The Bias Fallacy

Do those who complain about liberal bias in higher education have any actionable point at all?
By Darren L. Linvill

Critics of the politicization of higher education claim that political partisanship in the classroom is pervasive and that it affects student learning. Although the existence of such partisanship has not been empirically proven, allegations of bias are perennial and have made headlines several times over the past year. Claims of liberal bias in higher education were even incorporated into the party platform ratified at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. The platform states, “Ideological bias is deeply entrenched within the current university system. . . . We call on State officials to ensure that our public colleges and universities be places of learning and the exchange of ideas, not zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the Left.” In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution argued that “a culture of politicization has developed on campus in which department chairs and deans treat its occurrence as routine.” Such claims of bias are based largely on anecdotal evidence. Research has failed to show a link between faculty ideology and any specific student outcomes.

Berkowitz’s claim was based in part on the findings of the April 2012 report by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California. The report, which has received substantial media coverage, gives supposed evidence of a partisan influence in the composition of both the faculty and the curriculum. The report attempts to connect this “politicization” of higher education to several national studies that have claimed that our current system of higher education is failing to give students basic skills and civic knowledge.


Education or Indoctrination?

The NAS report is arguably more comprehensive than reports from various concerned organizations that have made similar claims over the past decade. It makes the same basic errors in logic as previous studies, however. Ultimately, the report does not illustrate a direct causal relationship between institutional politicization and specific student outcomes; it shows only correlation. The burden of proof rests with those critics who are calling for institutional change, and that burden has not yet been met.

The NAS report bemoans the political orientation of the faculty. Of course, while the ratios may be disputed, there is no doubt (and it likely comes as no surprise) that university professors are predominantly liberal. Critics have put forward various reasons for the political leanings of the faculty. Some say the hiring process is biased; others posit social or psychological reasons. Yet a liberal professoriate does not necessarily result in a liberal classroom. While many educators are liberal, most are also professionals whose main goal is to educate, not to indoctrinate. Regardless of their personal political beliefs, they should be able to judge a student’s argument on the basis of its demonstration of critical thinking.

To show that liberal ideology does have an impact on the classroom, critics often cherry-pick their examples, particularly when examining course descriptions. The NAS report pulls descriptions from the University of California, Berkeley, course catalog, including the description for History 7A, The United States from Settlement to the Civil War, which lists among the course’s goals “to understand how democratic political institutions emerged in the United States in this period in the context of an economy that depended on slave labor and violent land acquisition.” The NAS report claims that such a description shows “a zeal to preach a jaundiced view of the nation to a captive audience and convert it to [the professoriate’s] radicalism.” While this course description does have an obvious left-leaning perspective, reading this or any other course description tells you little about student-teacher interaction in the classroom.

Cherry-picked examples are weak evidence of any pervasive, nationwide assault by educators on pliable young minds. No truly randomized, peer-reviewed, qualitative examination of the expressed ideology of course descriptions has taken place at Berkeley or any other institution. Such a study might find course descriptions with biases from multiple ideological perspectives. (A cursory examination of Berkeley’s business administration course offerings shows a clear, though understandable, bias for courses based on the principles of market ideology; the department has no classes covering, for example, collective enterprise ownership or management of worker cooperatives.) A national study would likely show a predominance of far more mundane descriptions than those highlighted in the NAS report, descriptions such as Berkeley’s Political Science 104, Political Parties: “The institutional environment within which American politics takes place. Concept and history of parties in the American context: their nature and function, origin and development. Party organization and structure. State, national, and local party systems and their variations. Nominations and elections. One directed research paper will be required.”


Student Reports of Bias

The most common and most emotionally charged form of evidence used to establish the existence of partisanship in the classroom comes in the form of student reports. Here, again, evidence is cherry-picked. My research has attempted to understand the phenomenon of instructor ideological bias from a student perspective and how students respond to the perception of such a bias. I have spent several years exploring the student experience with partisan bias at a large southern institution and have heard students offer terrible indictments of individual instructors. One student told me that she heard “all these things that I know personally are not true, or at least half the story. It was just that was all that was going to be said, and so it’s frustrating.”

I know from my discussions with students that a student’s classroom experience can be affected when he or she sees the instructor as biased. One student told me of an instructor he disagreed with ideologically, saying, “You feel like you’re in the corner, you feel like you’re the underdog.” The NAS report gives a number of comparable quotations from students and relates more stories of classroom experiences with instructors perceived to be ideologically inflexible.

