Are universities hotbeds of left-wing bias?

Claims that academics are indoctrinating their students with liberal propaganda are increasingly common in the right-wing media. John Morgan examines why such a conviction has arisen and whether there is any substance to it

February 21, 2019
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The Twitter account @TEN_GOP became “a heavyweight voice on the American far right”, racking up more than 130,000 followers drawn by its frenzied support for Donald Trump and attacks on liberal targets. The account gained retweets from Donald Trump Jr and Ann Coulter, while media outlets including The Washington Post and Huffington Post embedded its tweets in stories as examples of public opinion.

Output from the account, whose handle referred to the Tennessee Republican party, included tweets about free speech and “liberal bias” controversies at US colleges and universities.

Such messages included: “SPREAD THIS LIKE WILDFIRE: Rollins College suspends student for challenging radical Muslim professor!”; “Professor at Drexel University…‘All I want for Christmas is white genocide’ Where’s liberal outrage over racism here?”; “Free speech is dead in #Berkeley”; “Here’s an idea: let’s take Berkeley’s $350 mil [federal] funding away and use the money to build the border wall (dedicate that part to Berkeley)”; “For investigations on liberal bias at universities, we recommend following [Breitbart reporter] @RealKyleMorris”.

But anyone who thought that @TEN_GOP was writing from Tennessee was miles off – about 5,000 miles off. A list of charges filed by special counsel Robert Mueller last year against 13 named Russian individuals and three Russian companies said that it was actually the handiwork of the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, a troll farm that worked to “interfere with US political and electoral processes”.

The agency’s aim was not merely to play its part in Russian efforts to boost Trump’s chances in the 2016 US presidential election, on which Mueller’s FBI investigation is focused. It sought more generally to widen America’s political wounds, through messages from fake, vituperative social media accounts promoting both right- and left-wing perspectives. In keeping with their general approach – tweeting about divisive topics, from abortion to NFL players protesting racism – the Russian troll accounts “use professors as a wedge to drive the left and the right further apart”, says Darren Linvill, associate professor in Clemson University’s department of communication, who created a searchable archive of 3 million tweets linked to the Internet Research Agency’s accounts.

That Russian trolls sought to deploy controversies about “liberal bias” in colleges and universities within their weaponry suggests that they gauged the debate significant and rancorous enough in American life to be exploited.

But claims from right-wing politicians and media figures that universities are guilty of left-wing or liberal “bias” in their teaching or research are not just evident in the US; they are increasingly prominent in the UK, continental Europe and Australia, potentially posing serious risks to the public and political standing of universities.

As Russian trolls and some frenzied media coverage help rocket-propel the debate over university “bias” into lunatic orbit, perhaps it can be brought back to earth by posing two key questions: what does the research evidence tell us about whether the political views of academics influence the political views of their students? And what is fuelling claims of left or liberal “bias” in universities at this particular political moment?

In right-wing attacks on universities across the West, common contentions are spreading.

In the UK, a 2017 report by the right-wing Adam Smith Institute was notable for stepping up the force of the bias claims, suggesting that the “over-representation” of left-liberal views among academics may have had adverse consequences, including “systematic biases in scholarship”. Later that year, the Daily Mail published a now notorious splash under the print headline “Our Remainer Universities”, billing its story as laying bare the “extent of anti-Brexit bias at some of the UK’s best known universities” (the story was an attempt to shift attention away from a pro-Leave Tory MP’s clumsy efforts to press universities into giving him the names of professors who taught on Brexit). Right-wing commentator Toby Young wrote in the Mail in 2018 that universities “have become…Left-wing madrassas”. Sam Gyimah, who served as Tory universities minister between January and December 2018, took an aggressive stance towards universities on their perceived political leanings, repeatedly accusing them of fostering a political “monoculture”.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the right-wing Liberal-led government has ordered an inquiry into “rules and regulations protecting freedom of speech on university campuses”, including standards to protect “freedom of intellectual inquiry in higher education”. In launching it in November, education minister Dan Tehan said free speech must be protected “even where what is being said may be unpopular or challenging”, and that “the best university education is one where students are taught to think for themselves”.

