The Distance Yet to Go

Steve Balch

The best works of social science raise more questions than they answer. This is true of The Still Divided Academy, the last book produced by my distinguished friend and NAS colleague the late Stanley Rothman, in conjunction with his collaborators April Kelly-Woessner and Matthew Woessner.  The study, based on a survey of American university professors, administrators, and students done in 1999, examines a broad range of subjects pertaining to academic attitudes about politics, career and educational satisfaction, and diversity and race relations – in short, many of the most hot-button issues on America’s campuses today. A summary of some the findings appeared in a Washington Post column last Friday, “Five Myths About Liberal Academia.”

The most striking results are of the dog that didn’t bark variety. For example, the data fail to show, contrary to what most university leaders steadfastly contend, a relationship between institutional diversity and overall educational outcomes. On the other hand, the study also finds only a small negative correlation between having conservative opinions and academic career success – a disparity The Still Divided Academy ingeniously employs as a possible indicator of ideological discrimination. Conservative critics of the academic status quo would have anticipated a stronger association. Furthermore, The Still Divided Academy finds only limited evidence that professors succeed in changing student attitudes on several social, economic and political questions, though where such change occurs – to the left on the issue of the acceptability of homosexuality, and to the right on issues of economic redistribution – it moves in the direction of prevailing professorial opinion. Academe’s conservative critics have generally imagined, and worried about, bigger liberal/left impacts.   

When one confronts counterintuitive findings – the absence, for example, of evidence that an ideologically passionate and leftist professoriate discriminates against conservatives – one should first ask whether or not the methods employed were of a kind likely to catch what might otherwise have been expected. There are many ways in which things can go methodologically astray, some pertaining, in the case of surveys, to sample size and focus, the types of questions asked, or the presence of hidden assumptions that deflect analysis.  Getting it methodologically right, or as right as possible, is a trial-and-error process, in which absence of evidence is often less evidence of absence than a prompting to sharpen one’s tools. 

As I’ve already written with respect to the issue of discrimination against conservative faculty, the major limitation of most studies that have assayed the problem, including The Still Divided Academy, is in not focusing on the humanities and social science disciplines in which such discrimination is most likely to be occur (the subsets of most across-the-board samples not usually being large enough to yield statistically significant results within them). A second problem lies in defining as “conservative” those scholars who merely give “conservative” responses to a few Gallup-like questions on political and social attitudes, rather than those whose passionate commitment mirrors that of the vocal faculty left. A scholar may be against cohabitation, racial preferences, or government guarantees of jobs for all (to take some questions used to track ideology in The Still Divided Academy) while remaining traditionally liberal in most other respects, or at least not being a vociferous conservative.  Admittedly, vociferous academic conservatives currently constitute a rather small subset but, as I’ve argued, it is a highly significant one, being the only group capable of providing a genuine counterweight to the activist left when it comes to shaping campus climate and debate.

The Still Divided Academy’s findings about faculty impact on student attitudes also fall short of intuitive expectation. Can it really be that faculty opinions have only the modest effect discerned? Once more, I think, the results encourage us to ask some potentially clarifying questions. Here are a few.

1.) Most fields have little political relevance. Whatever attitudes professors have in accounting, engineering, or geology, are unlikely to show up in their lectures or reading assignments. So, as with the issue of discrimination against conservative faculty, it’s worth asking what would happen were the inquiry restricted to those fields that bear ideological loads (and thus ideological consequences) such as history, political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, ethnic and woman’s studies, and in its present incarnation, literature. The Still Divided Academy’s internal figures on students in the humanities and social sciences, that Matthew Woessner was kind enough to share with me, reveal what may be larger attitudinal shifts, involving more opinion items, and more often - though not always -  in the direction of liberalism, than is the case with students as a whole.

These are subsets, so there is greater uncertainty, but the movement is more toward what would be intuitively expected. Larger subsets would be needed to show whether these patterns are statistically significant. Investigation thus needs to concentrate on the really crucial fields, and use questions more sensitive to the peculiarities of the subjects studied, rather than those drawn from all-purpose public opinion surveys. Longitudinal studies tracing the same students over the full course of their college experience – though more difficult and expensive to execute – would also be superior in tracking the process of opinion evolution among students than would snapshot samples of individual cohorts. The balance of opinion among sociology students, for example, might be influenced both by conservative students dropping out, as well as being converted, as a longitudinal study would reveal.   

2.) The surprisingly elevated level of liberalism that The Still Divided Academy reveals to be already present in the attitudes of incoming freshman may mask yet another significant phenomenon: that higher education impacts student opinion not only by changing it, but by confirming it. Might not a conservative well ask whether it’s reasonable that 75% of those about to graduate still believe that “the government should work to ensure that everyone has a job,” even if that figure is down from the 79% who believed it on admission? Can this really be said to reflect an adequate and balanced exposure to economic theory, or the present state of sophisticated economic policy debate? And, of course, there’s another, associated question: to what extent does the liberalism of incoming freshman reflect the ideological climate of our schools, which in no small measure is ultimately dependent on that of the university? (It, of course, may also be the result of youthful innocence, the simple desire to endorse do-good propositions. But even if that is so, one might still think that after four years a serious education would show the world to be more complex.) Longitudinal studies within disciplines, perhaps including some interviews in depth, would be helpful here too.

3.) Conversion and confirmation are not the only ways in which our universities mold the American polity. Universities can also be recruitment channels into political activism, creating cadres, so to speak. Social work and counseling programs expressly prepare students to work as social justice advocates, women’s studies programs are explicitly instruments of the feminist cause. Others probably work more subtly toward activist ends. In addition, there’s what might be deemed “the received wisdom effect,” to wit: the role universities play, especially those in the top tier, in determining what is respectable for sophisticated people to believe. For a great many educated people, opinions on public issues are neither deeply considered, nor inculcated through anything like debate or analysis, but emerge from a desire to be thought properly enlightened in the circles within which they travel. In this regard the impact of our universities in establishing intellectual fashion may be very considerable indeed, continuing to transmit received opinion to aspiring sophisticates, through a variety of channels, long after they graduate.

This brief review isn’t meant to be exhaustive. The ideological climate of academe has the potential to exert its influence in a myriad of ways, most of which will be hard to get a methodological grip on. In the meantime we have to face what no one denies – that the current academic climate has a fearful ideological asymmetry.

Of course, it’s just possible this is an asymmetry without consequence. But the common sense of the matter strongly suggests otherwise. Teachers enter the academy intent on transmitting hard-won wisdom. A good many students, certainly those who matter most, look forward to sitting at the feet of masters. Perhaps social science will someday decisively conclude that most of this misfires. In order to do so, however, its art will have to become a good deal more refined. The Still Divided Academy makes an excellent start down the road to refinement, but there is clearly quite a distance yet to go.                                              

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