Students should really be concerned with professors’ textbooks, not checkbooks

By Jonathan Jacobson

Before this winter break, when I was still a reporter, I worked on a story investigating presidential campaign contributions made by professors, administrators and trustees at the University.

All campaign contributions over two hundred dollars are tracked on multiple public databases in the wake of campaign finance reform, so I didn’t exactly have to part the Red Sea to discover what I did: Of the 40 or so people connected to the University who made contributions, the overwhelming majority emptied their pockets for Democrats.

The results were startlingly clear, though not particularly surprising or controversial. The conventional wisdom is that colleges and universities are bastions of liberal thought and, God forbid, leftist professors tainting the nation’s youth with their tweed jackets and honey-sweet rhetoric.

Reporting from the traditional viewpoint – that is, asking around to see whether anyone was upset by the one-sided Democratic love-fest – I realized that the story was a bit dull. It felt like it had been written a thousand times, and I couldn’t seem to find a new angle.

For this reason, and another involving a failed hard drive and an under-staffed Best Buy Geek Squad, we never ran the story. But the data, a sampling of which is presented here, still begs some questions.

For one, are we as students being subjected to an education slanted by a political ideology? Do our professors damage our education with an allegiance, albeit a silent one, to a certain candidate or party? Does my statistics teacher’s unhealthy obsession with John Edwards’ impeccable hair mean I will somehow be unable to understand standard deviation?

These questions – with the exception of that last one – are the ones addressed by any article even remotely similar to the one I was going to write two months ago.

But I’m glad I never wrote it.

I’m glad because I think that it is an insult to our intellectual abilities, independence and individualism to say that our professors’ politcal leanings can dramatically influence our beliefs. I believe that we have enough autonomy over our own thought processes to avoid accidental osmosis of someone else’s opinions.

The argument posed to me by conservative documentarian Evan Coyne Maloney, who directed the incredibly-relevant-to-my-column film “Indoctrinate U,” was that students need to know on which side of the proverbial aisle their professors stand. I agree, and that is why I believe that publishing this list is important. Public disclosure of public information is not the issue.

The rub lies in the interpretation of the data, since the results are so skewed in one direction. When I first started to put together a list in late November, I found that roughly 90 percent of the more than $25,000 in contributions made by members of the University community went to Democratic candidates like Obama, Clinton and Edwards. The minuscule remainder was distributed across the Republican smorgasbord.

As students, we can kick and scream along with Maloney, arguing that our teachers are “indoctrinating” us, that we are helpless against their partisan principles seeping into our syllabi.

But the truth is that most teachers, like most people, know how to balance their lives. They know how to keep their politics separate from their work, just like Jimmy over at Home Depot is not going to give you bad advice about how to refinish your deck because he gave 200 bucks to McCain.

It’s true that a political science professor’s campaign contributions are more relevant than his counterpart in the mathematics department, but ultimately any political science student should be ultra-sensitive to any real or imagined classroom bias.

Our teachers are in their profession to impart knowledge and to help us ask more, not fewer, questions. There is an expectation of trust in this educational relationship, but I don’t believe that campaign contributions in either direction violate that agreement.

The most important part about our education is, and always will be, ourselves. As rational creatures – most of us, at least – we have the power to decide who and what will influence us. No sweet-talking, bearded Zen professor is going to turn me into a Buddhist unless I want to be one. And no beautifully logical, flaxen-haired economics teacher will convert me into a Communist unless I decide to adopt Mao’s Little Red Book as my bible.

We have all the agency in our education, and we need to start thinking that way.

These numbers are not a revelation about a secret plot happening just beneath our feet to subvert Republicans and conservatives on campus. They are not about embarrassing professors or arming students with information about their rebellious teachers.

I just think you deserve to know.

Jonathan is a senior in english and rhetoric and, on his salary, is more concerned about avoiding eviction than putting his money where his mouth is.

A sampling of political donations by University personnel

Name Candidate Amount

Pres. B. Joseph White Obama $1000

Board of Trustees

Lawrence Eppley Obama $500

James Montgomery Obama $2300

Robert Vickrey Romney $1000

David Dorris Edwards $4600

Devon Bruce Clinton $400

Obama $1000

Niranjan Shah Obama $2300

Professors

Ira Carmen McCain $900

Jeffrey Brown McCain $300

Dale Brashers Clinton $375

Anna Marshall Edwards $500

J. Steven Beckett Obama $1000

Sumie Okazaki Obama $300

Anju Seth Clinton $2300

Richard McAdams Edwards $608

John Lynn Obama $250

Stanley Ikenberry Obama $1000

Sources: Federal Election Commission (FEC.gov), The Huffington Post’s FundRace 2008 and Congressional Quarterly

For an updated list of University-related campaign contributions, check out DailyIllini.com