November 17, 2008

Profs’ Beliefs May Not Affect Student Views

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It is generally accepted that college students are more liberal thinkers than the rest of the population, but this trend is often associated with the stereotype that far-left professors proselytize their students with liberal views.
However, a recent study of nearly 7,000 students at 38 institutions published in PS: Political Science and Politics, the journal of the American Political Science Association, suggests that professors do not influence the views of college students. Though people in the 18 to 25 age range tend to vote according to much more liberal ideologies, it is still uncertain what role institutions of higher education play in shaping their political beliefs.
[img_assist|nid=33665|title=Changes in Student Liberalism|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Lisa Opdycke ’11 says Cornell was instrumental in her shift to a liberal political stance. Coming from Steuben County, Indiana, a historically Republican district, Lisa maintained conservative viewpoints until her senior year of high school.“Coming here had a definite influence on becoming more liberal, but only because I got to see other people and hear other people’s stories of where they come from. As cliché as it sounds, there is a lot of socio-economic and racial diversity here. Coming from a very homogenous place, I didn’t get to see any political discussion. There was only one viewpoint [to] base your own beliefs on,” Opdycke said.
Opdycke attributes her political transition to the readily accessible information provided by Cornell’s libraries and frequent political discussions among her racially diverse group of peers. The proportion of undergraduate minorities grew to 33 percent in Fall 2007.
Akio Bandle ’11, a recent transfer, has not observed any extreme partisanship since his arrival. As a moderate from George Washington University, he says he is used to political dialogue and nothing at Cornell is out of the ordinary.
“I actually expected Cornell to be more on the conservative side since the Ivy League is often perceived to be a pretty traditional group of schools,” Bandle said. “However, I haven’t really noticed much of a political pull in either direction.”
Brian Harper ’10 also entered Cornell as a moderate, but he has become more conservative over the past two years. He says living and studying among a large liberal population contributes more to this shift than anything else.
“I’ve gotten myself into quite a few talks with both sides and I’m starting to lean to the right. Arguing politics tends to polarize you rather than convert you to the other side, and with so many democrats, I feel much more conservative,” Harper said.
The Youth Survey of Politics and Public Service released by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University earlier this year indicated that 51 percent of four-year college students surveyed consider themselves liberal, while only 35 percent consider themselves conservative. In 2001, only 33.5 percent of students considered themselves liberal while 27.5 percent considered themselves conservative.
Prof. Michael Jones-Correa, American studies, believes that students’ political leanings are determined by their own evaluation of political candidates rather than as a result of university education.
“If there were a change in people’s political beliefs, it would be through their peers and not through the faculty. Very few faculty teach ideologically. Peer-to-peer socialization is much more powerful,” Jones-Correa said. “The University is a place where people encounter diversity, difference and different points of view in a much more intense way than they have previously.”
While Jones-Correa believes that most professors are liberal, he said it is very rare for them to explicitly state such beliefs and that even political discussion among faculty is uncommon. More often, there is dialogue about what methodology professors should be using to study politics, whether it is quantitative methods, qualitative methods, formal modeling or theory.
Earlier this year, the Veritas Fund for Higher Education, a charitable organization founded by the conservative Manhattan Institute, donated $50,000 to Cornell to increase intellectual pluralism on campus and provide “an alternative to radicalism.” However, Prof. Barry Strauss ’74, history and classics, who received the Veritas funds to start a new program in freedom studies, stressed that the grant would not influence how or what he teaches in the classroom.
“A lot of criticism about liberal professors comes from this preconceived notion that ideology shapes every decision they make,” Jones-Correa said. “That is false and simply not the way it works.”