Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities

A study of top US institutions fails to see the bigger picture, says Linda M. Perkins

February 12, 2009

This study explores the widely held notion that leading institutions of higher education in the US are bastions of liberal and radical biases. Bruce Smith, Jeremy Mayer and A. Lee Fritschler examine and refute this thesis.

In Closed Minds, the authors analyse the top 64 PhD research institutions that are members of the Association of American Universities and they utilise mixed methodologies to do so. Their evidence includes an analysis of a national survey instrument that was distributed via email to a random sampling of professors at undergraduate institutions.

The professors were queried on three aspects of university life: the classroom; general campus climate; and the hiring and promotion of faculty. The survey was followed by a focus-group discussion.

In the introduction, the authors inform readers of their conclusion - there are no discernible liberal biases or ideologies at leading American elite research institutions. According to them, elite universities hire "safe", tenurable faculty and contribute little to civic engagement or debate.

While Smith, Mayer and Fritschler lament the "weakening of America's civic traditions", they deplore efforts to promote social justice and "service" as part of the mission of higher education.

Here it should be noted that social justice issues and service were always a part of the mission of many institutions. Oberlin College in Ohio grew out of the early 19th-century abolitionist movement and opened its doors to black students and women prior to the Civil War. Wellesley College's motto is "Not to be ministered to, but to minister". Such efforts are not viewed as incongruent with them being strong academic institutions.

However, the authors state unequivocally: "We are not comfortable with the idea that the major universities should be engines for social change; they are neither organized for nor suited to such a role."

The focus upon elite research universities is the greatest weakness of this book. Since most American students do not attend such institutions, it is puzzling why the authors concentrate solely on them. If the concern is liberal and ideological biases in American higher education, why not research the institutions where most students are found?

To concentrate on the elite research universities where undergraduates have the least exposure to their professors does not tell us much about the impact of the latter on the former.

The authors note that the faculties at select liberal arts colleges and less prestigious research institutions have slightly higher percentages of liberal professors than those of the elite. This is plausible because there is closer contact between professors and students in such institutions.

The chapter "Do universities discriminate in hiring?" requires comment. Of particular interest is the discussion of the "old-boy network" seen in the hiring of primarily Protestant heterosexual white men in academe until the affirmative action laws of the 1960s demanded equal employment opportunities.

While there is some mention of how this system worked against the hiring of women and people of colour, the book states that this system "led to some (emphasis added) degree of discrimination in the hiring process".

The authors note evidence of sexist attitudes towards the hiring of women but comment that since there were few "top-quality black applicants, few got into the old-boy network". In other words, had there been black scholars deemed to be competitive, they would have benefited from this closed and biased system.

The authors also state that in today's world, black academics often have an advantage through "target of opportunity" programmes and other initiatives to attract more minority scholars. They point out that these programmes also do not follow formalised procedures. In both instances, the authors present no evidence for such claims.

In 1895, W.E.B. Du Bois was the first black American to earn a PhD from Harvard University. Carter G. Woodson, a University of Chicago graduate, also did so in 1912. Both were prolific black scholars who were never part of the old-boys' club.

Historian James D. Anderson's research has shown that as of 1940, no white northern or southern institution of higher education employed black scholars full time.

He tracked the careers of eminently qualified black scholars and documented that race, not preparation, barred them from such posts.

Similarly, a recent study conducted by the Irvine Foundation on faculty diversity in elite liberal arts colleges, The Revolving Door, noted that underrepresented minority faculty grew only from 6 per cent to 8 per cent between 1993 and 2003, and 58 per cent of this number replaced other minority faculty members.

In a eulogy for Woodson, Du Bois noted: "No white university ever recognized his work; no white scientific society ever honored him". Likewise, in Du Bois' 1968 biography, he stated: "No American university (except Negro institutions in understandable self-defence) had ever recognized that I had any claims to scholarship."

Closed Minds? serves to reinforce the need for new perspectives in academe. The changes that have occurred in higher education cannot be reversed. Our institutions are better because of them.

Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities

By Bruce L.R. Smith, Jeremy D. Mayer and A. Lee Fritschler

Brookings Institution Press 280pp, £22.99

ISBN 9780815780281

Published 1 September 2008

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