Don’t Write Off the Power of a Few Intimidating Undergraduates

(Charles Mostoller)
A vocal, tyrannical minority of students can easily threaten or damage the careers of professors with whom it disagrees.

While most undergraduates want to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints, it only takes a small number of vocal, well-connected students to meaningfully threaten a professor’s reputation and career. Thanks to the power of social media — and progressive college administrators who act as campus thought police — small numbers of outraged or even uncomfortable students can create tyranny on a campus. Many professors, most notably those who are conservative, are well aware of this threat and very deliberately conceal their ideological views to avoid it.

Regrettably, this point was ignored by the piece Heterodox Academy managing editor Musa al-Gharbi recently published in National Review, “Ideological Discrimination in Academia Is More Complicated than You Think,” which argued that faculty feel generally less threatened by the opinions of undergraduates than by those of Ph.D. students and other faculty members.

Al-Gharbi was absolutely correct in noting the transient nature of undergraduate students vis-à-vis embedded graduate students and faculty peers. He was also right to point out that many professors do not want to stand in the way of student success and are reluctant to fight with students, as they see “differences in perspectives as products of students’ relative youth, inexperience, ignorance, or unexamined beliefs.”

Unfortunately, al-Gharbi’s piece neglected to consider that in today’s collegiate “cancel culture,” a handful of engaged students can organize with administrators and disseminate attacks on heterodox faculty, jumpstarting mobs of protesters, in a matter of minutes. Even when most students want open discourse and are frustrated by such mobs, tyranny of the minority is still allowed to win out in too many cases, as I found out the hard way earlier this year. While students are generally not on tenure committees or the various professional review boards, a professor’s faculty peers can become easily alerted to his bias and do his career real harm.

The empirical evidence backs this up: I recently ran a nationally representative survey of 900 faculty members, and the data reveal that a considerable number of conservative professors still regularly censor themselves in front of students.

In the survey, I asked if faculty had ever felt intimidated in class by a student’s strong political views. In aggregate, just 18 percent said they had, compared with 67 percent who said they hadn’t. But once ideology is considered, the numbers look appreciably different. Among liberal and moderate professors, fairly small numbers — 16 percent and 18 percent respectively — claimed to have felt intimidated by students’ political leanings. But that figure jumped to 24 percent among conservative professors. Professors with tenure appeared to be generally less intimidated, but here again there was a significant gap between those who are conservative and those who are liberal. On the left, 21 percent of untenured professors and 16 percent of tenured professors said they’d been frightened by a student’s politics in class. On the right, those numbers jumped to 44 and 31 percent, respectively.

Going further, I asked respondents if they had ever seen a faculty colleague belittled due to his or her heterodox views. The responses were not particularly comforting. While 59 percent said that they had never had such an experience, 16 percent said they had, and 25 percent said they were unsure if they had. When broken down by ideology, the numbers are even more unsettling. Twenty-five percent of conservative respondents reported being aware of cases where unpopular views were disparaged, compared with just 12 percent of liberal respondents.

This is not to say that faculty are not worried about ideological discrimination from their colleagues, as opposed to students; they absolutely are. Almost half of conservative professors in my national sample report being afraid to express their political beliefs to their colleagues for fear of negative consequences, compared with just under a quarter of liberal faculty members. And 40 percent of conservative respondents believed that their colleagues would discriminate against them based on their political views, compared with just 19 percent of liberal respondents. While 40 percent is not a majority, any form of ideological discrimination in the academy is unacceptable.

In short, faculty are dealing with ideological threats from all sides: their peers, administrators, and students. Viewpoint diversity lies at the heart of higher education and should be protected, but to safeguard faculty accordingly, those who work in and care about higher education must accept that undergraduate complaints can have a very real impact on a professor’s career and approach to teaching. It is critical that the power of student intimidation not be overlooked.

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Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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