Posted tagged ‘academic political bias’

The political academy?

September 1, 2011

At a function I attended a little while ago a fellow guest expressed the view that public money given to universities was too often spent on disseminating partisan political views. It was no secret, he suggested, that universities were dominated by academics with left-wing views, and that these academics were being paid to indoctrinate impressionable students. I asked for an example of this dangerous phenomenon, and he proceeded to name a lecturer in the university from which he had graduated, and who is indeed a socialist. I pointed out to my fellow guest that, in the same university department at that time, there had been three lecturers with well known conservative views. Ah, but you can’t count those, he said, not entirely logically.

In fact, allegations of political bias in universities, and left-wing tendencies in particular, are not particularly new. In the European tradition, it was argued during the Weimar Republic in Germany that the faculty in some of the best known universities were often socialists. A little later, in 1968, French and German universities in particular became hotbeds of socialist agitation, starting with students (led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Rudi Dutschke in particular) but with active support from some professors.

More recently again, in 1982 in Britain the retired Oxford historian, Lord Beloff, alleged that the Industrial Relations Research Unit at the University of Warwick had a left-wing, pro-trade union partisan agenda; and the dismissal by its staff of that allegation may not have been helped when, apparently, a letter of support arrived asserting that ‘any attack on the Industrial Relations Research Unit is an attack on the whole trade union movement’.

And these allegations continue: in 2007 it was argued at a conference of the American Enterprise Institute that ‘universities are tilting to the left’ with a ‘growing liberal bias’.

For anyone wishing to establish such a case there is of course the tricky issue of academic freedom, under which the right of professors to hold and publish any opinions (or at any rate, all those that do not transgress laws, including those relating to incitement to hatred or discrimination) is seen as sacrosanct. And there may just also be the problem that the overwhelming majority of key writers and thinkers who, from the mid-20th century, espoused conservative or right-wing views also came from a university background: Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman are two obvious (but not isolated) examples.

The problem may be that, in certain academic departments, it is likely that the political frame of reference of a professor would inform their specialist views on their subject. For example, notwithstanding what may sometimes be claimed, economics is not an objective science, but rather the application of particular perspectives, some of which will have an ideological foundation. But if you are working in a non-academic job, while you may hold ideological views your work will not normally involve your expressing them. But then again, the same is true of much academic work: on the whole we never hear what political views, if any, your Professor of Chemistry holds.

Those who remember me from my teaching days will, I suspect, recall that I often expressed political opinions, some of them strongly. I no longer hold some of these opinions, but I have no regrets about expressing them back then. In fact, it produced – I think – a good basis for lively discussion and the expression of contrary opinions, which I believe I encouraged. The only thing that is required is that the lecturer in question is up front about their perspective and shows a willingness to hear and discuss other frames of reference, making it clear to the students that any argument that is well expressed and properly documented is a good argument.

I am not saying that academic freedom cannot be abused, or indeed that universities should not be vigilant to ensure that the expression of political or other views does not involve or lead to indoctrination. But I doubt very much that much damage is being done by political bias in universities; and in any case I would find it hard to be sure what direction any such bias might take.