The liberalization of students during college is a well-documented trend. So are professors being overwhelmingly liberal. These leanings provide some serious ammo for conservatives criticizing higher education. According to common arguments, right-leaning students are discriminated against, are afraid to speak out against liberal causes such as affirmative action, etc.
But a new study, presented recently at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting, finds that, while some campus conservatives feel pressured and discriminated against, many do not. The researchers, Amy Binder and Kate Wood of the University of California-San Diego, conducted extensive interviews at two schools often attacked by conservatives for liberal bias. For the report Binder and Wood tritely refer to the two institutions as “Eastern elite” (a small, liberal arts college) and “Western public” (a large state school). Conventional wisdom would indicate conservatives feel more comfortable at a larger state school than a smaller private one.
Surprisingly, Binder and Wood found the opposite.
The conservative students at Eastern elite were under no illusions that they were anything but an extreme minority — and the institution’s reputation is such that some were discouraged by friends back home from even enrolling. But almost uniformly, they were happy. They identified their professors as being liberal, but admired them nonetheless.
Many students, the researchers reported, had heard about such possible liberal biases, but had never experienced it personally. Things were different at Western public.
At Western public, in contrast, many conservative students did feel that they were the victims of bias in interactions with students and faculty members. The research focuses on student perceptions, not the reality of what went on in the classrooms. So Wood said it wasn’t clear whether the bias actually took place, but she said that the researchers wanted to see why it was that some students perceived fairness and challenge, while others felt a bit abused.
So what made Eastern elite conservatives feel differently than Western public conservatives?
- Pride in their institution. “They saw their peers — liberals and conservatives — as future leaders of the country.”
- Close relationships with liberal faculty. “They viewed their faculty members as professionals, as experts in their fields, as people who would never be biased” based on a student’s politics.
- Certain majors, for the most part, are equally popular with conservatives and liberals
- Eastern elite made switching to different classes at the beginning of a semester easier than Western public. “It’s not that they left classes they signed up for, but the knowledge that they could try something and change their minds was reassuring.”
The researchers concluded that, to create a more comfortable academic atmosphere, professors should work to promote “community and civility” in political discussions.
This study is interesting because, instead of externally assigning positions on the political spectrum, the respondents themselves identified themselves as such, as is appropriate for a survey of perception. The comments section is filled with interesting responses and is worth a skim.