HERI's American College Teacher: Is It All in the Eyes of the Spinmeisters?

Tom Wood

On March 5, the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA released its report on faculty norms for 2007-08, entitled The American Teacher. This is a survey of faculty nationwide that HERI conducts every three years. The last faculty survey covered 2004-05.

The finding from the 2007-08 survey that received the most attention from the media was that the percentage of faculty who believe that it is important to teach undergraduates to become “agents of social change” is greater than the percentage who believe that it is important to teach students the classics of Western civilization. This finding was centerpieced in at least one important article and one important editorial that covered the 2007-08 survey. Robin Wilson’s “Social Change Tops Classic Books in Professors' Teaching Priorities” appeared on March 5 (the release date of the report) in The Chronicle of Higher Education. An Investor’s Business Daily editorial, “College Of (Social) Change,” appeared more recently on March 12.

This is the way Robin Wilson presented the findings: 

A new national survey of faculty members shows that the proportion of professors who believe it is very important to teach undergraduates to become "agents of social change" is substantially larger than the proportion who believe it is important to teach students the classic works of Western civilization.

According to the survey, 57.8 percent of professors believe it is important to encourage undergraduates to become agents of social change, whereas only 34.7 percent said teaching them the classics is very important. Observers say the difference results from influences as diverse as conservative criticisms of curriculum and Barack Obama's call for social activism during his presidential campaign.

IBD’s editorial was in a similar vein. It had the subtitle or subheading “A new survey shows America's professors downgrading the classics and elevating social activism as a teaching goal. There must be cheaper ways to train community organizers.” The editorial itself began as follows:

We should not be surprised, from what we know of the academic culture. But the latest round of "The American College Teacher," a national survey done every three years by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, will nonetheless disappoint anyone who still thinks of a university as a place where young minds encounter the great minds of the past.

Based on responses by 22,562 professors at 372 colleges and universities during the 2007-08 academic year, the survey found that only 34.5% placed high value on teaching the classic works of Western civilization. 

Far more — 58.5% — said it was important to mold students into agents of social change… 

Significantly, to my mind, the article by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Education covering the HERI faculty survey (“Shifting Faculty Mission,” March 5) did not mention the reported findings about the teaching of classics and the importance of educating students to be agents of social change. However, Jaschik did mention increases in the percentage of professors who think it is important to increase students' knowledge of and appreciation for other racial and ethnic groups, who consider it very important or essential to instill in students a commitment to community service, and who believe that colleges should be actively involved in solving social problems—all of which he presents as showing "an apparently broad view of the social responsibility of higher education."

To return, however, to the reported difference between the percentage of faculty who believe it is important to teach the classics of Western civilization and those who believe it is important to enable students to become agents of social change.

Robin Wilson reports that Sylvia Hurtado, the director of HERI, interprets these findings in the following way:

…the gap between those who value teaching Western civilization and those who value teaching students to be social activists reflects a shift in emphasis from the abstract to the practical. "The notion of a liberal education as a set of essential intellectual skills is in transition," she says. "It's also about social and personal responsibility, thinking about one's role in society, and creating change."

The claim that the reported findings reflect a shift from the abstract to the practical, and from the view that liberal education is just a set of essential intellectual skills to one that includes social and personal responsibility, thinking about one’s role in society, and creating change, is a very large and important claim. But is it true?

The exact wording of the items

Problems arise as soon as one looks at the exact wording of the questions.

Unfortunately, HERI has not made it easy to find the wording of the four items in question—two on the “classics of Western civilization (one in the 2004-05 and one in 2007-08 survey) and two on the importance of students’ being educated to be agents of social change (one in the 2004-05 and one in the 2007-08 survey). It took me a while to find the wording of these items on the HERI web site, and at one point I had almost given up. However, the main page on the HERI site has a link to the press release. The press release has a drop down menu for “Surveys and Services,” which leads to a page with a drop down menu in the top navigation bar that includes a link to “HERI faculty survey.” One can find one’s way from there (look for “Survey, Codebook and History”) to a page entitled “HERI Codebooks & Instruments Archive,” and from that page to the “2004 Instrument” and the “2007 Instrument.”

