From the Daily: Stop talking about 'bias'

Published April 10, 2005

Across the United States, universities are struggling to define the role of political ideology in the classroom. The question of “liberal bias” has permeated academia, and leading pundits from the Right and Left have weighed in.

Angela Cesere

At Columbia University, President Lee Bollinger — who served as president of the University of Michigan until 2001 — has recently found himself embroiled in a controversy surrounding the suppression of certain political ideologies in the classroom. The incident, which involved a classroom debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Columbia’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, is indicative of a politically charged atmosphere. This environment, in turn, has conservative students and political leaders proposing a wide variety of radical solutions — including government legislation and judicial policing — to stamp out bias.

However, achieving an elimination of bias, especially through top-down legislation and judicial intervention, is highly unrealistic. Not only is bias unavoidable, but efforts to eliminate it could pose much more significant threats to the academic and intellectual freedom of students.

Many conservatives have charged that the liberal leanings of the University’s professors create an intimidating learning environment that limits the free exchange of ideas on campus. While it is undeniable that the University has a strong liberal voice, it is hard to argue that this presents a serious problem worthy of radical solutions.

Recently, there have been calls to “diversify” the campus and increase the number of conservative faculty members. However, the University should strive not for this perfectly balanced ideological diversity, but rather the free exchange of viewpoints — otherwise known as the marketplace of ideas — that comes along with it. Specifically recruiting conservative professors would require an ideological litmus test, which would only further politicize the campus. More importantly, it would jeopardize the ability of departments to recruit those professors at the forefronts of their fields.

As a matter of principle, the University should hire on the basis of competence and expertise. The faculty on campus should be the leaders and best in their respective fields, regardless of their political leanings. Departments should have the full freedom to seek out top-caliber professors who are engaging in cutting-edge research and who are dedicated to the instruction of their students. Political leanings should have no bearing on a hiring decision.

Conservative students who feel marginalized should remember that exposure to alternative ideologies can only strengthen their own arguments. If these students can take advantage of the opportunities offered by the top professors in the nation, they will be better prepared to defend their own beliefs. The University exists not merely to impart facts, but rather to foster critical thinking. Strong opinions in the classroom are the catalysts that inspire discussion beyond the ivory tower. If a professor’s ideology challenges a conservative student to research ways to defend his own beliefs, the University has succeeded. As long as the University has a free marketplace of ideas and intellectual freedom is not stifled, the liberal bias of many its professors should not be a matter of concern.

That being said, the suppression of views, whether it be through grading or classroom behavior, is unacceptable. In the case of Columbia, where a student was allegedly yelled at by a professor for expressing pro-Israel views, the offending professor was reviewed and found to be out of line by a panel of peers. Such behavior, as the panel correctly pointed out, is an unacceptable manifestation of bias.

Bollinger was correct in forming a commission to investigate the possibility that a faculty member was silencing the voice of students with opposing views. Thorough peer review is the best way to make sure bias does not impede the free flow of ideas that is crucial to academia, and it is essential to ensure that the biases endemic to academic departments do not infringe upon the academic freedom of students. Just as professors evaluate each other to determine who deserves tenure, professors should be able to judge whether their peers are guilty of suppressing thought. Professors should be held accountable not by the administration, but by their peers and their students. By offering an effective grievance system for students who feel their rights have been violated, faculty peer review will hopefully prevent top-down intervention from the state.

Students and legislators in some states have attempted to pass an “Academic Bill of Rights,” which requires departments to be politically neutral, while other students have resorted to the courts. Across the nation, lawsuits filed by conservative students against universities that house overtly liberal professors are becoming far more common. In Colorado, the governor went as far as to suggest that the University of Colorado fire tenured Prof. Ward Churchill for incendiary comments made about the Sept. 11 victims. These academic bias scandals do nothing but drain universities’ credibility and undermine the atmosphere of academic freedom that is vital to the pursuit of knowledge. Because it is ultimately in the interest of universities to avoid the political limelight and solve disputes internally, faculty peer review provides a feasible option with which to tackle problems arising from political bias in the classroom. Furthermore, by resolving controversies about political bias through faculty review panels, public universities will find it easier to defend their institutional autonomy from state legislators and bureaucrats.

Attaining perfect ideological balance in the classroom is neither practical nor desirable. Instead, the University should recruit top-tier faculty who will inspire and facilitate informed, productive debate. It is important to create an atmosphere where the best ideas — regardless of ideology — can emerge.

Critics concerned with “intellectual diversity” should focus not on eliminating bias through convoluted means, but rather keeping the marketplace of ideas open to all. Allowing politics to police curriculums and the hiring of university faculty will shut down the process of free thought and create mediocrity. If the University is to maintain its reputation of scholastic superiority, it must actively pursue a faculty roster based solely on academic excellence while retaining the right to police itself. Political bias in the classroom is an inextricable characteristic of a college campus, but is not a debilitating obstacle to the goal of academic freedom.