Political professors

Some years ago when I was Head of a university department I received a letter from the father of one of our students, complaining about one of my colleagues. The lecturer in question had, in the course of his lectures, allegedly told the class repeatedly that only socialism provided a satisfactory answer to society’s political, economic and cultural issues. My correspondent claimed that the lecturer had on several occasions urged his students to read books by Karl Marx (though these were not directly relevant to his course), and that on one occasion he had urged the class to vote for the Labour Party in a then imminent election. This, he suggested, was unacceptable conduct for a lecturer and an abuse of his position, and he demanded that I take action.

On investigating I found, as you might expect, that there was some disagreement about the facts, but the lecturer agreed that he had argued that socialism provided a satisfactory political frame of reference and had urged the students to read more about it; he said he had done this because most of them appeared to be largely ignorant of any political perspective other than a free-market capitalist one. He denied ever having urged anyone to vote Labour, but conceded he had mentioned that this is what he himself habitually did.

I should perhaps emphasise first of all that I do not accept, as is sometimes argued, that universities are full of left-leaning academics who indoctrinate their students. I suspect that the distribution of political opinions is much more balanced, and may even lean somewhat towards the centre-right position in politics. The question however is whether an expression in class of a political opinion by an academic – whatever that opinion may be – is acceptable. Needless to say, this is connected with questions of academic freedom, though it is more complex than that. Indoctrination – if there were such – cannot simply be justified in that way.

In the event, I did not find that my colleague had done anything that was clearly unacceptable, though he may have sailed close to the wind. On the whole, I would take the view that where a professor states his political perspective they will be able to alert students to their own potential bias and invite the statement of balancing views. But that may not be terribly relevant if your subject is organic chemistry. And what if the statement of political views takes the form of advocacy, or might to listeners appear to take that form? Is it acceptable for an academic to seek to persuade students of the merits of partisan political views? Or is it even acceptable to argue for a particular ideological position without reference to parties?

I am not sure what the answer to this is, even today. I am uneasy about political advocacy hiding behind academic freedom, but then again I would regret a higher education culture in which academics were constantly having to self-censor; students are mature people who should be able to handle political, philosophical, economic and social views. After all, should we have told Hayek or Hobsbawm that their views had no place in the academy? I don’t think so.

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24 Comments on “Political professors”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I suspect if the same letter was received at an Oxford College a PFO would have been sent by return, if that. The same would hold for all the Russell Group.
    I remember -at UCG- after a first year lecture in Greek Classics some Rugby type said he wasn’t returning as to his ‘mind’ the Professor was advocating homosexual love.
    ‘Republicans don’t do that sort of thing’.

  2. copernicus Says:

    In my experience of over 30 years as an academic in British universities, the majority of academics here do have left-leaning bias, many are vocal Labour Party supporters, and those I have known without exception voted Labour, and they are the ones who are opposing the tuition fee increase now do strongly. I reminded them that their Labour Party was the first to introduce tuition fee for universities a few years ago on the srength of the Scottish Labour MPs whose constituents do not pay any tuition fee, and that Gordon Brown commissioned Lord Browne report-chose this person as he is a supporter of Labour Party. When I see the mealy-mouthed Labour opposition spokespersons condemning the current government introducing the increase in tuition fee, I want to remind these opposition spokepersons how enthusiastically they supported the tuition fee increase just last year led by Mr Denham the current Labour Shadow Business Secretary. The academics who support Labour Party and who are so vocal as posters in THE blogs become silent when these uncomfortable questions are asked. I never detected any concerted lobbying from the English Labour MPs, many of whom simply abstained when voting took place at the time Labour government introduced the tuition fee with Scottish Labour MPs majority. It appears the Left cannot do anything wrong.

    In Scotland these days, one cannot escape the overtly left-leaning SNP influence or the left-leaning Labour influence among university academics. So your support to tuition fee Ferdinand, will be a red rag to those raging lefttist academic bulls!!

    • Copernicus, you wrote: ‘In my experience of over 30 years as an academic in British universities, the majority of academics here do have left-leaning bias’.

      I’ll need to dig out the details, but a poll of academics taken in Britain four or five years ago found that nearly two-thirds were Conservative voters. This may be obscured somewhat by the fact that in those subjects where the expression of political views might be more prominent (generally in the humanities and social sciences) the position may be different.

      • copernicus Says:


        As always I go by my experience which is vast as I worked in universities ranging from RG to post-92s. I know the polls you mention and other polls asked questions to elicit a certain type of response. Polling organisations like You Gov whose CEO, Peter Kellner’s wife is a Labour Party member and now EU commissioner for Foreign affairs, IPSOS Mori, a Labour-leaning polling organisation etc.. Indeed, I have often been contacted by these polling organisations and the questions they suggest tend to refelct leftist opinion.
        “I’ll need to dig out the details, but a poll of academics taken in Britain four or five years ago found that nearly two-thirds were Conservative voters..”
        Given most academics belong to an union, I cannot believe this conclusion.