 

The items about Western civilization and culture

 The item about Western civilization is Item #30 of the 2004-05 instrument. Here is the wording:
 

30. Please indicate your agreement with each of the following statements:

(Mark one for each item)

Agree Strongly; Agree Somewhat; Disagree Somewhat; Disagree Strongly

Western civilization and culture should be the foundation of the undergraduate curriculum

(This is one of 14 items)

     Here is the wording of the related item (#17) on the 2007-08 instrument:

Indicate the importance to you of each of the following education goals for undergraduate

students: (Mark one for each item)

Essential; Very Important; Somewhat Important; Not Important

Teach students the classic works of Western civilization

 

The items about social change

 The item about social change is Item #28 of the 2004-05 instrument. Here is the wording:

Item #28: Indicate how important you believe each priority listed below is at your college or university:

(Mark one for each activity)

Highest Priority; High Priority; Medium Priority; Low Priority

To help students learn how to bring about change in American society

 

2007-08 instrument (Item #17, see above)

Indicate the importance to you of each of the following education goals for undergraduate

students: (Mark one for each item)

Essential; Very Important; Somewhat Important; Not Important

Encourage students to become agents of social change

 

Hey, survey researchers at HERI:

In survey research, the exact wording of the questions is important!

 

Once the exact wording of the items is available, it is clear that HERI’s claims about them are problematic, even unfounded.

 

The items on Western civilization are not comparable, because the 2004-05 item asks the respondent to indicate agreement with the statement that Western civilization and culture should be the foundation of the undergraduate curriculum, whereas the related item on the 2007-08 instrument asks the respondent to indicate the importance “to you” (emphasis mine) of teaching students the classic works of Western civilization as an education goal for undergraduate students. These items ask very different questions of the respondents, since it is quite possible for a faculty member to think that Western civilization and culture should be the foundation of the undergraduate curriculum (what other civilization and culture should be?) but not believe that it is important for him or her to teach students the classic works of Western civilization.

First of all, one can believe that Western civilization and culture should be the foundation of the undergraduate curriculum without believing that it is essential or very important to teach students the “classic works” of Western civilization. The second claim is based on the view that there is a canon of “classical” works of Western civilization; the former statement is not. One can be a disbeliever or skeptic in the claim that there is a canon of classical Western works and still believe in the primacy of Western civilization.

The second and more important difference is that the first item asks the respondent to assess the importance of the role of Western civilization and culture in undergraduate education generally, whereas the second item asks the very different question: How important is the teaching of the classics of Western civilization “to you.” A moment’s reflection will show that responses to the second question will be highly dependent and sensitive to what subject or field the respondent teaches, whereas the first item is not. How many faculty teaching engineering, business, or social work, for example, will have occasion to teach the “classic works” of Western civilization (even assuming that there is a canon of such classic works)?

To see the magnitude of the problem here, one needs to have the breakdown of the HERI faculty respondents by field or department affiliations. This information is available for the 2007-08 faculty respondents on the HERI site, but it too is hard to find. It is given in a Power Point executive summary of the 2007-08 findings. This Power Point document contains a relatively small subset of the responses to the 2007-08 faculty survey, but it is the most complete documentation that HERI has provided for its 2007-08 faculty survey on the Web.

Page 6 (“Department of Appointment”) of the Power Point executive summary gives the following breakdown:

Social Science: 11.6%

Humanities: 22.8%

Fine Arts: 8.3%

Education: 8.2%

Physical Science: 12.6%

Business: 7.6%

Health: 8.5%

Biological Science: 7.1%

Technical: 4.5%

Engineering: 3.5%

Other: 3.5%

 

Again I ask, but now more pointedly: what percentage of faculty with departments of appointment in education, physical science, business, health, biological science, technical, and engineering (57.8% of the total) would find the “classics of Western civilization” relevant to their own teaching? For that matter, what percentage of faculty in the social sciences would believe that teaching the “classic works of Western civilization” is very important to them? Of course, some faculty teaching in the social sciences might think it important to include some works that would be deemed “classical” in their courses—but that seems to me to be a somewhat different question.