Controversies over campus free speech, which are typically focused on the behaviour of students, are close siblings to controversies over academics’ supposed ideological bias. The tenor of the frequent media attacks on so-called “snowflakes”, who rush to shut down debate as soon as they catch a whiff of challenge to their progressive views, imports from the US the “culture wars” approach to universities. That approach has intensified in recent years, fuelled initially by the agitations of conservative activist David Horowitz – who summed up his argument in his 2007 book, Indoctrination U: The Left’s War against Academic Freedom.

Since then, politics and media have only polarised further. “If you watch [right-wing] Fox News when there’s been some incident where a liberal faculty member is behaving inappropriately, it’s wall-to-wall coverage,” says Matthew Woessner, an associate professor of political science and public policy at Pennsylvania State University Harrisburg. “If you turn on [more liberal] MSNBC, it hardly gets a mention…So I think the polarisation of the media contributes to a polarisation in public perceptions of higher education.”

And key new media have emerged. The Professor Watchlist website aims to challenge those who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom”, while Campus Reform’s teams of student reporters aim to “investigate and report liberal bias on college campuses throughout their state”.

This month, an organisation called Turning Point UK launched as an offshoot of Turning Point USA, the group led by prominent Trump supporter Charlie Kirk, which runs the Professor Watchlist site. Turning Point UK’s chairman, a University of Oxford graduate and former Bullingdon Club member called George Farmer, said the group had established “chapters” at a number of universities, with an aim to “reverse the direction of travel in a lot of these universities, where left-wing academics are broadly filling young minds with cultural Marxism”.

An influential, far more reasoned, academic critique is advanced by scholars involved with the Heterodox Academy project, which campaigns for “viewpoint diversity” among academics.

Across this variety of attacks and critiques, one common point of objection is backed up by research. Faculty “have historically been more liberal, more left-leaning, than the general population”, although this varies “depending on the field of study and on the type of higher education institution”, says Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana professor of sociology at Colby College, Maine, and co-author of the most complete study of the political profile of US faculty.

That study, “The Social And Political Views of American Professors”, co-authored with Solon Simmons in 2007, took a sample of 1,400 individuals across the 20 biggest disciplines in terms of degrees awarded nationally, and asked respondents to categorise their political beliefs. It found that “44.1 percent of respondents can be classified as liberals, 46.6 percent as moderates, and 9.2 percent as conservatives”.

But does this leftward lean of academics translate into bias in university teaching?

According to Woessner, universities have a vital mission to “instil in young people ideas and values which we think are important for civilised society”. So “the fact that academia leans so far to the left raises the obvious question of whether some of the values they are instilling are ideological in nature.”

Woessner and his wife and research partner, April Kelly-Woessner, have co-authored many of the key studies of the political views of academics and their students. The couple’s research programme was partly motivated by a disagreement they had about the extent of left-wing indoctrination on campus. Woessner describes himself as “one of the very few Republicans in higher ed”, but adds that the academics he encountered during his BA at the University of California, Los Angeles in the early 1990s and his PhD at Ohio State University in the second half of that decade were “extremely respectful of my views”. Nevertheless, he “figured that the narrative that conservatives were being indoctrinated was the norm, and that I was an outlier”. However, Kelly-Woessner contended that “students aren’t sponges”.

For their 2010 book The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education, the pair, alongside co-author Stanley Rothman, followed a cohort of 1,500 students across the US through higher education, surveying them annually on their party political affiliations and on their views on a range of political issues.

Party affiliation proved to be static. There were some “subtle” movements in other political views, but while those were leftward on social issues, they were rightward on economic issues, Woessner says.

Another Woessner and Kelly-Woessner study, the 2009 paper “I Think My Professor is a Democrat: Considering Whether Students Recognize and React to Faculty Politics”, published in PS: Political Science and Politics, focused on individual students and the professors they were taught by (who disclosed their political views to the researchers). There was “some evidence of students moving left ideologically, but it’s not much”, says Woessner. If academics were influencing students’ politics “we would expect that the most liberal professors would be the ones who would be associated with the movement furthest to the left, but that’s not the case”, he adds.

