to our harassment and discrimination policies.
How exactly do colleges limit free speech on their campuses? In addition to an army of professors with near-uniform ideologies, “Speech Codes” restrict First Amendment rights with dubious legal basis. Colleges often limit students’ First Amendment rights in the name of preventing “harassment,” a legal term which has been perverted into the “right not to be offended.” Universities broadly define harassment as anything from “negative attitudes or opinions” to “mocking.” At Northeastern Illinois University, students held an affirmative action bake sale, a common campus protest that prices baked goods according to racial or ethnic profiles. The idea is to communicate what each student is “worth” to university administrators. Regardless of the arrogance of such a protest, this freedom of expression is constitutionally protected. NEIU prohibited the protest, claiming that it violated a nondiscrimination policy. But NEIU allowed a feminist group to hold a similar “pay equity bake sale,” which protested alleged discrepancies in male versus female salaries. Ultimately, campus speech codes violate the Constitution while creating a double standard as to who can express themselves and who cannot.
What are the harms of an almost uniformly liberal pool of college professors and even administrators? Surely private universities and colleges ought to be allowed to promote whatever agenda they please. However, our universities are advertised as bastions of intellectualism and thought. Students are supposed to be taught how to think, not indoctrinated to think a certain way. While it feels nice to have one’s opinions consistently reaffirmed, never facing intellectual challenge encourages our university students to go through life without ever truly examining their beliefs. Once one refuses to examine opposing views, she is no longer a student, but an ideologue. Moreover, a snide comment by a professor about the Tea Party or conservatives could discourage a student with those beliefs from voicing her opinion in the classroom, depriving students of important discourse and argument. This could hold true for liberals as well, it just unfortunately happens far more frequently to conservatives.
It is truly profound how the rights students enjoy outside of the walls of academia immediately disappear once they step onto campus. If our universities truly wish to be the bastions of intellectual diversity they claim to be, they should eliminate speech codes and actually encourage a diversity of opinion amongst their faculty.