Students & Parents | Intellectual Diversity

Goal is range of views on campus

COX NEWS SERVICE   |  August 25, 2008 by Brandon Larrabee

Despite the fact that they are side-by-side in the report of a survey about politics on Georgia’s campuses, the comments couldn’t be more different.

The students are nameless, designated only by numbers. But those commenting, and the professors to which they refer, are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

“I had a professor that hated George Bush and loved to talk about how much he hated him in class,” the first one says. “I support George Bush, so I did not feel comfortable with him doing this.”

The following student had the opposite experience.

“I had an education teacher who basically said if you don’t agree with me then you are wrong, if you don’t support Bush you are dumb, get on the bandwagon folks!” this student said. “She was VERY closed minded.”

Different students, potentially on different campuses. And part of a survey that is the latest volley in a political battle over what is being taught in Georgia’s college classrooms.

Intellectual diversity

The survey itself was in part a response to persistent fears among some GOP lawmakers that college professors are aggressively pushing their liberal views on students, trying to reach impressionable young adults and change their minds.

“Teachers should not take unfair advantage of the immaturity of students by indoctrinating them with their own opinions before the students have had an opportunity to examine other opinions,” states House Bill 154, a failed measure that would have essentially ordered the University System of Georgia to undertake a study it instead did on its own.

But some see the efforts to encourage “intellectual diversity” as little more than a covert effort to insert conservative ideology into the classroom.

“In practice, [two common] proposals would place government entities directly into the academic process and inappropriately insert political decision-making into academic affairs,” according to a 2007 report from the National Education Association’s Higher Education Research Center.

No ‘big ideological bias’

The survey itself was conducted between April 17, when students were sent an e-mail invitation to participate in the Web-based questionnaire, and May 5. Of the 14,820 students asked to answer, about 1,220 participated. The margin of error for the study was 2.8 percentage points.

For the most part, the university system sees the results as positive. Asked whether a professor had inappropriately presented his or her views in class, only 13.3 percent of students agreed, though Republican students were almost twice as likely as Democratic students to agree–17.1 percent and 9.7 percent respectively, according to the survey.

But Susan Herbst, executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer for the university system, cautioned against reading too much into those numbers. She noted that the survey included moderate and conservative Republicans in the GOP numbers and moderate and liberal students in the Democratic numbers.

Looking at the entire study, including the comments students were allowed to add to their responses, left her without the impression that one particular viewpoint is being pushed on campuses.

“I don’t find big ideological bias,” she said. “I find people on all parts of the continuum … happy and unhappy to various degrees.”

Questions about courses

But some say parts of the survey still raise troubling questions. For example, about 23.3 percent of students said they agreed or strongly agreed with a statement that they “personally had [a] class where I felt I had to agree with the professor’s views to get a good grade.”

That’s too high, said Charles Mitchell, project director at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

“If that number is right, that’s 50,000 students a year in your state who are encountering one of the most unprofessional types of behavior that you can pretty much think of in a classroom, that everyone agrees is wrong,” Mitchell said.

A nonpartisan group started by former Democratic Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado; U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut; and Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, a Republican, presses for intellectual diversity in the classroom.

Mitchell said the university system needs to go further than just doing the survey once. It needs to repeat the survey and make sure campus grievance procedures are fair–not making the common mistake of advising a student to go to a teacher first.

Herbst said the university system is doing that.

“We absolutely need to make sure our grievance procedures are perfect … so that, in the cases where there is a problem, students have a way to register their grievance and get a remedy.”


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