“The right-wing critique that universities are left-wing seminaries, or that they are indoctrinating students en masse, appears to be overstated…A variety of studies seem to show that students come in with a certain political disposition and they leave with a very similar political disposition.”

Kelly-Woessner, a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College, confirms that “our research repeatedly shows that students do not move dramatically in their political affiliations over the course of their college careers”. Highlighting another of their studies, she says that students “are less likely to pay attention and learn from professors they perceive to be biased against [their own] views”. Students “appear to be more influenced by peers”, she adds.

So the final verdict on the inter-marital debate? Kelly-Woessner was “largely correct”, Woessner concedes. “Students are more resistant to political messages than I thought they were.”

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Clemson’s Linvill has not only researched Internet Research Agency tweets. He has also published several studies on students’ perceptions of ideological “bias” in university classrooms. They report that students who are highly committed to their beliefs, and those with a high degree of “academic entitlement or grade orientation”, are more likely to perceive their tutor as showing ideological bias.

Social media has made perceived bias “more of an issue”, Linvill says. Twitter and Facebook make it easier to see, or to infer, the political views of individual academics – and also make supposed bias a “much more difficult issue to contend with” given how easily individual cases can escalate into viral controversies. “There is always some dumb professor somewhere that is going to say something idiotic on social media,” Linvill says, while “many things that are simply bad teaching are easy to construe as political bias”.

A 2018 paper Linvill co-authored with Will Grant and Brandon Boatwright looked at tweets by students in the US, UK and Australia – sent in 2015 and 2016, a period covering the UK’s Brexit vote, the election of Trump and an Australian election – “in an attempt to gain an honest view of how students feel about the role of ideology in the classroom”. In the study, “‘Back-stage’ dissent: student Twitter use addressing instructor ideology”, published in the journal Communication Education, the “majority of tweets were about instructors perceived to be liberal”, Linvill says. But “nearly a third of instructors were perceived by the student to be conservative”, he adds.

Another significant factor was that, actually, students “just weren’t talking much” about bias. The research identified only 1,562 tweets addressing “instructor ideology” over the two years and across the three nations. The paper suggests that, perhaps, “despite the media coverage surrounding classroom ideology, students themselves may not be invested in the topic enough to write about it on Twitter”.

So why is there such frenzy over perceived ideological bias from sections of the Right?

Colby College’s Gross, author of the high-profile 2013 book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, suggests that “part of it has to be that education is increasingly a major axis of political polarisation”.

That is as true in the UK as in the US. At the 2017 general election, for instance, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party led the Conservatives by 17 percentage points among those with degree-level qualifications, according to YouGov analysis. And in the 2016 EU referendum, “just 22 per cent of graduates voted to leave the EU, compared with 72 per cent of those without any educational qualifications”, notes a paper on factors behind the Brexit vote by John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde.

Meanwhile, a 2015 paper prepared for the UK government by academics from the Open University and the National Centre for Social Research used data from the British Social Attitudes survey to compare the views of graduates and non-graduates on a range of social issues. The paper, “The Effect of Higher Education on Graduates’ Attitudes”, found that graduates display “the highest levels of political engagement and efficacy”, “the greatest degree of environmental knowledge, concern and willingness to take action for the sake of the environment” and “the most tolerant attitudes towards immigrants and benefit recipients”. The “expanding numbers of graduates, with their distinctive attitudes, may well be driving further changes in society”, the paper said.

It is easy, therefore, to see why some Conservatives – or, in the case of the Brexit vote, the broader cultural right – might regard universities with suspicion, particularly in an age of continuing higher education expansion. In his “leftwing madrassas” column, for instance, Young claims that “one of the reasons Tony Blair was so keen to expand Britain’s universities…was that he hoped to produce a new generation of instinctive Labour voters”.

