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The Real Bias in the Classroom

The Real Bias in the Classroom

Inside Higher Education

Much of the debate over the Academic Bill of Rights has concerned the
claims of conservatives that students are punished by liberal professors
for deviating from some sort of ideological orthodoxy.

There may be political bias in the classroom, but headed in the other
direction. A new study — soon to be published in PS: Political Science &
Politics — finds that students are the ones with bias, attributing
characteristics to their professors based on the students’ perceptions
of their faculty members’ politics and how much they differ from their own.

The authors of the study say that it backs the claims of proponents of
the Academic Bill of Rights that students think about — and are in some
cases concerned about — the politics of their professors. But the
authors also say that the study directly refutes the idea that students
are being somehow indoctrinated by views that they don’t like. “Students
aren’t simply sponges,” says April Kelly-Woessner, part of the
husband-and-wife team of political scientists who wrote the study.
Further, she adds that the study suggests that not only do students not
change their views because of professors, but may even “push back” and
judge professors based on politics, not merit.

The study — which will be presented this week at a legislative hearing
in Pennsylvania — ends with a strong call for professors to be willing
to present ideas that may upset some students. “College is not Club Med.
As instructors, we ought not to refine our pedagogy exclusively for the
purpose of making students comfortable or improving course evaluations,”
write Kelly-Woessner, who teaches at Elizabethtown College, and Matthew
Woessner, who teaches at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg.

The couple will present the results of two papers based on a survey of
1,385 students in political science courses at a variety of public and
private institutions. The students were asked a series of questions
about their views of the politics of their professors, their own
politics, and various other qualities that they attributed to the

In the second study, currently under review for publication and not yet
being released, they found that students experience “indirect effects”
from having professors with significantly different politics from their
own. In what the scholars call a “partisan difference variable,”
students give less “source credibility” to professors with different
views. They are also more likely to characterize professors with
different politics as “biased or uncaring.”

Liberal or conservative isn’t the key factor, Kelly-Woessner says; the
real disconnect comes in the difference between the views of student and
professor. “It’s pretty much the same either way,” she says. “The thing
that matters is the difference between them.”

In the research being published in PS: Political Science & Politics,
findings included the following:

* Most students feel confident that they know their professors’
political inclinations and that they are not hidden. Asked if they knew
their professors’ leanings, 15 percent said that they were “positive,”
32 percent said that they were “very confident,” 40 percent were
“somewhat confident,” and only 11 percent were “not at all confident.”

* Students considered 77 percent of their professors to be left of
center, and 7 percent right of center. (While the authors of the
students didn’t verify that the professors indeed held those views, they
note that such findings would be consistent with other surveys of the
profession.) While more students in the survey identified themselves as
liberal than as conservative, the split was such that the student body
in this study was more conservative than the professors — as perceived
by students.

* Professors who students think are conservative are generally rated
more favorably by students on whether they present material objectively.

* Professors who students think are liberal are generally rated more
favorably by students on whether students are encouraged to present
their own viewpoints, whether grading is fair, whether the learning
environment is comfortable, and whether they care about the success of

As for the politics of the authors of the study, Kelly-Woessner said
that both she and her husband do not want to take a public stand on the
Academic Bill of Rights so that their testimony is not prejudged by the
lawmakers, who have been holding hearings prompted by the legislation.
On politics generally, she said that her husband is a conservative
Republican, but that she is “a little fuzzier,” in that “on some issues
I go left and on some issues I go right.”

She periodically surveys her students to ask them what they think her
political views are and they are generally divided or unaware — and she
likes it that way.