These stories are often used in an attempt to show that instructors are commonly treating their students as captive audiences in order to “proselytize for [their] political obsessions.”

However, I had to search diligently to find examples of student experiences of bias. I heard stories of conservative as well as liberal ideological bias. Some students seemed to confuse ideological bias with what may simply have been bad teaching. I did not hear sweeping judgments of students’ college experiences: those students who were eager to speak to me wanted to share experiences they had with professors rather than commonplace classroom experiences. The stories of bias I heard during interviews were memorable to the students and worth relaying specifically because they were not everyday experiences. Ultimately, student experiences solicited by researchers (either me or the NAS), however compelling, tell us a limited amount about how pervasive these experiences are, how much they influence students, and how they should be addressed.

No peer-reviewed, data-driven studies exist that explore how common the experience of instructor partisan bias is nationally. Even if such data did exist, my research suggests that it would be difficult to evaluate. Further research I conducted with my colleague Joseph P. Mazer has shown that a variety of individual student traits increase the likelihood that students will attribute faculty behavior to ideological bias. Specifically, students who are strongly tied to their beliefs, students who express low levels of reflective thinking, and students who are verbally aggressive are all more likely than their peers to perceive an instructor as ideologically biased. In other words, some perceptions of bias may be in the eye of the beholder. This finding has implications for both how we view the phenomenon of classroom ideological bias and how we address the issue.

If professors are trying to indoctrinate students, they have not been particularly successful. Research conducted by Mack D. Mariani at Xavier University and Gordon J. Hewitt at Hamilton College has found that students on average do become slightly more liberal during their college years but that they do so at the same rate as their peers who do not attend college. Using national data from the Higher Education Research Institute, Mariani and Hewitt also found that political orientation does not change at all for most students during the four years of college. For those whose orientation does change, factors unrelated to faculty ideology (including gender and socioeconomic status) seem to contribute to the change.

Research also calls into question anecdotal accounts of instructors penalizing students with conservative viewpoints. Markus Kemmelmeier of the University of Nevada, Reno, along with Cherry Danielson and Jay Basten, conducted longitudinal research on four thousand undergraduate students during their four-year college experiences and found that students with conservative views make the same grades in most classes as their more liberal peers. The only exception was in business classes, where conservative students did slightly better.


A Simple Remedy

The NAS report recommends structural reforms and significant changes in faculty and administrative composition. Such changes, as I see it, are solutions to a problem with an unknown prevalence and a questionable impact on students. However, regardless of whether the alleged politicization of the classroom is real, the perception of bias can and should be addressed—but not for the reasons that the NAS report claims or entirely in the manner it suggests.

By moving discussion away from suggestions of institutional reforms and back toward certain fundamentals of higher education, we may be able to achieve two goals simultaneously. Students can be equipped with skills that enable them to engage better and more appropriately with faculty and their fellow students who invoke partisan arguments. These skills would also diminish the potential for falsely attributing professors’ classroom behavior to partisan bias and would reduce its potential impact, perceived or real.

Central to meeting these goals is teaching argumentation, a skill essential to personal growth and one that my research has shown can benefit students who perceive ideological bias. Students and faculty alike must learn to understand where to expect disagreement on a topic and how then to engage in a civil discussion. Vital to that discussion is the ability to differentiate between argument and verbal aggression. Personal attacks, whether from faculty members or students, can never be a part of a classroom dialogue and must be avoided or, if necessary, dealt with firmly.

A good place to practice these skills is in the civics classroom. In fact, both supporters of higher education and critics of its possible politicization (including the NAS) have called for more universities to make civics education foundational in their curricula. Civics education today is largely absent at many major American institutions. Argumentation and civics literacy go hand in hand, and there is no better place than the classroom for engaging in partisan discussions and for learning to approach potentially difficult and contentious questions in a civil manner. Civics should be brought back to the standard undergraduate general education curriculum. Such a move would have benefits not only for the students and society but also, by mitigating perceptions of bias, for academia.

Sometimes the simplest remedies are the best. Critics of a “politicization” of higher education have for years called for the issue to be addressed from the outside, in ways that would inevitably result in both a weakening of academic freedom and added red tape. Perhaps there is a longer-term and more elegant solution, one that lies at the heart of what higher education is all about: learning and teaching how to learn, how to reason, and how to communicate.


Darren L. Linvill is assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Clemson University. His research focuses on issues related to higher education, including both classroom and institutional communication. His e-mail address is [email protected].