Politics Undermining Learning, Scholars Warn University of California

Mar 30, 2012 | 

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Politics Undermining Learning, Scholars Warn University of California

Mar 30, 2012 | 

SOQUEL, CA (March 30, 2012)—Radical faculty members and politicized courses have compromised the quality of education in the University of California.  That’s the principal finding in a report released today by the California Association of Scholars, a division of the National Association of Scholars. 

The 81-page report, A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California, urges the Regents of the University of California to end “the corruption of the University of California by activist politics.” 

The California Association of Scholars conducted a two-year study.  Its report finds: 

  • A sharp increase in faculty members who self-identify as radicals.  This has led to ‘one-party’ academic departments, such as at Berkeley, where left-of-center faculty members outnumber their right-of-center colleagues in Political Science by a ratio of 28:2, in English 29:1 and in History 31:1. 
  • Curricula that promote political activism, in violation of UC regulations. Critical Race Studies at UCLA’s School of Law, for example, aims to be a “training ground” for “advocates committed to racial justice theory and practice.”  
  • Departments that erase the study of Western tradition. History majors are not required to take a survey course in Western civilization on any of the nine University of California undergraduate campuses. 
  • Suppression of free speech.  Speakers at UC Berkeley who have been shouted down by protesters include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. 

John Ellis, president of the California Association of Scholars, said, “The quality of education at the University of California has been jeopardized by political activism. Dogmatism is rapidly displacing open-minded inquiry, especially in the social sciences and humanities, to the severe disadvantage of students.”  Ellis added, “Public confidence in the University is also eroding.”  

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, added: “In the past, the Regents took seriously their responsibility to keep the university free from politics. We call on the Regents today to take up that responsibility again.”

The study is available for download at /images/documents/A_Crisis_of_Competence.pdf


John Ellis, President, CAS                       831-476-1144; johnellis2608@att.net

Charles Geshekter, Chairman, CAS      530-343-7097; chollygee@earthlink.net

Peter Wood, President, NAS                    609-683-7878; pwood@nas.org

Stephen Balch, Chairman, NAS              609-683-7878; balch@nas.org


Chris Crawford

| April 01, 2012 - 2:06 PM

I read the report with great curiosity, anxious to see what solid evidence could be presented about the problem. Much of it was disappointing. For example, the extensive discussions of the political biases of faculty members strikes me as irrelevant. It’s not what they believe that counts, it’s what they *do*. Far more useful were the extracts from course descriptions and, above all, the complaints from students. You did a good job by presenting the thoughtful, articulate, and fair-minded criticisms by students.

My strongest criticism of this report is its lack of rigorous intellectual integrity. A number of statements leapt out as misleading or cleverly worded to insinuate a conclusion unsubstantiated by the preceding material. There were more than a few isolated cases of such biased presentation, which robs your report of strict credibility. I urge you to edit this report to tighten up the reasoning and stick more closely to the evidence, purging unsubstantiated opinion. It was worthwhile for me to read, because it changed some of my perceptions, but its flaws are too great to ignore.

I’ll close with a personal anecdote. Just last week I visited several colleges on the East Coast to lecture, and at one of them I was invited to sit in on a course before my lecture. Perusing the reading material for that lecture, I perceived the reason for the invitation: the reading material was some far-left Marxist pap. I was invited to the course to challenge the professor. I did in fact offer some contradictory observations during the lecture; the lecturer was respectful of my thoughts and responded as best he could, although at least one question left him no choice but an obfuscatory answer.

Some important observations about this experience:

1. The professor himself is actually a charming person and not at all confrontational or dismissive of opposing opinions.
2. He solidly demonstrated the relevance of his Marxist material to the true intent of the course.
3. The students disagreed with him on most points and presented their objections in a fair-minded and thoughtful manner.
4. He responded to their objections in a fair-minded and thoughtful manner, although his huge advantage in learning made it a lopsided discussion.
5. His strongly held and (in my opinion) poorly reasoned opinions were counterbalanced by an acknowledgement of their unconventional nature.
6. The other faculty consider him an asset to the faculty because he is the ONLY far-left professor in the faculty. They roll their eyes at his beliefs, but they believe that students should be exposed to such beliefs. And I suspect that the students have much the same attitude.

Peter Wood

| April 02, 2012 - 3:49 PM

Thank you Professor Crawford for this critique. I agree that the opening 17 pages of the report which deal with the issue of political bias in collegiate education in the abstract, with California law, and with frequently offered defenses of politicized teaching are likely to strike more readers than you as “irrelevant.”  But we judged that for the report to be more than the sum of particular instances we needed to lay a philosophical and legal foundation for why politicization of undergraduate education is a bad thing.  Citing John Stuart Mill’s dictum that, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that,” is pithy but falls short in the age of Marcuse, Foucault, Lukacs, Friere, Grammsci,Butler, Berube, Nelson, Ayers, Mann, and many others whose high-toned defenses of using the campus to advance their political goals have become part of the mainstream.  We saw the need to go back to basics.

Your “strongest criticism” i.e the report’s “lack of rigorous intellectual integrity” is a very serious charge.  Don’t you think in making such an allegation you ought to provide some examples of what you mean?  You say there are “more than a few isolated cases [of] biased presentation.”  But you name none. 

At this point it is too late to take your suggestion to “edit this report” to eliminate such problems, but if the problems are real, I’d rather have them held up to public examination than ignore them.  But I can’t even do that without some indication of what flaws in the reasoning or the handling of evidence you have in mind.

