For some time now, critics of higher education in the United States have claimed that many U.S. colleges and universities are centers of liberal thinking.
Politically conservative observers argue that the information college professors present to students is unbalanced in its representation of the world. Some conservatives argue that this represents an effort by liberal educators to push young people towards supporting their beliefs.
However, a new study suggests that professors are not the problem when it comes to influencing the political beliefs of college students. It shows that school administration officials often are, in fact, the more liberal members of the higher education community.
The study was a project of Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. Abrams, who identifies himself as politically conservative, reported his findings in October.
Abrams worked on the study with the researchers at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Together, they asked 900 school administration officials from across the country about their political beliefs. Some of these officials work at colleges or universities that receive public money; the others are with private schools.
The researchers chose to question school administrators who deal directly with students and their day-to-day activities on campus. The study found that about 71 percent of those questioned identified themselves as either liberal or very liberal. Just 6 percent said they were conservative. In 2014, Abrams led a similar study which found that half as many professors self-identified as liberal as did school administrators.
Liberal politics at work on campus
Abrams argues that U.S. higher education must permit acceptance of all kinds of beliefs and ways of thinking. Otherwise, colleges and universities will no longer be places that welcome meaningful debate, exploration of ideas and the search for answers to the worlds’ problems.
Some professors may have strong political beliefs, he says. But almost all of them are trained to present different sides of issues in a balanced way and let students form their own opinions.
That is not the case for school administration employees, says Abrams. And in the end, administrators dealing with student life have a big influence on students and their experiences in higher education.
“Students only spend a few hours a day at most in their classes,” Abrams told VOA. “They spend an inordinate amount of time, however, in student spaces, in social spaces, in…group spaces, and in residence halls and dining halls.”
Abrams notes that the officials he spoke to for his latest study are mainly involved in shaping the student experience in these spaces. They help new students find a sense of community with others on their campus. They create programs to help students celebrate cultural traditions, become active in social causes, and inform them about how to stay healthy, for example.
But the problem is, this programming far too often only relates to liberal causes or ways of thinking, Abrams says. He is critical about open discussions of sexuality, or representations of the free market economic system as being evil. Students are left feeling unwelcome if they hold conservative opinions on such issues, he says.
Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, which represents thousands of school administrators. He argues that Abram’s research misrepresents the relationship between students and school officials.
Kruger notes that it is part of an administrator’s job to make all students feel welcome. Also, most of the events on any given college or university campus are student led. Money from students and their families pays for such programs, and student-led groups are the ones organizing them.
So, for the most part, it is the students themselves who are in control of deciding what programming takes place.
“I think we’re underselling…the intellectual rigor of our students to think that we can indoctrinate them during college,” Kruger said. “I think it sells short the actual ability of our own students to engage in dialogue and make their own mind up on the basis of facts.
Kruger argues that there is no active effort to make campuses more liberal. If anything, the reason there are more liberal administrators is because schools are trying to make their campuses more diverse. In doing so, they want to employ officials who have experience dealing with and supporting underrepresented populations. And support for groups like transgender students, for example, is usually linked to liberal political beliefs, he says.
The effect of a lack of political diversity
Rick Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy and research group. Hess agrees that student diversity is very important. But he suggests school officials cannot only support diversity in terms of gender or race.
“What do we mean by diversity? Is diversity a bunch of people who look different but think alike? That doesn’t actually strike me as in any sense…meaningful diversity in higher [education],” Hess said.
In October, a separate study of 800 U.S. college students found that 54 percent reported feeling afraid to express their opinions when they disagreed with other students. Hess links these concerns not just to the majority of programs for students. He notes that some schools have permitted students to demonstrate against and even silence conservative speakers who visit their campuses.
As a result, students who disagree with the values expressed at a given event feel silenced in much the same way.
Hess and Abrams agree that colleges and universities must employ officials who have experience supporting different beliefs and finding common ground. Otherwise, students may fail to develop the ability to see the value in opinions other than their own. In addition, conservatives will become less interested in giving financial support to higher education. And, both of these things, they warn, will be harmful to the nation as a whole in the future.
I’m Pete Musto. And I’m Dorothy Gundy.
Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
campus – n. the area and buildings around a university, college, or school
inordinate – adj. going beyond what is usual, normal, or proper
residence hall(s) – n. a place where students live at a college or university
rigor – n. the quality or state of being very exact, careful, or strict
indoctrinate – v. to teach someone to fully accept the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of a particular group and to not consider other ideas, opinions, and beliefs
engage in – p.v. to do something
dialogue – n. a discussion or series of discussions that two groups or countries have in order to end a disagreement
diverse – adj. made up of people or things that are different from each other
transgender – adj. of or relating to people who feel that their true nature does not match their sex at birth