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Ryland Lu: Professors should keep politics out of the classroom

By Ryland Lu

Oct. 28, 2012 11:21 p.m.

The original headline for this article contained an error and has been changed. See the bottom of the article for additional information.

While American voters split along partisan lines in anticipation of the November elections, public universities are not immune to the political spats often highlighted in the nation’s discourse.

A federal jury came to a standstill last week on the question of whether the University of Iowa Law School violated the 14th amendment rights of Teresa Wagner, a part-time staff member at the university.

Wagner maintains the university turned her down for a full-time position in 2007 because of her work for anti-abortion groups such as the National Right to Life Committee.

Wagner’s case has brought to the spotlight, once again, a trend that many have pointed to in the past: Faculty composition at public universities tends to lean to the political left.

The lawsuit Wagner filed states that one of 50 faculty members in the University of Iowa Law School is a registered Republican, while more than 40 are Democrats.

According to a 2005 study of 11 public and private California universities, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans among UCLA faculty was 7.2 to 1, while at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego that figure came to 8.7 to 1 and 6.6 to 1, respectively.

This discourse over the biases of professors is largely unproductive and prevents us from having a much more relevant conversation.

At the heart of concerns over the Democrat to Republican ratio at universities is one main fear. As a recent report by the California Association of Scholars put it, the unequal numbers of liberal and conservative professors at the University of California leaves students with an imbalanced education.

Though the findings of the report have been criticized as lacking validity, it still raises an interesting question ““ whether professors can separate their political stances from what they teach. Or, how can we ensure that professors keep their politics out of the classroom?

It’s important to acknowledge that, to an extent, keeping one’s personal politics out of the classroom may be impossible ““ some schools of academic thought are inherently more liberal or conservative.

Academic theories often align with political stances that are an integral part of the intellectual framework of certain universities.

In the field of constitutional law, for instance, the divide between strict constructionists who seek to interpret the constitution according to its original principles and living constitutionalists, who believe the constitution can be interpreted to fit changes in society, reflect legal stances that tend to be held by those on different ends of the political spectrum.

Similarly, economists might be said to fall in similar camps between laissez-faire neoclassical or Austrian schools of thought and interventionist Keynesian ones ““ a distinction that matches political discourse between those who oppose government interference in the economy and those who support it.

To give a basic example: If a class were studying the landmark abortion Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, the professor should have students read arguments from both conservative and liberal justices.

This principle of balance should be applied to all course materials.
After all, universities are supposed to be places where diverse ideas are up for discussion.

But what’s harder to describe is the way in which professors present, and argue for or against, competing schools of thought.

Having students gauge whether they perceive any biases in their professors ““ especially for professors in fields like political science and economics ““ would provide a good starting point for alerting departments to instructors who allow political preferences to interfere with teaching.

One solution would be including a question about the professor’s political biases on end-of-quarter evaluations.

Another option would be to have an independent reviewer visit several of the professor’s lectures, on the lookout for any political leanings.

These issues are even more relevant with the elections a little more than a week away.

Placing politics outside of the classroom could set the stage for productive and substantial dialogue about the topics we’ll be voting on come Nov. 6.

Email Lu at [email protected] Send general comments to [email protected] or tweet us @DBOpinion.

Correction: The column is arguing that professors should keep politics out of the classroom.

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