Conservatives have decried the hallowed halls of academia as a breeding ground for liberalism in America since the 1900s, but a new theory from Harvard University said this typecast is not because liberals become professors. It’s because conservatives don’t.
Harvard doctoral student Ethan Fosse and University of British Columbia professor Neil Gross collaborated on a paper released this month that poses the theory that academia “acquired such a strong reputation for liberalism and secularism that over the last 35 years, few politically or religiously conservative students have formed the aspiration to become professors.”
In an article in the New York Times, Gross and Fosse said many jobs have gender-specific typecasts. The Times uses the example of nurses, a field where less than 6 percent are men.
“The primary reason for the disparity is that most people consider nursing to be a woman’s career,” Gross said in the article.
Gender, economic and racial typecasting is common, so Gross believes that academia is just seeing a form of political typecasting. But School of Media and Public Affairs professor Janet Steele said she consciously makes an effort to keep her own biases out of her class, and feels that it is not her role to promote her own beliefs to students.
“You have a lot of power, but you have a whole set of professional norms,” Steele said of being a professor. For Steele, universities’ liberal reputation did not push her to be a professor. She said her love of books and a few inspiring professors at the College of William and Mary made her join the field.
For professor Anthony Yezer, he became a professor not because of his beliefs, but because he always enjoyed teaching.
“People just self-select in the fields,” Yezer said. “Even when I was in school, I was the person who enjoyed teaching other students – even back in elementary school.”
Yezer added that his ideas came from studying the government extensively.
“If you look at economics departments, you’re going to find a lot of conservatives. It’s kind of hard to be for big government if you study government in detail,” he said. “You become aware of how hopelessly inefficient it is.”
In 2005, a George Mason University professor compiled surveys from 1,643 full-time faculty at 183 four-year schools. He found that 72 percent of professors teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15 percent are conservative.
Political science professor Steven Kelts said while he tries not to arbitrarily discuss his own opinions in class, he sees no harm in exposing students to new ideas.
“Students who are concerned about this idea of liberal bias are so hypersensitive to it that they see any idea that is new or unfamiliar to them as liberal bias,” he said. “I think this whole idea that politics shouldn’t play a role in the classroom is a farce to begin with.”
According to a 2007 report by the American Association of University Professors, professors’ personal views and opinions have a rightful place in the classroom and can even encourage academic and mental growth.
“Vigorously to assert a proposition or a viewpoint, however controversial, is to engage in argumentation and discussion-an engagement that lies at the core of academic freedom,” the report said.
Despite Kelts’ attempts to keep his politics in the classroom balanced, however, he said he has received “heated” e-mails accusing him of having a liberal bias.
“It mystifies me, actually, when students complain about liberal bias as if they’re these wilting flowers who can’t stand to have an opinion stated in their presence,” he said. “There’s not some big conspiracy out there to corrupt the minds of the youth.”