The Myth Of The Liberal Campus

This week has not been great for free speech in the U.S. The Trump administration excluded certain news outlets from an informal briefing with Sean Spicer, Republican lawmakers across the U.S. have been introducing bills aimed at curbing protesting in at least 18 states, and Betsy DeVos decided to reinforce the dubious argument that universities currently pose a threat to free speech. In her words, she claimed that “The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”

This is not a new argument, nor is it factual, but it is one that has gained an inordinate amount of support from many on the left and on the right. The right has been waging a campaign against “liberal academics” for decades and opposition to political correctness has proven to be a highly effective political strategy. The myth of the liberal campus functions as a broad generalization that paints all college campuses as bastions of liberal indoctrination without accounting for the differences and diversity in those institutions. This myth is particularly dangerous in that it diverts our attention from actual threats to some forms of speech on college campuses while serving as a useful tool for those who wish to divest in public education. What follows is a list of the current arguments that serve as the foundation for the myth of the liberal campus and an analysis of why their validity should be questioned.

Argument: “Liberal Faculty Members are Using Classrooms to Promote Their Agenda

One of the assumptions in the myth of the liberal campus is that simply because one has progressive values they therefore teach progressive ideologies. Nicolas Kristof laments the fact that so few Republicans are represented amongst faculty on college campuses, but this presumes that one’s party affiliation correlates with how one might teach math or science or english. A chemist who voted for Clinton or Sanders isn’t necessarily going to teach a “progressive” form of biochemistry, yet we assume because someone is a Marxist or a progressive, they are necessarily teaching in their discipline using that lens.

Secondly, this presumes that all faculty members, even when the very nature of their discipline is political, are able to speak freely on these issues without fear of consequence. Given that most college faculty do not currently have the tenured protections of academic freedom, most professors are unlikely to even engage in any sort of political conversation for fear of termination or student retribution. Untenured faculty on the campus where I teach are fearful of discussing anything that could even be perceived as “political” for fear of termination. This chilling effect prevents even general discussions related to that which could be seen as political and therefore partisan. This fear has only increased with the knowledge that conservative groups are openly encouraging students to videotape their professors to try and “catch them” in the act of so-called indoctrination.

And, as many of us who teach in higher education know, due to massive budget cuts across across the nation, universities more heavily rely on adjunct and graduate student labor to try and save money. Kevin Birmingham notes that, “Tenured faculty represent only 17 percent of college instructors. Part-time adjuncts are now the majority of the professoriate and its fastest-growing segment. From 1975 to 2011, the number of part-time adjuncts quadrupled. And the so-called part-time designation is misleading because most of them are piecing together teaching jobs at multiple institutions simultaneously. A 2014 congressional report suggests that 89 percent of adjuncts work at more than one institution; 13 percent work at four or more.” And, as Trevor Griffey points out, “The vast majority of college faculty in the United States today are ineligible for tenure.”

Given the fact that most classes around the country are taught by adjunct professors who have no job security and even less academic freedom in the classroom, even if that professor despised Donald Trump or conservative ideologies, what is the likelihood that she would actually engage in a 30 minute Trump bashing rant simply because she either has the platform or the captive audience? Entirely unlikely. Yet again, when we generalize about “all faculty,” we fail to discern between who actually has the power and privilege to go on such a rant at all, let alone discuss anything that could be perceived as “political” in nature.

Lastly, this presumes that simply because one teaches in higher education, they aren’t actually a professional capable of divorcing their own political ideologies from their work. The progressive academic advisor is still capable of giving her students advice on transfer opportunities without delving into the political subject of the day in the same way the conservative math professor is capable of teaching calculus without telling students who he voted for in the last election.

Argument: “Look At What’s Happening At Berkeley!”

Those who criticize the free speech problem on “all college campuses” tend to routinely point to those campuses that make headlines like Berkeley or Yale. The reality is that the small number of campuses making headlines aren’t actually reflective of most institutions of higher education. According to Jonathan Zimmerman, author of “Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press, 2016) “There are over 4,000 places to get a B.A. in the United States. And most of them look nothing like the colleges that you see on TV, or — if you’re from the upper middle class — like the one you attended. Those of us in that class assume that you start college when you’re 18, that you live as well as study there, and that you graduate in four years. But most of our students don’t fit those patterns at all. Half of all undergraduates attend community colleges, which are rarely residential and serve an enormous range of age groups.”