Items #28 on the 2004-05 instrument and Item #17 2007-08 instrument are even less comparable. Item #28 asks the respondent to assign the priority that helping students to learn how to bring about change in American society has at “your college or university” (emphasis mine). Item #17, on the other hand, asks the respondent to indicate the importance “to you” of each of a number of education goals for undergraduate students. Obviously, a respondent can believe that bringing about change in American society has a lower priority at her college or university than it has for her.

Sylvia Hurtado of HERI, Robin Wilson of IHE, and the editors at IBD did not compare items 30 and 17 (on Western civilization) or items 28 and 17 (on “change”) directly. What they did was to compare the item about “the classics of Western civilization” of Item #17 on the 2007-08 survey with the item about encouraging students to become agents of social change of the same Item #17 on the 2007-08 survey. What all three concluded from this comparison was that faculty assign less importance to teaching the classics of Western civilization than to encouraging students to become agents of social change.

Both items from #17 of the 2007-08 survey are framed in terms of how important these things are to the respondent (unlike Items #30 and #28 of the 2004-05 surveys). Nevertheless, comparing the two items from #17 of the 2007-08 survey is still problematic, given the varying department affiliations of the respondents. Faculty in education, business, and health (24.3% of the total) would obviously find “social change” to be more personally relevant to their teaching than the “classics of Western civilization.” It is quite striking that this 24.3% figure (i.e., the percentage of faculty in the three fields of education, business, and health) comes very close to the difference that Robin Wilson reported between the percentage of faculty who believe that teaching the classics of Western civilization is important (to them) and the percentage of faculty who believe that encouraging undergraduates to be agents of social change is important (to them) in the 2007-08 survey (57.8%-34.7%=23.1%).

There are additional problems in the way that HERI treats the issue of social change that deserve mention. HERI’s politics is well established by now: it is very liberal, even left-leaning and progressive. What Hurtado and others would obviously like to believe, and like for us to believe, is that the 2007-08 survey shows a shift in faculty opinion in a progressive direction. That is how Hurtado undoubtedly interprets the shift that she sees in changing or extending the idea of liberal education as a set of intellectual skills to include “social and personal responsibility, thinking about one's role in society, and creating change.”

One of the problems with assuming (as many have) that the findings about “social change” in the 2007-08 survey indicate a shift in faculty opinion in a progressive direction (at least with regard to higher education) is that it presupposes that progressives, liberals, and leftists own the notion of “social change.” This is undoubtedly untrue, as American politics since the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s shows. Republicans and conservatives do care about social change: they just have a different notion of it than those on the left.

 

Conservatives and civic engagement

The salience of this aspect of the issue was shown recently by Arthur C. Brooks. Until very recently Brooks was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and Whitman School of Management; this year he became president of the American Enterprise Institute. In his About Compassionate Conservatism: Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters, which was published in 2007, Brooks reports that Americans who are religious are far more charitable than non-religious, secular Americans. Religious people give significantly more of their money (3.5 times as much as non-religious, secular Americans) and also volunteer more of their time (almost twice as much). Brooks found that religious people are more likely than the nonreligious to volunteer for secular charitable activities, give blood, and return money when they are accidentally given too much change. "There is not one measurably significant way I have ever found in which religious people are not more charitable than nonreligious people," Mr. Brooks says. "The fact is, if it weren't for religious people in your community, the PTA would shut down." Brooks found that all of this is equally true of religious liberals and religious conservatives, but since there are far more religious conservatives than religious liberals, conservatives as a group also tend to be significantly more charitable than liberals as a group. Byron R. Johnson, a sociology professor and co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, says that he has gathered data that show similar results — such as high levels of civic engagement among religious people.

