As Barack Obama and John McCain campaign for the nation’s top office, the question of political bias in the classroom could draw increased attention on college campuses.
Angelina Banaag, a senior psychology major at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she has been in classes where professors said “they didn’t like Bush.”
Banaag is one of several students interviewed who said they had experienced teachers applying political bias in the classroom.
She said she doesn’t have strong political opinions, so the views of her professors don’t affect her. She can see, however, how other students might be influenced by a professor’s opinions.
Maike Philipsen, president of the VCU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said there are no official restrictions on professors expressing their opinions. However, she said there are “ethical obligations” not to express personal views.
Some see a thin distinction between teachers using political opinions to dominate the class and using them to play devil’s advocate to spark conversation and debate.
The Bruin Alumni Association at the University of California, Los Angeles is trying to single out professors it believes are stepping over the line. In 2006, the association offered $100 to students who could provide recordings of professors giving biased lectures.
The association, which is not affiliated with the school, came out with a list of professors it deemed radical. According to the association’s Web site, the goal behind the $100 payment was to rid the school of “political radicalism.”
Although Banaag has never heard of the association’s offer of payment, she said she “would be appalled [and] very much against that.” She said the program “reeks of McCarthyism.”
Eliza Kleintop, a VCU junior majoring in international studies, said, “You see [bias] a lot. It’s more frequent than you know.”
In a 2004 survey conducted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 29 percent of students agreed to the following survey item: “On my campus, there are courses in which students feel they have to agree with the professor’s political or social views in order to get a good grade.”
Although students have complained about political bias in the classroom, Deborah M. Brock, associate director for operations at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, said she has never found credible evidence to prove the accusations.
Brock said the only way she would have to report political bias by a professor was if it affected the student’s grade. She said she would be shocked and angry if that were found to be the case.
Brock said she wants her students to think analytically and for them to be able to disagree with a professor.
Another professor emphasized the importance of a teacher’s bias not affecting a student’s grade.
“If I’m not balanced, students will challenge me,” said Sheila Carapico, a University of Richmond political science professor.
Students and professors agree the transition from high school to college is a major change. High school can be found more restrictive because teachers are given stern guidelines. In college, discussions are more frequent, and professors often share their feelings on the topic.
Kleintop said “if you’re a professor at college, you can say whatever you want.”
Not all students agree with allowing a teacher to express personal political opinions in the classroom.
“[I have an] issue with a teacher [expressing] one side and not both sides” of an argument, said Mary Williamson, a University of Maryland student.
Some professors believe showing bias isn’t always a bad thing if it can serve to stimulate discussion.
“Bias implies half of a story,” Carapico said. “University students will challenge you.”
Philipsen said the goal of the American Association of University Professors is to “secure academic freedom and to protect academic freedom.”
She said that it’s “still true that there’s freedom of speech.” The goal of professors, she added, is to be “truthful, and not manipulate the students.”