As with most mainstream corporate news coverage, that which is the most sensational makes headlines. But most campuses don’t look anything like Berkeley or Yale. My campus rarely makes headlines unless we’re asked to reduce more services to students due to funding cuts. But those stories of how my students lack advisors or mental health counseling because the state continues to cut millions from our budget aren’t as juicy as Milo Yiannopoulos getting yelled at by Berkeley protesters. These stories simply do not reflect the experience of many students, yet serve to reinforce only the most negative of stereotypes. My students are kind and tolerant but they’re also adults and don’t shy away from difficult conversations. Most of my students work 2 or 3 jobs. They are parents and grandparents—many of them the first in their families to pursue a college degree. If you truly think all college students are entitled snowflakes, I have a hard time believing you’ve ever met one. Sadly, however, these types of students aren’t the ones getting airtime.

Argument: “Universities Silence Conservative Speech and Ideologies”

One of the primary narratives surrounding campus speech is that universities are hypocritical since they claim to value diverse voices but actively work to silence conservative leaning speech or ideas. What this argument fails to point out is how conservative legislators and watch groups have been actively targeting what they consider “leftist” or “radical” views on campuses for decades. If those on the right claim to support all speech from all groups as a bedrock of freedom, why restrict or target certain types of speech? As Jason Blakely argues, “One of the more troubling examples of this is the attempt to stigmatize certain professors through the website ProfessorWatchList.org, which compiles lists of professors that purportedly need to be monitored due to their ‘radical agenda.’ This website professes to ‘fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish’ but at the same time it publicly isolates professors whose perspective is seen as offensive or shocking to conservative students. Through the use of this website students can now know before they ever walk into their college classrooms if their professor is too ‘radical’ to take seriously (or perhaps even too radical to take the class). At best the website serves as a massive ‘trigger warning’ for conservative-leaning students; at worst it is a modern Scarlet Letter.”

This also ignores patterns of attempts by conservative lawmakers to try and legislate whose voices get heard on college campuses. In Iowa, Senator Mark Chelgren proposed that universities gather voter-registration data for prospective instructors to ensure a “balance of conservative voices on campus.” In Wisconsin, as Donald P. Moynihan writes, “At least three times in the past six months, state legislators have threatened to cut the budget of the University of Wisconsin at Madison for teaching about homosexuality, gender and race. . . . At the University of North Carolina, the board of governors closed a privately funded research center that studied poverty; its director had criticized state elected officials for adopting policies that he argued amounted to ‘a war on poor people.’ Amid broader budget cuts here in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, without warning or explanation, tried to yank all the state funding for a renewable energy research center. On both private and public campuses, instructors who discuss race, gender, class, reproductive rights, elections or even just politics can find themselves subjected to attack by conservative groups like Media Trackers or Professor Watchlist. Faculty members in public institutions also have to worry about the possibility of having their email searched via Freedom of Information law requests. The ultimate audience for such trawling is lawmakers, who set the rules for public institutions. Indeed, a Media Trackers employee whose job included writing negative profiles of Wisconsin professors recently took a position with a state senator who likes to attack universities as being unfriendly to free speech.”

Finally, this argument assumes all viewpoints are equally valid and good. The reason UW-Madison faculty criticized the state Department of Natural Resources for scrubbing its website of language that stated human activity is causing climate change isn’t because those faculty members are tree-hugging lefties who hate jobs, but because human influence on climate is supported by sound peer reviewed evidence. The reason you won’t find climate change deniers working in ecology departments on college campuses is because that idea does not hold up to scrutiny and hard evidence. As Caroline Levine argues, “Say what you want about professors, but we spend our lives pursuing the truth. This means relentlessly interrogating what we think we know, and pushing ourselves to ask questions that feel, even to ourselves, uncomfortable. We insist on evidence and logic to support our claims. All of our publications are subject to rigorous peer review by experts around the world. We can’t win tenure unless the most respected people in the field confirm that we have produced original and valuable knowledge. We are not paid by lobbyists. We do not earn more or less money if we take one position rather than another. And so we’re free to explore unpopular hypotheses, and some of these turn out to be true.”

