The Chronicle Review

Why Conservative Fears of Campus Indoctrination Are Overblown

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle Review

July 31, 2017 Premium

The year 2017 might be remembered as the time when higher education’s political-correctness problem moved from the conservative echo chamber into the mainstream zeitgeist, with the likes of The Atlantic and The New York Times weighing in on hostile, even violent, student outcries against conservative speakers at Middlebury College, the University of California at Berkeley, and points in between.

Our profession’s own American Political Science Association, which can be fairly characterized as a center-left body, condemned the violence at Middlebury, issuing a ringing endorsement of free speech (though, as typifies our field, there were dissenting views).

As these recent campus incidents attest, higher education has an intellectual-diversity problem. In many fields — sociology, history, anthropology, and psychology, among others — nonleftist faculty are becoming extinct. Making matters worse, America’s most elite institutions tend to be the most ideologically homogenous, producing an isolated elite which in turn contributes to a disgruntled citizenry. As the social distance between the elites and the rest grows, citizens continue to lose trust in the government, the media, and especially higher education. A recent Pew survey reflects that disenchantment, especially on the right, finding that 58 percent of Republicans say that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country, up from 37 percent just two years earlier.

Most students aren't ideologically pliable; by the time they reach college, they've developed a point of view.
But while these are reasons for grave concern, the conservative fixation on political correctness is, in fact, misdirected. One of the right’s main worries about campus culture is that the left’s dominance of academe is so widespread and powerful that it leads to leftist indoctrination or conservative alienation. Incidents at a handful of colleges — Middlebury, Evergreen, Berkeley — have come to seem representative of the state of higher education. And these events seem to suggest that conservatives in academe, both teachers and students, are hopelessly out of place, in need of refuge or rescue.

These fears are overblown. As Republican political scientists with a combined half-century of experience in higher education and more than two decades studying political correctness, we think the headline-grabbing episodes are in fact not typical of academe — and that things are better than the news coverage suggests. Not all is well with academe, but right-wing alarmism obscures the fact that the left’s stranglehold on campuses has less influence on college students than people think.

As everyone in academe knows, there is a cottage industry on the right that spotlights the ideological tilt of colleges and accuses academe of brainwashing a generation of students. But most undergraduates are in fact not ideologically pliable. By the time they reach college, most students have developed a political point of view.

Our own research supports this conclusion. Matthew Woessner and his co-authors found evidence that while undergraduate views change over the course of four years, the shifts are relatively minor. Far from experiencing a left-wing brainwash, the typical student becomes slightly more progressive on social issues while becoming slightly more conservative on economic issues. And, according to another study by Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner, undergraduates can readily identify individual professors’ ideological leanings, which helps them to be skeptical of what they are being taught.

Moreover, while elite universities and a few avant-garde colleges like Evergreen or the University of California at Santa Cruz may have a leftist monoculture, most colleges and universities have in fact far more ideologically diverse students, and somewhat more ideologically diverse faculty. While only 11 percent of college faculty identify as Republican, nearly a third identify as independent. Although left-leaning instructors constitute a large majority of faculty, most colleges have contingents of moderates, many of whom are strong advocates for academic freedom and free speech.

Another thing to consider: Most academic fields, particularly those that are growing rather than in decline, are fundamentally more vocational than ideological. There is no liberal or conservative (much less postmodern) way to draw blood from a patient, or frack a natural-gas field. Business professors of all stripes want to make profits; all civil-engineering professors want bridges to stand. These imperatives keep empirically minded fields grounded in reality and limit the impact of political leftism on their undergraduates.

And even some fields that are relatively ideological aren’t lost causes. Take political science and economics, which continue to celebrate intellectual pluralism and have professional norms that discourage political evangelism in the classroom. In a 2012 study, we highlighted how political science’s openness to nonleftist ideas benefits both the discipline and higher education as a whole. With the ability to choose her own major, classes, and coursework, the typical student has tremendous flexibility, permitting her to minimize exposure to overtly political classes and virulently ideological professors. In this manner, cultivating an ideologically tolerant discipline becomes a quiet selling point in the competitive marketplace for student patronage.

While conservative students and faculty may not be widely persecuted on the typical college campus — indeed, right-leaning students stand an excellent chance of thriving — higher education’s ideological imbalance has potentially serious consequences for society. Sadly, progressive defenders all too quickly dismiss the problems resulting from an ideologically homogeneous academy, most notably the creation of an elite more concerned about its own status than its fellow citizens’.

But the high-profile events on campuses these last couple of years offer a much too distorted picture. A closer look reveals an ecosystem that is, in some respects, more diverse than appearances suggest — and students who are more resilient and independent than we think.

Robert Maranto is a political scientist and professor in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas. Matthew Woessner is associate professor of political science at Penn State Harrisburg and co-author of The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).