Less crudely, the right-wing journalist Tim Montgomerie has written that “large percentages of teachers in schools, academics in universities…and other ideas-generators lean towards left, liberal perspectives…The right has lost the battle for control of the ‘upstream’ institutions that form tomorrow’s thinking on multiple fronts.”

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, who researches the Conservative Party, notes the correlation between graduates and liberal views. However, he says that “whether you’re a sophisticated Gramscian concerned about losing cultural hegemony or simply a right-wing conspiracy theorist, it’s putting two and two together to make five to suggest that the causal link is some kind of brainwashing by lecturers”.

Surveys conducted by the late historian A. H. Halsey found that support for the Tories among non-Oxbridge university academics fell from 38 per cent in 1964 to 19 per cent in 1989. Halsey also observed “a strengthening of anti-Conservative feeling in the British academic professions” over this period. However, Bale notes that “the vast majority of faculty are teaching subjects into which even the most cunning propagandist would find it hard to insert subliminal let alone obvious political messages”.

This is an obvious point, but one usually ignored by proponents of “bias” claims. Gross says that in his research with academics, “as I talked to engineering professors and biologists, geologists, they would always repeat some version of: ‘A rock doesn’t have politics.’ ”

The three most popular degrees in the UK in 2016-17 were business and administrative studies (with 333,425 students), subjects allied to medicine (290,770) and biological sciences (226,395), according to Higher Education Statistics Agency data. Of the sector’s 2.38 million students, 1.07 million (45 per cent) were enrolled on science subjects.

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Meanwhile, Strathclyde’s Curtice, a well-known and highly respected pollster in the UK, cautions that “while British Social Attitudes Survey data have long shown a link between social liberalism and university education, there isn’t a link between being left-wing and being a graduate”. He continues: “demonstrating a correlation between university education and social liberalism is easy, proving cause and effect is much more difficult. Do social liberals choose to go to university or do universities make people social liberals?”

Paula Surridge, a senior lecturer in the University of Bristol’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, has sought to answer this question. She notes that in continental Europe, most people subscribe to the former theory. But her hunch was that “there was something more to it”.

Surridge notes that longitudinal data, such as the UK 1970 Birth Cohort Study, offer large-scale information on social views that can be measured before and after individuals have been through higher education. Her research with it indicates, for instance, that the gulf between support for and opposition to the death penalty “definitely widens by the time people are 30, according to whether [people] went into higher education or not”.

But regarding claims of ideological bias in university teaching, Surridge makes an obvious but fundamental point: “You would need to know exactly what was going in classrooms” to have evidence on the subject. And that is pretty much impossible in universities. Her 2016 paper, “Education and Liberalism: Pursuing the Link”, based on Birth Cohort Study data, concludes that the “most likely mechanism linking education with [socially] liberal values is socialisation” – individuals spending time as part of a group where those values are common.

“I don’t think it’s something being directly imparted,” she tells THE. “I think it’s something much more complex than that about expectations of social groups and social milieux.”

The paper, published in the Oxford Review of Education, also finds differences across subjects: “Those [graduates] with degrees in social sciences and humanities [are] the most liberal of all the education groups and those with degrees in business studies the least liberal of those with degrees.”

Glyn Davis, former vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne and a vocal critic of the Australian government’s free speech inquiry, says it is important to interrogate the “motive and timing” of claims about political bias on campus. Since “only right-leaning thinktanks…have ever raised the issue, we can say with fairness that the Australian government has responded to these claims from the Right”.

But Australia’s own “culture wars” over universities “seem imported rather than home-grown”, continues Davis, who is now distinguished professor of public policy at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy. “I wonder if there is anything in common about media ownership in America, Britain and Australia that might contribute here?”

Davis seems to be nodding towards Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News TV station in the US and British and Australian newspapers have, indeed, been avid promoters of the narrative of ideological bias in universities. But the intensified polarisation of all media according to their different political audiences has played a key role in advancing that narrative.

