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  • Political Bias on Campus:Understanding the Student Experience
  • Darren L. Linvill (bio) and Pamela A. Havice (bio)

The role ideology plays in the university classroom has been debated since the publication of Buckley's God and Man at Yale (1951). The Chronicle of Higher Education's Special Report (2004) found that more than half of United States citizens polled felt that U.S. colleges and universities improperly introduce a liberal political bias into the classroom. A number of states have proposed legislation aimed at increasing ideological diversity in state-supported institutions of higher education. The American Association of University Professors (2008) reported nearly two dozen such bills since 2004; and while none have passed, they illustrate the concern many have over the issue of politics-centered ideological bias in higher education.

Student populations have also felt the effect of this issue. Student groups such as Students for Academic Freedom and its parent foundation, The Horowitz Freedom Center, have advocated that students have the "academic freedom" to be exposed to a wide spectrum of scholarly viewpoints. Central to this group's mission is their proposed Academic Bill of Rights (Students for Academic Freedom, 2009). This document advocates for the purposeful promotion of intellectual pluralism in academia through curriculum development, funding given to invited speaker programs and student organizations, as well as the hiring and promotion of faculty. The Academic Bill of Rights has been modeled in much of the state legislation which has been proposed. While there is clear value in presenting students with a broad range of viewpoints and ideas, many feel that academic decision-making should be left solely to education professionals: Minnich (2006) writes that the risk to higher education in such legislation is that intellectual judgments may be "discredited wholesale as 'bias' and rendered irrelevant in favor of a mindless 'impartiality'" (p. 20).

Research Exploring Instructor Ideological Bias

One piece of evidence used by groups such as Students for Academic Freedom to support their position is that the professoriate is ideologically left-leaning. While non-peer reviewed research has suggested a much more disproportionate ratio (Horowitz & Lehrer, 2003), peer reviewed studies estimate approximately three liberal college faculty members for every one conservative (Gross & Simmons, 2007; [End Page 487] Zipp & Fenwick, 2006). Such research does not illustrate, however, that political ideology plays an inappropriate role on campus or has a significant effect on students' grades, beliefs, or learning outcomes. These issues have also begun to be addressed in the academic literature.

In a 4-year longitudinal study at one large public institution, Kemmelmeier, Danielson, and Basten (2005) found no evidence that conservative undergraduate students were being academically penalized by faculty. On the contrary, Kemmelmeier et al. found in some courses that traditionally attract conservative students, such as business and finance, conservative students actually had a statistically higher GPA, by 0.25 on a 4-point scale, compared to their liberal classmates. Mariani and Hewitt (2008) similarly found that students' ideology was not being affected by the college environment. Their research employed data from The Higher Education Research Institute's annual survey of undergraduates. Mariani and Hewitt found that while students were becoming more liberal during their college years, they do so at the same rate as their peers who do not attend college.

While no support has been found for liberal ideology affecting students' grades or ideology, the impact ideology has on the student experience is still in need of further research. Kelly-Woessner and Woessner (2008) explored the relationship between students' perceptions of their political science professors' ideological views and how those students rated their professors on evaluations. This research found that students reported putting more effort into a class when the instructor was politically similar to themselves. Students also reported higher levels of learning from politically similar instructors and reported less enthusiasm for classes taught by instructors politically dissimilar to themselves.

Another branch of research addressing the perception of political bias in the classroom has employed syllabi to gauge students' preconceived ideas of professors' teaching styles. Building off the work of Moore and Trahan (1997) and Ludwig and Meacham (1997), Anderson and Smith (2005) completed research employing syllabi to measure the effect of student and professor...