ARUNDEL — While higher education may have a perception problem, I would argue it is not because of what the headline on James D. Herbert’s Feb. 11 Maine Voices column called an “ideological imbalance” in the faculty. And bowing to unwarranted, unsubstantiated criticism from the right is not a winning strategy.
Let’s start with some research. That university faculty tend to be more liberal than conservative is not a new phenomenon; studies since 1955 clearly show this. Why might this be? Research suggests that it’s mainly a matter of self-selection – conservatives are less likely to choose an academic career, in part because of the lower salary levels and the prospect of competing in fields dominated by progressives.
Given this imbalance, is there a problem? Conservative critics going back to William F. Buckley have complained of liberal professors indoctrinating their students. But studies simply do not bear this out.
There is little evidence that the political views of faculty have an influence on their students’ attitudes. And for those conservatives who choose to enter the academy, as students or as faculty, the data indicate they are not being discriminated against or subjected to unfair treatment, conservative political scientist Matthew Woessner and other scholars have found. In terms of scholarship, academic researchers of all political persuasions are trained to use methods that reduce or eliminate the influence of bias. The process of science balances open-mindedness with skepticism, and ultimately relies on the power of evidence.
If there really isn’t a crisis on campuses due to left-leaning faculty, we can dispense with trying to address it.
I should note, however, that there are places where political viewpoints are being monitored – the conservative academic centers, endowed professorships and post-doctoral fellowships at some 400 universities being funded by Charles Koch’s foundations, according to the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch.
Perhaps we should be paying more attention to increasing a different kind of diversity. Blacks make up only 6 percent of full-time U.S. faculty; Hispanics comprise only 4 percent; and women are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Colleges and universities could better prepare their students to solve the real-world problems they’ll face after graduation, including those stemming from intolerance and bigotry.
Media outlets on both ends of the political spectrum are guilty of intolerance and the “echo chamber” effect. But this is not characteristic of academic culture.
Teaching students critical thinking – how to differentiate among facts, hypotheses, opinions and falsehoods, especially on the web – is a core value taught in a wide variety of courses. This is how we counter the ill effects of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
Expanding the reach of higher education to all sectors of society is essential to sustaining our democracy. Ironically, some of those who most easily fall prey to right-wing anti-intellectual messaging are the ones who would most benefit from more education, and yet can least afford it. Poverty still keeps too many Americans from attaining a higher standard of living and quality of life.
If Americans are losing confidence in higher education, it is more likely because of a real crisis – its lack of affordability. Colleges and universities have increased their numbers of administrators and non-teaching staff relative to their faculty, and are placing more emphasis on creating campuses with a country club atmosphere to compete for the paying customers, with oversized budgets for fancy facilities and food services.
Meanwhile, over half of the faculty members are now employed as underpaid part-timers with few benefits and little meaningful connection to the campus community.
The list of needed reforms is no doubt daunting for campus leaders – lowering costs; reorienting budget priorities; ensuring students’ health and safety; protecting the campus from sexual harassment, assault and hate crimes; and, yes, paying attention to ensuring freedom of speech by fostering civil discourse and debate.
In spite of these challenges, our colleges and universities remain our greatest hope to solve the complex issues we face. Here in Maine this includes the opioid crisis, providing affordable health care, the rapid warming of the Gulf of Maine, and preparing citizens for work in an age of automation and robotics, just to name a few. Tackling these issues should be front and center for our public and private institutions, and highlighting this aspect of their mission and their accomplishments could go a long way to restoring the public’s confidence in higher education.