Your concluding example of a Marxist professor who is charming, responds to criticisms in a fair-minded and thoughtful manner, and is otherwise exemplary is a worthy addition to the discussion. We do not intend our report to imply that Marxists or other radical critics of Western society are always and everywhere in violation of the principles of academic freedom and intellectual integrity.  Plainly that is not so.  But we think our report accurately shows that there is a critical mass of professors who do indeed violate these canons.

Chris Crawford

| April 05, 2012 - 1:47 PM

Sorry for the slow response. First off, I appreciate the generosity of your using the honorific “Professor” to refer to me, but I have not earned that honorific, so “Mr.” is to be preferred.

Here are some examples of what I mean by less-than-rigorous phrasing:

Page 18: “The extent of the tilt to the left has been growing and has now reached a magnitude not remotely matched in the past. In some areas it is so extreme that it amounts to virtual exclusion of any but left-of-center faculty members.”

Even an extreme tilt to the left does not imply EXCLUSION of non-leftist members; it implies a DEFICIT of non-leftist members. Your word assumes intent that is not supported by the evidence. You repeat the error in the next sentence, using the word “exclusion” when “deficit” is the correct term to use. You also make your assumption explicit with this statement:

“This pattern is strongly suggestive of a conscious intent in the hiring process.”

“Strongly suggestive” is your interpretation of the evidence; it is not implicit in the evidence itself. You later address the inference of prejudice in hiring, and that discussion is the appropriate place to state your inferences; including them at this point reveals your own bias, and is not proper for a rigorous, objective analysis.

I will cite only one other particular, because I consider it devastating to the case made in your report. In Footnote #16 you link to “The Social and Political Views of American Professors”. I followed the link and, contrary to the statement in the footnote, had no problem downloading the paper. This paper is clearly a work of scholarship, and makes clear just how politically biased your own report is. It is much longer, includes many more references to other studies, quotes them more carefully and completely, and is more objective in its analysis.

Gross & Simmons declare at the outset that they seek to avoid the politicization of the question, and focus instead on the evidence, which my reading indicates they do fairly well. Indeed, at every turn I was struck by the contrast between the academic rigor of their approach and the greater license that your report takes in insinuating unsubstantiated opinion into the material.

For me, the devastating realization was that your report flatly misrepresents the Gross & Simmons paper. The report does not, as you write, show that the situation has continued to deteriorate in the years since Rothman’s 1999 study; it declares that the trend is towards less extremism and greater moderation.

Even worse was your claim that Gross & Simmons “clearly wanted the reverse to be true”. The lengthy discussions of the history of such studies and the methodology they used is a powerful demonstration that what Gross & Simmons wanted was to put the study of this material on firmer empirical ground.

You go to some length to refute their findings, and in so doing you commit a number of sins against rigorous methodology. For example, you criticize their collapsing seven categories down to three. Yes, they do indeed collapse the data in that manner—but they also provide the data from the seven categories. The reader is free to consider the seven-category results as well as the three-category results. There are good arguments for favoring seven over three, and there are good arguments for favoring three over seven, yet you choose to reject the three-category results because they do not conform to your preferences. In fact, they clearly state that they do so partly to make their results comparable to previous studies, and they further state that this collapsing “would thus tend to significantly underestimate the number of faculty respondents who do not feel comfortable locating themselves at the extremes of the political spectrum, flattening out a potentially important form of social variation.” They also explain how they attempt to address this problem.

You take Gross & Simmons to task for relying on self-reporting, but you do not address the sad fact that self-reporting is about the only way available to obtain statistically useful datasets. Yes, it is flawed, but all the previous studies they address also relied on self-reporting. To single out Gross & Simmons for criticism on this point when all the other studies—some of which you cite approvingly—also rely on self-reporting is another demonstration of a failure of objectivity on your part.

However, you are subjectively selective in your analysis of the Gross & Simmons paper. It’s a fascinating and very thorough analysis, offering a great many useful observations. By focussing on a few elements of the analysis, you provide a skewed representation of that paper, which reflects poorly upon your own.

Peter Wood

| April 09, 2012 - 6:03 PM

Thank you for the elaboration.  The phrase “virtual exclusion” is warranted by the examples of departments (p. 22) in which their are no conservatives or no registered Republicans. “Strongly suggestive” is indeed an interpretive comment and perhaps would have been better placed elsewhere in the report.  Footnote 16 referring to the Gross and Simmons study correctly drew your attention to an important report, but you should not have stopped with the report itself.  Scholarly response to the Gross and Simmons’ study brought out several methodological oddities.  The principal one bearing on Crisis of Competence was the decision by Gross and Simmons to reclassify as right-of-center academics who self-identified as left-of-center.  You err in saying that self-reporting is :about the only way available to obtain statistically useful datasets.”  We also have party registration, opinion surveys, and indirect measures such as Yancey’s study of collegiality, Compromising Scholarship. 

Chris Crawford

| April 09, 2012 - 8:48 PM

Thanks for the corrections. I’ll search for the critical commentary subsequent to the Gross & Simmons paper. I failed to notice that Gross & Simmons reclassified self-identified left-of-center academics as right of center—that’s a serious flaw.

As I pointed out earlier, this is still indirect information. We need to know not what academics believe but what they do. The fact that the available information is only anecdotal does not allow us to conclude that there is no problem. Complaints from students do not provide us with a calibrated measurement instrument. I am at a loss to suggest any means by which we can get a reliable measure the magnitude of this problem.