Published January 14, 2015
Conservatives complain that college professors lean left when it comes to politics — and the data mostly show that's true. But new research suggests the personal politics of academics have little effect on what their students think.
The research, to be published later this year in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics, analyzes separate surveys on the attitudes of about 6,800 students at 38 universities and how they changed between freshman and senior year. Then it examines whether those results are affected by the political attitudes of the faculty at their particular schools.
The short answer is no, according to researchers Gordon Hewitt of Hamilton College (an active Democrat) and Mack Mariani of Xavier University (who has worked for Republicans).
It's true that schools with more liberal faculty tended to attract more liberal students. But on the question of how students' views evolved, there was little impact, Hewitt said in a telephone interview Thursday.
About 60 percent of students didn't change their political outlooks much during college. Those that did moved slightly to the left, but the change mirrored that of 18-to-24 year-olds generally. There was no apparent boost from attending a school with a particularly liberal faculty.
The broader debate is an extraordinarily contentious one. Research, including recent work by Daniel Klein of George Mason University, confirms what anyone who hangs out on most college campuses could tell you — academics are generally more liberal than the overall population, particularly at elite institutions, and in the humanities and social sciences.
The phenomenon at elite schools attracts the most attention. According to the Center for Responsive Politics' Web site OpenSecrets.org, employees of Harvard University and their family members have contributed a combined $363,000 to the Democratic presidential campaigns of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has received under $10,000.
Explanations for academia's political tilt vary. Conservatives tend to blame discrimination and indoctrination, saying academic culture purges out views it doesn't like. Others contend it's self-selection — that liberals have personality traits that make them more likely to go into academia.
The research doesn't explain why students resist imitating their professors' views.
"It could be the faculty in general take their profession seriously, and that even though they identify themselves as politically liberal, they're very professionally oriented and their pedagogy does not reflect these biases," Hewitt said. Or, maybe faculty "are in the classroom trying to indoctrinate (students) with their views, and the students don't take the bait," he said.
There's another possibility, too — students just don't listen to what their professors have to say.