Column: Campus liberal bias: not convinced

By Matt Simmons

Complaints of a liberal bias in academia have picked up with a lot of fervor recently. Such complaints are akin to a liberal complaining about a conservative bias in the military or in evangelical protestant churches. Nevertheless, as a senior majoring in two of the most politically charged disciplines on campus, political science and sociology, I feel the need to comment on the nature and scope of this bias.

I have not seen one case of discrimination or intolerance towards conservative students or ideas in any of my political science classes here at the University. In fact, I am sure that several of my liberal professors give more weight to conservative positions than liberal ones for fear of being charged with a liberal bias by conservative students. Political science professors do a great job of hiding their biases. Many times, I cannot even tell the political beliefs of my professors due to their ability to remain objective.

I will admit that there are some symptoms of a liberal bias on campus. The discipline of sociology is dominated by people who fall on the liberal side of the American political divide. The majority of students that major in sociology recognize themselves as liberal as well. Fellow students have jumped all over me for supporting so-called conservative ideas such as free trade. I have heard professors make irrelevant anti-Bush, anti-Republican comments. However, I can only recall one case where I believe a professor graded students partly on how much they agreed with her left-wing view of the world. In spite of that, I still do not believe that there is any significant, widespread discrimination against conservatives on campus. Every case of anti-conservatism I have seen was either too inconsequential or a very isolated occurrence.

The claim that students in either of those fields here at the University receive lower grades because of their political beliefs is patently false. In fact, I would question all claims of an institutionalized liberal bias because they are mostly supported by anecdotal evidence. Yes, it could be possible that conservative students receive lower grades than liberals, but that can also be explained without blaming a liberal bias.

A study done last year by Markus Kemmelmeier, a sociologist at the University of Nevada at Reno, suggests that there is no evidence of liberal bias. In the study, Kemmelmeier looked at nearly 4,000 students over four years at a large public university. He controlled for SAT scores, GPA, gender, race and ethnicity to eliminate the possibility of other forms of grading bias confounding the data.

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Kemmelmeier made three key findings that contradict the idea of a liberal bias. First, liberals take classes in fields that focus on social justice issues such as sociology, while conservatives take classes in fields such as economics and business. All students in fields that conservatives tend to choose have lower grades than students in fields that liberals tend to choose. Second, in disciplines that tend to attract liberal students, a student’s political beliefs were not related to the grades they received. Finally, in disciplines that tend to attract conservative students, conservatives got better grades than their liberal counterparts.

Also, the claim that conservative college faculty members are less likely to be promoted because of institutional discrimination is faulty. Correlation does not mean causation. Just because conservatives are less likely to be promoted does not mean they are less likely to be promoted because they are conservative. It could be the case that people that start out as conservative become increasingly liberal as they progress through their education.

We need to stop looking at scholarship in terms of a liberal-conservative dichotomy. The vast majority of academics know that good, innovative ideas will help them achieve their professional goals. It would be decidedly against their interests to not consider all possible ideas, even ones that are deemed conservative. If there were some huge stockpile of ignored good ideas, innovative academics would find it.

Matt Simmons is a senior in LAS. His column appears on Fridays. The DI would like to congratulate him on his acceptances to Harvard and Stanford Law Schools. He can be reached at opinions@daily illini.com.