HERI surveys do not ask respondents to report their religious affiliations or whether they have any religious beliefs or are secular, so we do not know how much the findings reported by Brooks and Johnson are a factor in the 2007-08 findings about “social change” and civic commitment. However, their findings do show, at the very least, that it is hazardous to conclude from reported findings from the HERI survey about “social change” and civic commitment that there has been a shift in faculty opinion in a liberal or progressive direction on these issues.

 

The 2007-08 shows no shift in the political affiliations and leanings of faculty

There is very telling evidence against drawing any such conclusion from the HERI surveys themselves. The notion that the 2007-08 HERI survey findings show a shift from a conservative view of education (emphasizing the classics of Western civilization) to a progressive education one (emphasizing social and personal responsibility, thinking about one's role in society, and creating change) is also undercut by the findings about the political affiliations of the respondents in the recent surveys.

The HERI surveys ask respondents to report their political leanings as either Far left, Liberal, Middle of the road, Conservative, or Far right. In his article in IHE, Scott Jaschik compared the faculty responses to these items for the last three survey periods. His tabulations are given below:
 

 

2007-8

2004-5

2001-2

Far left

8.8%

8.7%

5.9%

Liberal

47.0%

46.5%

45.1%

As Jaschik pointed out in his article, this table shows virtually no change in the political leaning of faculty between 2004-05 and 2007-08. It is therefore unlikely that comparisons of Items #30, #28, and #17 of the 2004-05 and 2007-08 HERI faculty surveys support the interpretation about fundamental changes in faculty notions concerning liberal education that Hurtado wants to give them.

The safest conclusion to draw from the HERI 2007-08 faculty survey

Hurtado points to several changes in faculty responses over the last three year period to argue that there has occurred a shift in faculty opinion from the abstract to the practical, and from the view that a liberal education is just a set of essential intellectual skills to one that includes social and personal responsibility, thinking about one’s role in society, and creating change. This inference appears to be clearly unwarranted, at least in terms of what HERI has reported of the responses to the entire survey.

The safest conclusion to draw about the survey, at least so far as the reported findings on the HERI web site and the articles by Wilson and Jaschik are concerned, is that all “positive” responses showed an increase over the last three year period. Here is my tabulation of gains versus declines of arguably positive measures taken from the HERI press release, Wilson’s CHE article, and Jashiks IHE article:

Jaschik: Seven gains and one very small decline (in the conservative political affiliation category)

HERI Press Release: 8 gains and 1 very modest decline. (The modest decline was in the use of bell curves in grading coursework, though it is not clear to me that this is a bad thing; if it indicates a greater unwillingness to engage in grade inflation, it is probably good.)

Wilson: 3 gains, no declines reported.

It would be sensible to conclude from this that faculty members are reacting to mounting criticism of the academy from all sides by those outside of it—attacks which have by no means been confined to conservative critics. Perhaps what the HERI faculty survey shows is that faculty are getting their backs up in defense of the academy. Take virtually anything that anyone might think it important for the university to do. Ask a faculty member about it, and in 2007-08 he is likely to reply that he, too, believes that it is an important or very important or essential part of undergraduate education. This seems on the face of it to be a safer and more plausible interpretation than the one that finds a shift in favor of a progressive or liberal view about the importance of educating students to be agents of social change.

This also seems to be the likeliest interpretation of the available data when one considers responses to items that many would regard as falling into a “conservative” or “traditional” view of liberal arts education. These did not show any declines over the last three year period. In fact, these measures showed reported gains, or were apparently so high already on the 2004-05 survey that they had virtually no head room for improvement.

Robin Wilson reported that in 2007-08 72.8 percent of professors thought it important to instill in students an appreciation for the liberal arts—nearly 15 percentage points more than said so three years ago. This shows a significant increase (in a measure that already had a high response rate in 2007-08) on a measure that arguably represents a conservative or traditional view of higher education.

