Does it matter if your professor is a Democrat?
In a lecture full of university students, political science professor and department head Craig Parsons occasionally needs to talk about Fascism, and even explain the ways Hitler inspired a country during World War II. In order to do so, he acts as if he sympathizes with fascism during a class period.
“I have a whole schtick about how a lot of people went over to Nazism and there is a reason for it,” Parsons said. “I get myself into effectively arguing a devil’s advocate position. And I hope everyone in the class understands that I am doing that, not because I am spontaneously inclined to argue for it.”
He doesn’t actually sympathize with fascism or with Hitler, but he acts neutral to most views in order to teach about the history of politics. Parsons is a registered Democrat and has personal views on modern politics, but in the classroom, he hides his opinions from students for a majority of the class.
In higher education, many professors consider how their political viewpoints will affect students and how they should teach to avoid persuading students with their authority. Approaches differ, but it is a widely held belief among university faculty that the purpose of education is to challenge students and facilitate the creation of their own opinions, not to persuade them.
“The cultish professor who self-evidently reinforces a set of political beliefs is not something that just about anybody openly and consciously says is okay,” Parsons said.
In the UO political science department, a majority of faculty are registered Democrats, according to voter registration data from the Lane County Elections Office. Of the 27 faculty members in the department, 14 are registered Democrats, two are registered with the Pacific Green Party, two are unaffiliated, one is independent and one is a registered Republican. Seven couldn’t be identified as being registered to vote in Oregon. At a minimum, over 50 percent of faculty in the department are registered Democrats, and a greater percent register with liberal-leaning parties.
At the law school, political diversity is even more skewed. Of the 44 law faculty, 30 are registered Democrats, meaning at least 68 percent of the law faculty are Democrats. Three are non-affiliated, one is independent, one is a registered Republican and nine couldn’t be accounted for in the registration data.
A news blog called UO Matters found similar statistics in a 2006 analysis that compared the political affiliations between the university’s departments. In that year, the business school had as low as 50 percent Democrats, while the School of Architecture and Allied Arts, now called the College of Design, had a high of 85 percent Democrats, and the university overall boasted 77 percent Democrats.
And in donations to political organizations, UO faculty and staff who donate to political causes almost entirely do so to liberal organizations. From Jan. 1, 2015, to July 14, 2018, faculty at UO donated over $235,000 to political organizations, with more than 98 percent of those funds going to liberal groups, according to Federal Elections Commission data. Over $56,000 was donated by UO faculty to organizations affiliated with either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, while roughly a total of $1,000 was donated to the campaigns of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.
UO history professor Steven Beda said that all universities aren’t always as liberal as UO, citing large donations from the military to universities during the cold war and robust donations to economics departments by conservatives such as the Koch brothers. Despite knowing the political leanings of his peers, he’s not too worried about how professors’ politics will affect students.
“What always frustrates me about this conversation when conservatives are like, ‘Oh my God, all these liberal professors are forcing these ideas down students throats,” Beda said. “You students are a hell of a lot smarter than that. I can go up there and preach propaganda if I want, but you guys aren’t gonna believe it.”
Beda did agree that UO is known for being a more liberal school, but said the culture could come from the city of Eugene and the ethos remaining from counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Several universities across the country recognized that the majority of their faculty members are liberal and have decided to recruit professors in conservative studies to add political diversity.
Since 2013, University of Colorado Boulder has recruited visiting faculty on an annual basis to teach in its Conservative Thought and Policy program. For the 2018-19 school year, the university has invited two professors rather than one like in years prior.
One of the visiting scholars is W.B. Allen, who teaches political philosophy at Michigan State University. He’s been recruited to teach conservative thought, as he says, not to add diversity, but to improve students’ educations by challenging the campus culture.
“[Having a liberal culture on campus] can affect students’ learning outcomes in so far as they do not encounter often enough challenges to their way of thinking,” Allen said.
In response to the perception that colleges lean liberal, some conservative student groups on college campuses, such as Turning Point USA, offer college students online manuals such as “How to debate your teacher (and WIN!),” which describes how students can “defend their beliefs in the classroom.”
Aaron Covarrubias, a UO senior history major who identifies as conservative but doesn’t support groups like Turning Point, said he has received pushback from other conservative students who feel that college education is meant to “brainwash” students with liberal messages. Covarrubias said that in his experience, many conservatives on college campuses are just repeating talking points.
“I think a lot of conservative students aren’t making unique, organic arguments anymore; It’s regurgitating talking points in the conservative media, like Ben Shapiro,” he said.
UO doesn’t have a full department dedicated to conservative thought, but it does offer classes ranging in topics from “PS 465. LGBT Rights in the Courts,” to “PS 369. Southern Politics,” the latter of which looks at the development of the U.S. South from before the Civil War to the now majority conservative stronghold it is today.
Political science professor Craig Parsons says there isn’t one right way to deal with political bias while teaching a class. He said his approach is to remain as neutral as possible, to the extent that students might not be able to tell his opinions. But if a student were to ask about his thoughts, he said he would answer with his opinion, while acknowledging counter arguments and trying not to impose his authority.
“I want to be very careful about my power as someone standing up both with coercive power over them, in terms of grades, but also in persuasive power, hopefully,” Parsons said. “It’s a good thing if professors have persuasive power — people want to hear what they have to say — but having both coercive and persuasive power, I think a good strategy is to try to be politically neutral.”
Other professors, such as Parsons’ colleague Joseph Lowndes, are more candid about their viewpoints.
“I am happy to be frank about my own political orientation with students in the classroom, but I’m just not sure that ultimately matters very much,” Lowndes said. “Any political phenomenon someone discusses in the classroom, there are a great number of ways to interpret that phenomenon and think about it, to dissect it and understand it. So to reduce it into an easy left-right dichotomy just closes down inquiry and discussion.”
Lowndes, who is registered with the Pacific Green party, isn’t too worried about revealing his opinions because he’s focused on his job, which is to help students think critically and engage in class and in the subject matter.
“A lot of my closest students — students who I’ve gone on to write recommendations for — have been conservative because they know I’m not out to get them,” Lowndes said. “I don’t see it as my job to make them a conservative or a liberal or whatever else, and I don’t think it should be the job of other professors either.”
In a three-hour political discussion class with a professor he knew to be liberal, senior history major Covarrubias said he felt safe expressing his beliefs.
“My professor graded me very honestly, and I knew he was very liberal, but he was very fair with me,” he said.
Covarrubias said that when he has taken political science classes, he felt that professors respected his views and let him speak his mind.
“In three years I’ve taken three political science classes and politics has permeated all departments at UO,” he said. “I’ve had classes where you know professors stand politically. I’ve never had a professor critique me or give me unwarranted criticism for being a Republican.”
Michael Tobin contributed reporting to the article.
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