Fact-checking DeVos: Do faculty members really tell students 'what to think'?

'Students aren't sponges,' researcher argues

Caroline Hopkins, staff writerCaroline Hopkins, staff writer

When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced to the Conservative Political Action Conference that college faculty "tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think," she was met with a mix of criticism (primarily from liberals) and praise and agreement (primarily from conservatives). The comment spurred a great deal of conversation from both sides of the political spectrum—are professors really forcing their political views onto students?

Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik reviewed previous research on the topic and found several overarching trends:

  • Students do not tend to conform to their professors' views;
  • Professors do generally lean left, but not overwhelmingly so;
  • Conservative professors are content in their careers despite being political minorities;
  • Conservative students are aware of their professors' liberalism, but are "surprisingly resilient" in their views; and
  • Right-leaning academics are generally not discriminated against in academia (in fact they tend to succeed).

The most comprehensive study Jaschik looked at, The Social and Political Views of American Professors, was based on a survey of 1,417 full-time faculty members in 2007. Though the survey took place nearly a decade ago, Jaschik points out that the circumstances were similar: "[The study] also followed a presidential election (George W. Bush's successful re-election bid vs. John Kerry) in which the incumbent was ridiculed by many campus activists."

Among many findings, the study discovered:

  • Overall, 46.1% of faculty respondents considered themselves moderate, compared with 44.1% of faculty members who considered themselves liberal and 9.2% who considered themselves conservative;
  • At liberal arts colleges, 61% of faculty respondents called themselves liberal, compared with 3.9% who called themselves conservative; and
  • At community colleges, 37.1% of faculty respondents called themselves liberal, compared with 19% of who called themselves conservative.

Some say college leaders should be more vocal about their political views

More recent research suggests faculty members' political identities vary widely based on factors like field of study, region, level of education. Additionally, the political identities students perceive faculty to have can depend on characteristics of the students themselves.

For instance, a 2016 study in Econ Journal Watch found that in economics, the ratio of Democratic to Republican faculty members was 4.5 to one, while in history, the ratio jumped to 33.5 to one.

Other recent studies have found:

  • Professors in New England are much more  likely to lean liberal;
  • Individuals with graduate education are much more likely to lean liberal; and
  • Students with a sense of entitlement and an obsession with their GPAs are more likely to accuse their professors of ideological bias. 

Best practices for advancing faculty diversity

Pulling from a study in the 2012 book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, Jaschik quotes Matthew Woessner of Pennsylvania State University, who says, "Students aren't sponges... for every one student who is actively recruited to a leftist political cause, a vast majority complete their education with their values largely intact" (Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 2/27).

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