        • There is no connection whatsoever between belonging to a union and political leanings. The trade union leadership may be leftwing, but as we know that doesn’t translate at all into membership perspectives. In the 1980s a majority of UK union members voted Conservative. It’s been up and down since then, but there is never a coherent political direction amongst trade union members. Most of them are there for self-protection, not ideology.

        • copernicus Says:

          I do not trust guardian at all knowing that it talks with a forked tongue.

        • anna notaro Says:

          Could not agree more with Ferdinand’s point about the lack of connection between belonging to a union and political leaning.
          Also why am I not surprised at Copernicus’ distrust of the Guardian, the opposite would have been a surprise! 🙂

  3. copernicus Says:

    When I did my graduate studies in USA, my research thesis advisor was (and he still is) a staunch Republican-and the support he gave me- a centrist, was exemplary. Even after I moved to academia and visited US from time to time, he was always the same kindly soul, although he knew that my political-thinking if there was one was not aligned to his. Even today, I can count on his support/help. As for homosexuality, I have seen as many homophobic lefties as I have seen in the right-of-centre democratic parties. In Australia , the current Labour-led government has its reservations about gay marriage, and gay issues and the leader the PM -Julia Gillard’s and her colleagues’ reservations about gays incensed so much that the Finance Secretary, Penny Wong, an open lesbian, and an appointee of Gillard, has severely criticised her own PM, her advisors, and the party.

  4. anna notaro Says:

    @’ Is it acceptable for an academic to seek to persuade students of the merits of partisan political views? Or is it even acceptable to argue for a particular ideological position without reference to parties?’
    I think we should not be confusing politics (and its meaning of ‘affairs of the polis i.e. the state) with the issue of affiliation to a political party. Education is not about indoctrination, still we cannot leave the ‘affairs of the state’ we care about outside the lecture theatre. Nowadays the ‘polis’ is increasingly a global one, hence the same concept of politics needs to adapt…Here is a personal example: there are (political) issues I care about, such as the exploitation of workers (often children) in developing countries for the benefit of Western consumers eager to buy cheaper goods which are relevant when I discuss the concept of ‘commodity’ in my lecture on Art & Commerce…combining politics with education is not only possible but desirable, I would say..

  5. It is far better that a person’s political perspective is out in the open and then that person can strive to be impartial and be seen to do so. This is an issue for all communicators and not just for academics and teachers. The problem is less to do with a lecturer who is open and more to do with with someone who thinks that they are simply relaying “information”. It was mocked many years ago in relation to media with, “Here is the news from nobody’s point of view!”

  6. copernicus Says:

    Some left wingers are already here. Why look elsewhere!

    • copernicus Says:

      Lack of connection between unions and left-wing political parties? There is no ideology.? Come on, that is, flawed observation. 1980s. when Maggie Thtacher was in power and when the coal miners went on strike, and the union members voted conservative? Well, well! In Britain Labour Party was born out of unions. TDExcept in Blair’s period , Labour was driven leftwards by unions.

      As for Guardian, people do not know how it is run, and what it says and how different its ethos are. Well, I am not going to argue with leftists, for whom what it says is gospel truth.

      Ferdinand, when you take charge of RGU as CEO, let us share our experiences after you let the RGU academics know that you support tuition fee!

      • anna notaro Says:

        Thanks a lot for the label of ‘leftist’, it is meant as an insult but it is not the way I receive it, incidentally as a critically minded human being/academic I don’t take anything as ‘gospel truth’, not even the Gospel..

    • Al Says:

      Its getting a little much watching this judgement of people as right or left winger by what they write here.

      Alot of people are still working out where they stand on alot of issues, and Life will present its paradoxes and our hypocracies to us in due course.

      Personally, I find myself being both and am trying to enjoy ironing out the creases to reveal my political robes.

  7. kevin denny Says:

    Economics is normally a pretty dry, some would say dull, subject, nothwistanding some of my colleagues’ newfound fame. So to get students engaged, its natural to talk about particular policies. And its generally easier to talk about policy errors. So in an Irish context, that pretty much means criticising Fianna Fail.What else can one do?
    An added complication is that there’s a reasonable chance that some TD’s kid is in the class.

    • Al Says:

      So true
      I think the students let me rant at this stage for my own health….
      As long as one doesnt have a monopoly on expression..

    • Just Fianna Fail? I could make a good economics case against every government over the past 3 decades…

      • kevin denny Says:

        I didn’t say “just” but since 1932 how often have they not be in power? We have no way of knowing how the others would have behaved if they were in power.
        My point anyway is that its easy to appear partisan just by trying to be topical. Occasionally I have got grief from students about it and I’m inclined to think “Stuff this, I will stick to my equations”.
        Students are pretty good at sniffing out bs so I think as long as the instructor is clear about what is opinion and what is fact thats fine.

      • Ferdinand,
        Go ahead and do that. Write a complete history of Ireland’s economic policies. No matter how you look at it, the utter stupidity of a carefully created property bubble will not be rivalled.

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