Study Shows Professors Express Politics in Class

But Harvard students may not feel the same pressures reported nationwide

Many students at top American universities and colleges feel partisan political pressure from professors according to a recently released survey conducted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).

The survey also reported that students find biased professors more likely to express liberal sentiments than conservative leanings.

Student leaders contacted at Harvard, however, said their professors largely try to keep their classes free of personal views, although some stressed that these findings are a reflection of the larger issue of intellectual diversity across campuses.

The survey found that 46 percent of students say professors “use the classroom to present their personal political views.” Forty-two percent of students complain that readings for classes do not present both sides of controversial issues, and 29 percent say that they feel they must agree with professors’ political views to do well in their classes.

Additionally, 74 percent of respondents said that professors made positive comments about liberals, while 47 percents reported negative comments about conservatives.

The survey consisted of interviews of 658 randomly selected students at the top 25 national universities and the top 25 national liberal arts colleges, as defined by U.S. News & World Report. Anne D. Neal ’77, a Crimson editor and president of the ACTA, which commissioned the study, said that more than half of the students surveyed were in courses unrelated to political issues. She said that her group commissioned the survey to give university and college leaders data on what has long been an anecdotal issue.

“It gives trustees a reason to inquire about their own institutions,” she said. Students at Harvard contacted for this article agreed that there are far more liberal professors than conservatives, but many said they feel that professors don’t interject their personal views as much as the study suggested.

Ilan T. Graff ’05, president of the nonpartisan Institute of Politics, said he has not found his professors biased in class.

“My experience as a student here has not at all reflected that trend,” Graff said. “My professors have without exception tried to keep normative assessments out of the classroom.”

He added that the fact that students feel political pressure from professors is possibly “reflective of a bias among the observers, not the observed.”

Lauren K. Truesdell ’06, secretary of the Harvard Republican Club (HRC), said she has seen the problem of political comments interjected into a class firsthand.

“I’m taking an art class and Bush’s war in Iraq will come up,” she said. “It’s unfortunate to be sitting in class and be hearing diatribes against the President.”

She added, though, that she has not found this to be a common problem in other classes.

Gregory M. Schmidt ’06, president of the Harvard College Democrats, also said that he has not seen a problem with professors trying to force their ideas on students.

Paloma A. Zepeda ’06, a member of the HRC, is also coordinator of the Harvard chapter of Students for Academic Freedom, a nationwide group that seeks to address issues of classroom bias.

She said that while political bias in class is a big issue, Harvard has less of a problem than many other institutions.

The larger problem at Harvard, she said, is that the great majority of professors are liberal. Harvard needs to take action to address the political imbalance of the faculty, she said.

“It doesn’t do us any good to have a debate between the left and the far left,” Zepeda said. “You learn so much more by disagreeing with someone than by being in an echo chamber.”

Truesdell repeated this sentiment, saying that the HRC is in favor of “much greater intellectual diversity at Harvard.”

Both Truesdell and Zepeda said that conservative intellectuals are often drawn to high-powered think tanks instead of careers in education.

“Someone who is not interested in defending themselves all the time might shy away” from universities, Zepeda said.

But J. Russell Muirhead, an associate professor in the government department, had a different perspective.

“All I know is that in all the job searches I have been a part of, ideology and partisanship have never been a factor,” he said. “Harvard looks for the most brilliant and promising, and none of us have been willing—or even tempted—to compromise these for the sake of ideology, partisanship or anything else.”