Yes, instructors demand that students use evidence to support their ideas. Yes, we demand that that evidence not come from the first website you may have stumbled on in your initial Google search. But that’s a very different argument than saying faculty discriminate between conservative and liberal ideas. In my class, I ask my students to conduct library research and to use peer reviewed data so that they are making claims based on the best evidence—not simply a topic that aligns with my personal worldview. And this is where we tend to conflate “evidence” with “liberal ideology.”

As Bill Hart Davidson writes, “Ironically, the most strident calls for ‘safety’ come from those who want us to issue protections for discredited ideas. Things that science doesn’t support AND that have destroyed lives — things like the inherent superiority of one race over another. Those ideas wither under demands for evidence. They *are* unwelcome. But let’s be clear: they are unwelcome because they have not survived the challenge of scrutiny. The resistance I see is from people who can’t take that scrutiny and who can’t defend their ideas. They know it. They are afraid of it. So they accuse us of shutting them out. They can’t win, and so they insist the game is rigged. The answer is more simple: they are weak. Bring a strong idea — one accompanied by evidence — and it will always win. That’s the beauty of the place where I work. Good ideas thrive. Bad ones wither and die, as they should.”

In this “post-truth” era of fake news and “my YouTube video is just as credible as your peer reviewed journal article,” we must support those who are regularly pursuing truth and knowledge for the sake of pursuing truth and knowledge and challenge the false assumption that “teaching critical thinking” is the same as “liberal indoctrination.” This means supporting the few areas in the U.S. where this type of work is still happening, one being on college campuses.

Argument: “The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think”

This is perhaps, I think, the most egregious claim of them all for it essentially presumes that students are so gullible and incapable of free thought, professors can shape their minds and turn them into bots in mere seconds. This line of thinking comes mostly from those who have never taught in a college classroom or who have never actually interacted with a college student. And this is where I would welcome anyone of any political stripes to come and sit in on my classes. My students are brilliant. They work hard, they are kind, and they are capable of thinking for themselves. My job is to get them to think critically; my job is not to tell them what to think. My job is to teach them to question the validity of sources, to learn how to conduct research, and asking them to question authority, even if that “authority” is me.

I am incredibly proud of the fact that I regularly have students of all political backgrounds enrolling in my classes semester after semester because they know they will be treated with dignity. Last year I won the teaching excellence award on my campus, an award voted on by the student body and given to an instructor of the highest caliber every year. I note this not because I enjoy bragging about my accomplishments but because I, like most everyone I work with, takes such great pride in teaching well and making sure every voice and every student in our classes feels valued—even if those students are white supremacists or Holocaust deniers. We go to extraordinary lengths to make sure we don’t stifle speech in our classes, but that we do create an environment where students must engage with each other civilly. If demand for civility and evidence based reasoning is “liberal indoctrination,” then yes, I am guilty of that.

So what has changed and why should we worry? Years of divestment in public education and the demonization of intellectualism and expertise has created a culture in which we need people who can teach critical thinking skills now more than ever yet those same people are routinely painted as enemies of the state. Arguments about faculty as “thought police” on college campuses only reinforces the narrative that these institutions no longer serve the public and that they are no longer a public good. The myth of the liberal campus allows legislators to threaten to withhold funding from institutions where they feel their voices aren’t getting a fair shake. And when legislators pit “taxpayers” against “university faculty” (forgetting faculty employed by the state are, in fact, also taxpayers) we set up a system whereby politicians can argue that states need not fund higher education since these institutions are just imposing liberal agendas in their classrooms. This not only defies logic but also reality. If liberal professors were so good at indoctrinating students, how did Trump outperform Clinton by a 4-point margin amongst white college graduates? If liberal indoctrination were real, how did Betsy DeVos make it through college without adhering to a radical political agenda? Sadly, for many, this reality doesn’t matter. What matters is only the illusion that liberal campuses are real, that they are un-American, that those who work there hate free speech and expression, and that they serve no use to anyone. When enough citizens believe this to be true, asking states to invest in education will be impossible.

If you are truly worried about the state of college campuses, visit one. Come to my classes. See for yourselves the level of thoughtful debates and dialogues that happen in most classrooms. But please, stop demonizing faculty and students based on crude stereotypes. This is a dangerous fiction, one created by those who see no value in public education and who don’t actually care about the welfare of students on these campuses. These discussions serve as a distraction from the real threats to higher education and we all need to do a better job of dismissing them as such.

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