Point: Liberal bias in faculty is not as big or bad as it seems

Sonali Seth | Daily Trojan

Four weeks into the semester, there are a few things we’ve figured out. We’ve gotten to know our new professors and, love them or hate them, they’re here to stay. And with the start of the semester, coming off the heels of the Women’s March, the one-year mark of President Donald Trump’s term and in the thrust of the #MeToo movement, comes the start of a new — but also very old — criticism: Can’t these liberal professors just keep their politics to themselves?

As politics seeps deeper into daily college life and inside the classroom, so has the chorus of voices calling out political bias by professors. Earlier this month, the San Diego State College Republicans released a list of over a dozen professors whom they identified as “the biggest contributors to left-wing bias and indoctrination” due to the inclusion of their politics in the classroom.

Yet, even though most professors lean left, their politics don’t prejudice their teaching, but inform and create it. In fact, where appropriate — in political science, public policy, sociology, women’s studies, economics, social work and urban planning, among many other inherently politicized disciplines — their political beliefs are an inevitable and inescapable consequence of their work.

The first important consideration is that while professors lean left, they don’t lean as uniformly left as widely believed, and the degree varies by discipline. Inside Higher Ed notes that the most complete study of political leanings in professors, conducted by Neil Gross while at Harvard University, reveals that more faculty members identified as moderate (46 percent) than as liberal (44 percent), while 9 percent of faculty members identified as conservative.

Art by Di Wu | Daily Trojan

The mere fact that there are more liberal than conservative professors in universities is not enough to sound the alarm bells that our universities are hotbeds of liberal brainwashing. In many disciplines, the presence of liberalism is a consequence of the field itself. Take gender studies, for example: Those who care about women’s issues — so much that they dedicate their lives to studying it — are more likely to identify with the feminist ideological worldview of the left. Then there’s academia itself: Professors might want to share their knowledge in a process that they might see as shaping the next generation of leaders even if it means taking a pay cut in the process. There’s something about that that speaks to a left-leaning ideological worldview, as Gross and his colleague Ethan Fosse noted in a 2010 study. That’s not to say that conservatives can’t or don’t want to become teachers, but they might experience a generally greater propensity toward higher salaries in business, finance or similar sectors.

And while liberalism might be a consequence of that work, it also means that those professors might teach the class content in a broader context that favors one ideological worldview over another. That’s not a bad thing. It is an extension of a professor’s expertise and an important understanding of the broader social impact that that coursework might implicate. Crucially, students are free to disagree, and often do.

Some people have proposed remedying the ideological imbalance in faculty by actively recruiting more conservative professors to higher education. Yet, the rhetoric used by these critics who seek “ideological diversity” invokes a false equivalency between the kind of diversity sorely needed in higher education — gender, racial and socioeconomic — and the artificial indicator of ideological worldview. Regardless, there is room for conservatism at universities. For example, economics and business faculty members tend to skew more conservative, largely because of the free-market philosophy that drives their disciplines.

I’ve taken classes taught by outspoken liberal professors, outspoken conservative professors and professors who carefully present alternative perspectives on each issue. I’ve  greatly enjoyed all of them. So I’m looking forward to another great semester, and to putting the fallacy of the liberal college classroom to rest.

Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.