Phi Beta Cons

What Professors Believe

I appreciated Allison’s post regarding the Institute for Jewish and Community Research’s Profile of American College Faculty. As she notes, there is a tremendous difference between asking whether faculty members describe themselves as liberal, conservative, or “moderate” and determining their positions based on behavior (voting) and expressed political beliefs. I can think of few political terms more relative than “moderate.” While teaching at Cornell Law School, I met several faculty members who described themselves as “moderate.” And they were — by the standards of Cornell University. Those same individuals would be seen as radical leftists here in Middle Tennessee.
In the IJCR study, we learn more than merely the voting habits of professors, we also see where they stand on issues of the day. The following comes from the IJCR press release:

  • American Foreign Policy: Almost one third (29 percent) of faculty cited the U.S. among the top two greatest threats to international stability – more than Iran (27 percent), China (19 percent), and Iraq (13 percent). Only North Korea ranked higher, at 70 percent.
  • American Domestic Policy: As Congress considered changes to the USA PATRIOT Act, 64 percent of faculty wanted it weakened and only 5 percent wanted it strengthened.
  • Internationalism: By a 3-to-1 margin, faculty favored the sovereignty of the International Court of Justice even when its decisions contradict U.S. interests, and nearly half of faculty opposed unilateral action by the U.S. to stop the violence in Darfur even if peacemaking efforts by the United Nations and others fail.
  • Trade and Business: Nearly three quarters (73 percent) of faculty believed international trade agreements hurt less developed countries.

The contrast between generalized self-descriptions and concrete beliefs reminds me of a recent study trumpeted in Inside Higher Ed allegedly as proof that the American faculty is “Not So Godless After All.” The Social Science Research Center publicized findings indicating that a bare majority of professor believe that God exists, and these findings were transformed into evidence faculties really are a God-fearing bunch. Yet a closer examination of the data would indicate that the headline should have been: “Faculty Far Less Religious than American Public.” Despite the fact that 14 percent of the surveyed faculty taught at Christian colleges (a huge over-representation), only 19 percent of faculty identified as “born-again.” At the “elite doctoral institutions,” the number was a whopping 1 percent. The contrast with the public is profound: According to one of America’s leading religious polling firms, 45 percent of Americans are either “evangelical” or (a broader category) “born again.”
Regarding belief in the Bible, 52 percent of professors see it as “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts,” while only 6 percent see it as the “Word of God.” By contrast, 74 percent of women and 62 percent of men in the general public see the Bible as “totally accurate in all its teachings.”
I know that all of this data is akin (as I’ve said before) to “proving that the sky is blue,” but it is vitally important nonetheless. After fighting the academic freedom wars for years, it is clear to me that there remains a huge public disconnect between the academy as viewed by the public, and the academy as it actually is. We have to get this information out in the public domain. Reform cannot happen until there is a popular understanding that our taxpayer-supported universities are out of step and out of control.


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