Two friends of mine, one of whom was my colleague for several years, Matthew Woosner and April Kelly-Woosner, have published an exhaustively researched book, The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education, and several thoughtful essays on higher education. Although it is impossible for me to present their detailed work in a few short paragraphs, I would like to mention some of their findings that may be of general interest. Note their documentation comes from an extensive North American Academic Survey Study, covering 4,000 respondents, 1,600 of them students. The study was conducted by their now deceased collaborator, Stanley Rothman, along with Everett Ladd and Seymour Martin Lipset. The database for this work therefore came from three of America’s most respected sociological researchers, and the Woosners’ conclusions are so heavily documented that it would be hard to refute them.
One, most incoming college students have already well formed political opinions, thanks to the media, public education, peer pressure and (perhaps to a lesser degree) parental influence. The power of the faculty to sway these students is therefore extremely limited. Although most academics stand well to the left of the general population, their effect on the young is relatively insignificant. The one issue on which students will eventually become more conservative than their professors is their right to make money without having to hand over most of it to the government. Free-market arguments play better with students about to enter the workforce than traditional social values, which most of them couldn’t care less about.
Two, Republican professors feel less bullied by their colleagues than Republican critics of academic intolerance would have us believe. Most of the Republican academics who were polled express positive feelings about their work situation. But certain additional factors must be considered. Republican professors generally hold more or less the same social views as their colleagues and students. They are also clustered in the hard sciences and business and rarely found in the liberal arts. Moreover, like most Republicans, these professors are willing to go along with those in authority. These are the faculty members who are least likely to make waves. And those are my impressions of almost all Republicans I have known in higher education over the last forty years. Feisty would be the last word that comes to mind in describing them, especially the ones who begin conversations with the phrase: “The (Wall Street) Journal said this morning.” Libertarians and real right-wingers are another story.
Three, ideology is a common denominator for the faculty and administration. On financial questions, the two are hopelessly apart. The faculty always craves bigger bucks, while administrators want to keep the nest egg for themselves or spend it on non-salary-related operational costs. Each side considers the placing of money in its hands to be the highest form of respect for human learning; presumably throwing money at the other side doesn’t do as much for education. Given what unites and divides, it would seem that administrators who stress ideological unity and appeal to leftist slogans are diverting attention from internal differences. This may explain the perpetual push for Political Correctness on many campuses, a tactic that creates good feelings between administrators and faculty. Needless to say, neither side would recognize any limit as to how far the public should be taxed to pay for state-funded education. According to the Woosners, the money already received is never quite enough.
Four, colleges that emphasize research, rather than being “teaching institutions,” do not shortchange the customers. Students do better when they’re around practicing scholars. That is certainly not because these professors adopt more innovative teaching methods or have better power points but because they model learning. Colleges that present themselves as teaching schools do not typically attract the most qualified learners. Those who opt for a less pampering environment are usually more serious about traditional college studies; and they do not require hand-holding. The depiction of research- oriented faculty as totally indifferent to students in no way corresponds to my impressions. My children and I studied with scholar-professors and appreciated their instruction, partly because they were not trying to be “sensitive.”
Five, students do in fact react to professors in terms of whether they think they’re on the same page, but the evidence here is not always straightforwardly expressed. Political disapproval may be registered in an indirect way, for example, when students say they just don’t feel comfortable with a particular instructor. There is also the tendency for students to give congenial professors the benefit of the doubt. They will project on to those professors they like their own views.
On one small point I may have to differ from my brilliant young friends. They, or those who helped prepare their survey, sometimes use “Republican” and “conservative” interchangeably. As someone who answers to the second but not to the first, I’m not sure the two terms are identical. To their credit, however, the Woosners also examine the social, religious, and economic differences among faculty and students, and their data point to deep ideological disparities. But those disparities on social questions seem less widespread than I would have believed.