By Rudy Fenwick and John Zipp
As submitted to the Dayton Daily News
Over the last several months, conservatives have argued that universities are dominated by left-wing ideologues who suppress dissent and require a political litmus test for faculty and students alike.
Indeed, various state legislatures, including Ohio's, either have or are considering what has been called an "academic bill of rights," ostensibly to make room for conservative voices in higher education. Universities earn the public trust to the degree that they welcome all points of view. If they are the exclusive enclave of leftists and places where faculty use classrooms to push their ideology, public trust would dissipate and universities would lose their moral authority. Fortunately, despite the clamor, there is little evidence for either of these allegations.
The first claim that faculty are overwhelmingly liberal comes from two main sources. In 2002, the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture studied the voter registration of faculty members in economics, history, English, political science, sociology and philosophy in 32 elite colleges and universities, finding that registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a ratio of 10 to 1.
Similarly, Santa Clara University economist David Klein surveyed anthropologists, sociologists, economists, historians, philosophers and political scientists and discovered that there were at least seven Democrats for every Republican in these departments.
These data are surely not representative of American colleges and universities. The 32 selective schools are quite atypical, enrolling an extremely small segment of students. The departments surveyed also do not span much of the disciplinary breadth. Notably missing are science, business and engineering faculty, all of whom tend to be much more conservative than those in the social science and humanities.
Moving to the middle
Data from national, representative surveys from the Carnegie Foundation and from UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute of all academic disciplines and universities paint a different picture. Their results show that while more faculty identify their political views as "liberal" than "conservative," from 1997 to 2001 there has been movement from both ends of the political spectrum to the "middle of the road." Faculty seeing themselves as "liberals" declined from 58 percent in 1997 to 47 percent in 2001, "conservatives" from 22 percent to 19 percent. At the same time, those viewing themselves as "middle of the road" increased from 20 percent to 34 percent.
Conservative philosophers may feel isolated, but they are no lonelier than Marxist business school professors.
Not part of the job
Regardless of political ideology, do faculty members view their roles as promoting their ideologies?
Data from UCLA suggest not. In 2001, only 15 percent of faculty held influencing the political structure to be a very important or essential goal, a decline from 20 percent who felt this way in 1989. Contrast this with the 53 percent who valued becoming an authority in their field, or the 76 percent who sought to develop a meaningful philosophy of life.
In fact, the only two goals that increased (albeit by 1 percentage point) between 1989 and 2001 were "raising a family" (73 percent) and "being very well-off financially" (37 percent).
Ignored in the attacks on the political attitudes of faculty is a much more pernicious threat. It comes from the increasingly blurred line between the scholarly pursuit of knowledge and the commercial marketing of the fruits of that knowledge.
Colleges and universities always have served the commercial life of the nation by providing a well-trained work force, an educated citizenry and the scientific discoveries and innovations critical to U.S. economic success.
But what has changed during the past quarter century is the emergence of radically different types of academic actors ? the "entrepreneurial" researcher and the "commercialized" university.
Beginning with the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, which allowed universities to own their patents, top universities and many of their science and engineering faculty have entered directly into the marketplace as never before. Because this change also came at a time of declining government funding, virtually all major research universities began to see the acquisition and marketing of patents and licensing as necessary revenue streams. As reported by Tufts University professor Sheldon Krimsky, patents awarded to universities increased to 3,200 in 2000 from 95 in 1965.
Universities also have developed much closer ties to corporations. The Chronicle of Higher Education has noted that corporate giving to colleges rose from $850 million in 1985 to $4.25 billion by 1995. This commercialization has exacted a high toll on the objective pursuit of knowledge: Nearly 20 percent of life science professors delayed publishing their results for more than six months for "commercial" reasons.
Even more dramatically, a number of studies have shown that industry-sponsored research is much more likely to find conclusions favorable to the sponsor than are independent studies. For instance, while 94 percent of studies not funded by the tobacco industry found secondary smoke harmful, only 13 percent of research funded by the industry did so.
Conflicts of interest
The gathering storm threatening the academic integrity of higher education is not because its increasingly politically moderate faculty is imposing political litmus tests. Instead, the primary peril comes from serious conflicts of interest between universities as nonprofit organizations interested in the discovery and sharing of knowledge and universities as commercial enterprises that let profitability and marketability trump academic values.
Although this commercialism is more evident among medical, science, engineering and business faculty at research universities, the prospect of continuing declines in government support may encourage other institutions and disciplines to follow this path. In order to keep the public trust and retain their moral authority, we must keep universities from imposing an "economic" litmus test, whereby commercial viability replaces scholarly worth.