Communication Currents

Communicating Political Bias in the College Classroom

February 1, 2013
Instructional Communication

The concern that academia is a liberal ivory tower with faculty endeavoring to brainwash undergraduates into holding liberal views is a perennial issue for American higher education. A recent survey indicated that nearly 70% of Americans felt academia favors professors with liberal social and political views and nearly 40% believed political bias in the college classroom is a serious problem. Organizations and pundits critical of the current status quo have published repeated scathing critiques of the role ideology plays in academia, and in communication studies classrooms in particular.  Various solutions to the perceived problem have also been recommended, many of which involve the need for significant structural reform. In a particularly interesting flipping of the scripts, Bill O’Reilly recently called for affirmative action in the hiring of conservative academics in higher education. Our research, however, suggests a solution to the issue that, while longer term, may be simpler and rooted in a shared educational mission.

Critics of higher education are correct in one regard. While the exact numbers are debatable, university professors are predominately politically left-leaning.  Various reasons for the imbalance have been proposed. Some research suggests there are social psychological reasons for the difference. Critics, on the other hand, claim there is a bias in the hiring process. Whatever the reason, if liberal professors are using the classroom to indoctrinate pliable young minds, they have so far failed.

Research conducted by Mack D. Mariani at Xavier University and Gordon J. Hewitt at Hamilton College has found that students on average do become slightly more liberal during their college years, but at the same rate as their peers who do not attend college.  Using national data from the Higher Education Research Institute, their analysis also found that political orientation does not change at all for most students during the four years of college.  For those students who do change, there is evidence that factors unrelated to faculty ideology (including gender and socio-economic status) impact the change.

The lack of a large scale effect is not meant to dismiss particular student concerns regarding bias in the classroom, however. Research has shown that ideological differences between students and their instructors can have a negative impact on both student perceptions of their instructor and their perceptions of the classroom experience. There is hope, however. Positive change may be able to come without institutional reform or calling out the Thought Police.  Our research, recently published in the journal Communication Educationsuggests a long-term way that academia may address the perception of bias. We found that students who are highly verbally aggressive (commonly conceptualized as a negative student trait) are more likely to perceive bias, while students who are highly argumentative (commonly conceptualized as a positive student trait) are better at coping with and responding to a perceived bias. 

Our research calls for the teaching of argumentation and debate skills to be foundational in higher education to assist students and faculty alike to better address the perception of bias in the classroom.  Communication theorist Dominic Infante called argumentation “essential to democracy and also to personal growth.” Our findings support this statement. One vital element of affective argumentation is the ability to discover argument; both students and faculty alike must learn to understand where to expect disagreement on a topic and how to go about engaging in a civil discussion. Vital to any civil discussion is another element of the skill of argumentation: the ability to differentiate between argument and verbal aggression. Personal attacks, whether from faculty or students, can never be a part of a classroom dialogue and must be avoided. A good place to develop argumentation skills is in the communication classroom. It is by no means the only place, however, and communication educators should continue to work across disciplines, particularly in civics classrooms, to ensure that the skills are being taught.

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Peter W. Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, an organization often critical of the “politicization” of higher education, accused our research of “blaming the victim” and marginalizing “the complaints of students who have encountered bias in the classroom.” Nothing could be farther from our intent. We view improved communication education as a way to address the issue to the benefit of students and faculty alike. With political polarization at an all-time high, improved argumentation skills can have benefits for society as well. Skills in argumentation and debate are vital to civil discussion. Students can and should be armed with the skills to appropriately engage with both faculty and their fellow students should they invoke a partisan argument, regardless of whether the bias in the argument is perception or reality.

About the author (s)

Darren L. Linvill

Clemson University

Assistant Professor

Joseph P. Mazer

Clemson University

Assistant Professor