Gross argues that while in some ways it makes sense for conservatives to “turn to higher education and see it as the place that all these potential votes are getting lost”, what is actually taking place is “a wholesale transformation of the political sphere, where people who, from an early age, [intend to] go to college…are increasingly turned off by conservative parties, on both sides of the Atlantic”.

Of the UK picture, Curtice says that “the relationship between age and social liberalism is not simply a function of differences of educational background by age: younger people tend to be more liberal irrespective [of education]”.

Perhaps claims of ideological bias in higher education are more about the anxieties of modern conservatism than about universities themselves – about perceived loss of cultural hegemony to the left, about the right’s anxieties over social liberalism. But, regardless of the reliability of their evidence base or the politics of their source, such claims can still damage universities. If conservative suspicion of universities feeds through into a breakdown of consensus over higher education funding – already evident in many US states – then the consequences will be serious. And in an era in which often overtly anti-intellectual right-wing populist parties with non-graduate voter bases are becoming increasingly influential around the world, the culture wars over universities are likely to spread and intensify beyond their traditional front line in the US.

In many nations, the divide between graduates and non-graduates is coming to be seen as the key battleground of modern politics, potentially further isolating universities from sections of right-wing opinion. So it is more important than ever that further research is carried out into how and why the experience of higher education affects graduates’ political and social views. Otherwise, it will not merely be Russian trolls using universities to widen divides and promote their political agenda.

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Reader's comments (6)

Universities are teaching students to think critically and analyse the evidence before them, hopefully they will apply the same approach to politics as they do to the subject that they are studying. That's a good thing... unless you happen to be a politician whose self-interest and ideology is not robust enough to cope with challenge and debate. This is the root of the right wing disquiet... not that university teachers tend to be left-wing, but that they equip students with the tools to challenge those that wish to occupy positions of power.
You assume, without offering any evidence, that right-wing self-interest and ideology are less able to cope with challenge and debate than the interest and ideology of the left. In my experience it is the left that shuts down debates through "no-platforming", accusations of (verbal) "violence" that need to be responded to and the like. And presumably left-wing politicians wish to occupy positions of power as much as right-wing ones.
You also assume that the left holds the sole acquisition of critical thinking as a value. To imply that centrist or right leaning scholars and academics do not engage in the cultivation of critical thinking just shows the intellectual exclusivity of the left. When academia was more ideologically balanced, are you claiming that undergraduates thought less critically? How presumptuous.
To be sure, if left-leaning politicians were as concerned as right-leaning politicians evidently are about increasing the percentage of the population who had been trained to think critically and analyze the evidence before them, then they would be just as scared of education intended to provide such training as right-leaning politicians. However, in fact, the evidence is that right-leaning politicians are more scared of such education. Thus, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that the evidence indeed suggests that right-leaning politicians currently believe they have more to lose from a voting population that thinks critically and analyzes evidence than do left-leaning politicians. Nevertheless, we might all well agree with the proposition that all politicians want power -- but, accepting this premise, it then leads to a further conclusion that either fear of or desire for quality public education is not necessarily inherent in the relative "rightness" or "leftness" of political beliefs themselves, but in the strategies by which politicians (of whatever stripe) think they can best gain power. This in turn leads to the additional conclusion (insofar as we might wish to draw conclusions based solely on some casual thought-experiments in the comments section of a Web page) that right-leaning politicians themselves believe (or have chosen a strategy based on the belief that) a critically thinking, evidence-analyzing population is inimical to they ability to acquire and hold power. In other words, the perceived problem is perhaps not one derived from simple "politics" but of how one believes power is most easily taken and maintained. Perhaps further research is needed to consider _why_ right-leaning politicians have chosen to believe this?
Errata: they ability > their ability.
I think that this simple two-dimensional description of ideology does not service sensible debate. The real fight is not "left-wing" versus "right-wing", "socialism" versus "capitalism", but extremism versus moderation. One can find examples of disgraceful and extreme behaviour from all wings of the political spectrum, and these are far too often used as cudgels, deflecting debate away from the issues at hand.

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