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Politics of Professors
by Rudy Fenwick and John Zipp, the U. of Akron Thursday, Feb. 24, 2005 at 2:00 PM

Why the reasons for Ohio Bill 24 (so-called "academic freedom" reform) is the wrong focus, and why universities are NOT stacked full of leftists.

Over the last several months, conservatives have argued increasingly that American colleges and universities are dominated by left-wing ideologues who suppress dissent and require a political litmus test for faculty and students alike. George Will claimed that academics express diversity in everything but thought. ABC’s World News Tonight (February 1st) echoed this complaint, lamenting that colleges are bastions of liberal thinking. Indeed, various state legislatures either have or are considering what has been called an “academic bill of rights,” ostensibly to make room for conservative voices in higher education.

Universities earn the public trust to the degree that they welcome all points of view. If instead, universities are the exclusive enclave of leftists and places where faculty use classrooms to push their ideology on students, public trust would quickly dissipate and universities would lose their moral authority. Fortunately, despite the clamor from conservatives, there is little evidence for either of these allegations.

The first claim that faculty are overwhelmingly liberal comes from two main sources. In 2002 the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture studied the voter registration of faculty members in Economics, History, English, Political Science, Sociology and Philosophy in 32 elite colleges and universities, finding that registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a ratio of 10 to 1. Similarly, Santa Clara University economist David Klein surveyed anthropologists, sociologists, economists, historians, philosophers, and political scientists and discovered that there were at least 7 Democrats for every Republican in these departments.

These data are surely not representative of American colleges and universities. The 32 selective schools are quite atypical, enrolling an extremely small segment of students. The departments surveyed also do not span much of the disciplinary breadth – notably missing are science, business, and engineering faculty, all of whom tend to be much more conservative than those in the social science and humanities.

Data from national, representative surveys from the Carnegie Foundation and from UCLA‘s Higher Education Research Institute of all academic disciplines and universities paint a much different picture. These data show that while more faculty identify their political views as “liberal” than “conservative,” from 1997 to 2001 there has been movement from both ends of the political spectrum to the “middle of the road.” Faculty seeing themselves as ”liberals” declined from 58% in 1997 to 47% in 2001, “conservatives” from 22% to 19%; at the same time, those viewing themselves as “middle of the road” increased from 20 to 34%. Conservative philosophers may feel isolated, but they are no lonelier than Marxist business school professors.

Regardless of political ideology, do faculty members view their roles as promoting their ideologies? Data from UCLA suggest not. In 2001, only 15% of faculty held influencing the political structure to be a very important or essential goal, a decline from 20% who felt this way in 1989. Contrast this with the 53% who valued becoming an authority in their field or the 76% who sought to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. In fact, the only two goals that increased (albeit by 1 percentage point) between 1989 and 2001 were “raising a family” (73%) and “being very well-off financially” (37%). These are hardly the opinions of a cadre of 1960s and 70s “anti-American” radicals as many conservatives have claimed faculty to be.

Ignored in the attacks on the political attitudes of faculty is a much more pernicious threat to the academic mission of the university. This threat comes from the increasingly blurred line between the scholarly pursuit of knowledge and the commercial marketing of the fruits of that knowledge. Colleges and universities always have served the commercial life of the nation by providing a well trained work force, an educated citizenry and the scientific discoveries and innovations critical to U.S. economic success. But what has changed over the past quarter century is the emergence of radically different types of academic actors – the “entrepreneurial” researcher and the “commercialized” university.

Beginning with the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, which allowed universities to own their patents, top universities and many of their science and engineering faculty have entered directly into the marketplace as never before. Because this change also came at a time of declining government funding, virtually all major research universities began to see the acquisition and marketing of patents and licensing as necessary revenue streams. As reported by Tufts University professor Sheldon Krimsky, patents awarded to universities increased to 3,200 in 2000 from 95 in 1965 (New York Times, September 23, 2003).

In addition to acting more like commercial enterprises themselves, universities have developed much closer ties to corporations. The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 15, 2004) noted that corporate giving to colleges rose from $850 million in 1985 to $4.25 billion by 1995. This commercialization has exacted a high toll on the objective pursuit of knowledge: nearly 20 percent of life science professors delayed publishing their results for more than six months for “commercial” reasons. Even more dramatically, a number of studies have shown that industry-sponsored research is much more likely to find conclusions favorable to the sponsor than are independent studies. For instance, while 94% of studies not funded by the tobacco industry found secondary smoke harmful, only 13% of research funded by the industry did so.

The gathering storm threatening the academic integrity of higher education is not because its increasingly politically moderate faculty is imposing political litmus tests. Instead, the primary peril comes from serious conflicts of interest between universities as non-profit organizations interested in the discovery and sharing of knowledge and universities as commercial enterprises who let profitability and marketability trump academic values. Although this commercialism is more evident among medical, science, engineering and business faculty at research universities, the prospect of continuing declines in government support may encourage other institutions and disciplines to follow this path. In order to keep the public trust and retain their moral authority, we must keep universities from imposing an “economic” litmus test, whereby commercial viability replaces scholarly worth.

Rudy Fenwick (fenwick@uakron.edu) is the Chair of the Faculty Senate and John Zipp (jzipp@uakron.edu) chairs the Department of Sociology at the University of Akron.

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