The Democratic affiliation of an overwhelming number of Cornell’s government professors is neither evidence of bias nor inherently disadvantageous to students, according to the department’s chair. After all, he says, Cornell’s government professors are academics who study politics from a primarily theoretical standpoint.
“We’re professional political scientists, so we study political science as an empirical science,” department chair Prof. Nicholas van de Walle, government, said. “We’re trying to render a more scientific study of politics, so we all have a kind of distance that means we don’t have very engaged conversations about politics. Maybe that’s curious, but that’s true.”
Of those registered to vote in Tompkins County, only one Cornell government professor is registered as a Republican, compared to 21 Democrats, according to the Tompkins County Board of Elections. But that disparity is not a problem, according to van der Walle.
“I don’t feel like [Cornell’s government professors are] particularly engaged in the election. I think we could be criticized for not being engaged in civil exercise rather than for being overly engaged in it in a partisan way,” van der Walle said. “I would suspect you have much more overt political conversations in the math department than in the government department.”
But Raj Kannappan ’13, a government major and former chair of the Cornell Republicans, said the liberal slant of the department’s faculty is clear. It is obvious, he said, that the majority of professors in the department lean to the left of the political spectrum — and he can usually tell “right off the bat” within the first few days of a course where the professor stands on most issues, whether or not the professor intended to disclose their politics to the class.
“Obviously, I don’t expect them to be robots — they have their own views and that’s completely fine. Sometimes I almost wish they’d just be more open about it,” he said. “It becomes very hard for me to take the professor credibly as a fair and impartial scholar.”
Van der Walle and others maintained that government faculty are careful to ensure that their personal opinions do not color their conduct in the classroom.
“No doubt that political biases may come out, but it’s a pretty strong professional norm that you wouldn’t impose your views on students,” he said. “I’ve been here for a little over a year, and … I’m aware of no [formal] complaints [of bias] that have been registered to the Dean’s office or to my office as chair.”
Catherine Reyes-Householder grad echoed van der Walle, saying that while she would be very surprised to hear a government professor say he or she would vote for Gov. Mitt Romney — “it’s sort of understood that people [in the department] vote for Obama” — those views are not imposed on students and do not undercut the quality of education faculty members provide.
Reyes-Householder said she understood how it might be difficult for a student coming from a Republican background to arrive at Cornell and get the sense that the overwhelming majority of faculty lean to the left. But learning to agree to disagree is part of the undergraduate experience, she said.
Kannappan conceded that engaging in intellectual debate with professors can be educational — “but sometimes it’s nice to have someone who agrees with you,” he added with a laugh.
Kannappan added that what he sees as a uniformity of perspectives within the department manifests itself in more indirect consequences for students. For one, a lack of conservative viewpoints among University faculty can be a detriment if it restricts the opportunity for students to hear all possible ideas about a particular topic, he said.
For instance, Kannappan said that based on his personal observations, the majority of government professors would agree that some degree of redistribution of wealth benefits society. While they might differ on the level and application of redistribution, none are likely to disavow the idea entirely, he said.
“There are not going to be professors who think redistribution is bad for society,” Kannappan said. “The disagreements [between Cornell professors] on these issues is marginal — they’re not fundamental differences.”
For government majors seeking an academic mentor, then, the dearth of Republican professors can be limiting, Kannappan said.
“Students from a particular race, ethnicity, background, if they have a professor with that same background, they have someone to talk to. For many conservative students, that can be hard to find,” he said.
Recruiting intellectually diverse faculty has come up in conversation within the government department, van der Walle said. But he added that there is no formal mechanism for it in the hiring process.
“In a regular [faculty hire] search, any kind of diversity is not discussed formally … It would be considered really inappropriate at a job interview to ask someone what their politics were,” van der Walle said. “We’re interviewing someone this week and I have no idea how they’re voting in this election. It just would be considered inappropriate to talk about.”
Prof. Isaac Kramnick, government, added that potential hires are evaluated on the “analytical” rather than “ideological” merits of their research and writings. The lack of Republican professors in the department is the result, more often than not, of a paucity of conservative candidates applying for academic positions, he said.
“There are no Republicans not because we are biased against conservatives and turn them down when they apply for a job in the department. In fact, at job interviews, the politics of the applicant never comes up,” Kramnick said. “The reason we have no Republicans is that young Republican men and women are less likely to go into academic life than liberals.”
Still, Kramnick lamented the disparity in political party affiliation among the department’s faculty. Although he too emphasized that professors at Cornell make every attempt to keep their personal biases out of the classroom, he added that students and the University at large do “suffer from the absence of conservative perspectives on campus.”