April 16, 2003

C.U. Debates Liberal Bias

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With the focus of the diversity debate centered around racial issues, some members of the Cornell community have voiced their dismay over the lack of attention to promoting a campus open for ideas.

In a Mar. 28 Sun column, Joe Sabia grad claimed that most professors have a “liberal bias” and this bias disables the University from promoting diversity of ideas.

Sabia wrote about a personal experience, in which he claimed that three staff members were using their positions to institute their antiwar sentiments in an open, nonpartisan forum about the war on Iraq and to criticize his prowar views.

Sabia said that alumni reacted angrily to the faculty members who were quoted and used in his article, and that he also received criticism from the accused staff. The professors, Prof. William Trochim, policy analysis and management (PAM), Prof. Liam O’Neill, PAM, and Prof. Karl Pillemer, human development, decided not to comment for The Sun.

“I’m not saying they are bad men,” Sabia said. “They just have a liberal bias.”

Even though the article’s content is disputed, Prof. Richard Baer, natural resources, asserts that the debate over the amount of ideological diversity needs to be addressed by the administration.

Baer claims that certain departments such as government are predominantly liberal, citing that there is only one conservative, Republican professor in that area of study.

“In many areas, students aren’t exposed to important ideas,” he said. “For example, black studies are usually not interested in bringing in black conservative scholars.”

Baer, who has written many articles concerning this topic, said that the source of the problem comes from a power struggle among professors. During the post-Vietnam era, he said, liberal faculty gained tenure and are now the main party in power.

Sabia said that because of the supposed biases, professors present only one conclusion to students which he personally considers as “advocacy” and not “scholarship.”

“If we don’t have educators to show both sides [of an issue], it’s a concern for everybody,” Sabia said.

Even though Sabia and Baer think that much work needs to be done, other administrators think that professors do a sufficient job of facilitating discussion. Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate education and a professor in the government department, claims that speakers who have come to the University have been an equal mix of liberals and conservatives. He added that “it’s a joke to say that to be a democrat is to be a leftist,” in reference to Baer’s observation of his department.

“The number of hard-core leftists [is] not larger than the number of hard-core conservatives,” Kramnick said.

Kramnick does acknowledge that many University professors are typically liberal, but said that it is not an important factor.

“I think there may well be a liberal bias, but I think its impact is nowhere near as dramatic or frightening as [Sabia] suggests,” he said. “One of the things that marks a liberal is [a] commitment to allow free speech and diversity of ideas to flourish. Historically, it’s the conservatives who had problems with diversity and free speech.

Even though the University’s official policy is to maintain political neutrality, it also wants faculty members to have their own views, according to Prof. J. Robert Cooke, dean of faculty.

Cooke said that professors are expected to “think deeply about issues” and “exhibit intellectual honesty and integrity in their scholarship and teaching.”

“A sensitive aspect of our disagreements can be the perceived difference in power when these disagreements occur between faculty and students or faculty and staff,” said Patsy Brannon, dean of the college of human ecology. “We must find ways to encourage open discussions of disagreeing perspectives that are safe for all in expressing their ideas.”

Baer said that there is much hypocrisy in the University concerning its mission on diversity. He said that by not providing students with a full education, the University is breaking its obligation to the individuals and state who help endow the colleges.

“My guess, it’s not going to change unless the alumni and students protest to the institution,” Baer said.

Brannon, who received responses from faculty members about Sabia’s article, sent a letter to her college, asking that University members respect ideological differences between different parties. Her college’s diversity committee has also discussed ways to stimulate discussion around campus, although she admits that there is still much to be done.

“I think that Cornell needs to promote discussions of diversity of all types, including political and personal beliefs, even more than the University already does,” Brannon said.

Baer believes that conservative professors and religious scholars from a Christian perspective would be a welcome addition to colleges around the nation, by providing important ideas for American culture.

“I’m not saying that conservative ideas are right, but they ought to get into the marketplace,” he said.

Yet, Cooke said that the idea of hiring faculty members based on political and ideological views is a stance that the University rejects, and personally “would find such a proposition quite distasteful — and even dangerous.”

“[Faculty] should get hired for the merit of their scholarship and not according to a political litmus test. I don’t think that a liberal professor spends his or her time training liberal disciples,” Kramnick said.

Even with these contrasts in opinions, Baer thinks that although faculty might have more background on topics, they have no “ill will” in discussing issues with students.

“I believe that students have great freedom to express their views, even if they hold views that differ from those of the instructor,” Cooke said.

Students such as Joe Downing ’04 said that much depends on the professors and how much they are willing to discuss issues.

“I get the feeling that some are [willing to discuss ideas], but a lot could be more open than they are,” he said.

Some students such as human biology major Michelle Manarina ’05 are unaffected by professors’ biases. She said that many of her classes are science-based and concern the evaluation of data and articles.

According to Chris Keenan ’04, professors ,for the most part, do a positive job in presenting both sides of an issue. However, he would be cautious to disagree with a faculty member.

“As tough as it sounds, these are the people that are grading your papers or tests. Based on the academic situation, it’s not a good move to disagree with a professor,” Keenan said.

Archived article by Brian Tsao