The HERI 2007-08 faculty survey also asked for faculty responses to items concerning the importance of developing critical thinking skills, discipline-specific knowledge, the ability to evaluate the quality and reliability of information, and the ability to write effectively. Unfortunately, HERI has not made available on its web site the responses to the corresponding items on the 2004-05 survey, but the wording of one paragraph of its press release indicates that the responses three years ago were very high. Here is the passage to which I refer:

Helping students develop critical-thinking skills and discipline-specific knowledge remain at the forefront of faculty goals [emphasis mine] for undergraduate education, with 99.6 percent of faculty indicating that critical-thinking skills are "very important" or "essential" and 95.1 percent saying the same of discipline-specific knowledge. Other top goals include helping students to evaluate the quality and reliability of information (97.2 percent) and promoting the ability to write effectively (96.4 percent).

“Conservatives” who believe in the “traditional values” of a liberal arts education have little or nothing to be concerned about in these findings. (Compared to the findings about social change and civic commitment, these responses are almost off the scale.) Furthermore, the wording “remain at the forefront of faculty goals” indicates that in previous surveys these responses were also off the scale. If HERI was not able to report equally significant gains for these measures, it is likely because there was virtually no head room for significant improvement in them over the last three years.

Be wary of HERI

HERI has a very clear political agenda inside the academy—one that is very liberal and progressive. On matters of importance to progressives and liberals, HERI itself clearly wants to be an agent of social change in the academy. This in itself is a reason to be wary of HERI’s own interpretations of its data.

I first became aware of HERI’s agenda when I began work on the racial preferences issue in the early 1990s. I have written about this at some length in an earlier posting, “Just say no to racial preferences,” and in Race and Higher Education, which I co-authored with Malcolm Sherman. I will not repeat the details that are covered in those writings. Suffice it to say here that I discovered when I began to look for statistical evidence supporting Justice Powell’s view that campus racial diversity has educational benefits that HERI had already looked at this question in its own survey research and found that the claim had to be rejected on statistical grounds. HERI tested the hypothesis that campuses with greater racial diversity are correlated with positive educational outcomes. The HERI database had pretests and posttests for 44 cognitive and non-cognitive outcome variables. HERI found no correlation between campus racial diversity and any of these outcome variables. I didn’t find this result surprising: it is what I expected when I started looking for data. What did surprise me is that, although HERI did report the findings (as it had to), it continued to be a strong advocate for racial preferences in university admissions in the interest of increasing racial diversity, without ever mentioning its own study, which showed that there were no educational benefits to that diversity, when engaged in open advocacy on the issue.

Advancing the cause of racial and gender diversity in higher education was one of the major interests of Alexander Astin when he was the director of HERI, and it has apparently become a near obsession under his successor, Sylvia Hurtado. Anyone who doubts this need only read the second half of the press release HERI issued on the 2007-08 faculty survey to appreciate the truth of this claim. The great majority of the findings that were selected for mention in the press release involved diversity issues, and when these were discussed, it was to point out how, in HERI’s opinion, higher education in this country is suffering because it is not paying enough attention to diversity issues, or making enough progress in increasing the racial and gender diversity of the faculty. An unsuspecting person reading this press release might think that issues of racial and gender diversity are the most important ones now facing the academy.

At the very least, the tendentiousness and sloppiness of its reporting of the 2007-08 survey on its web site and in its contacts with the media, and its clear bias generally on issues inside the academy, shows that HERI must do a better of job of presenting its findings when future American College Teacher reports are released. As it is, observers are left scrambling to assess the exact wording for the selected findings that are released and HERI’s interpretations of them. This is quite unnecessary. HERI can and should release all of the faculty responses to its survey when it releases the report. If HERI makes any claims based on a comparison of past responses to the just-released survey, it should do the same for the past surveys as well.


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