Ph.D. Spotlight: Political Bias in America’s Universities

Conservative media, politicians, interest groups, citizens, and even academics often discuss the leftist orientation and perceived intellectual decline of the American college campus. Based on nationally representative surveys, a majority of Republican partisans and leaners say that colleges and universities have more of a negative than a positive impact on society. What stokes this conservative animus toward college?

Conservative critics claim that universities discriminate against conservatives. Some particular claims of discrimination from the conservative group Campus Reform include: 1) “Refusal or long delays in granting conservative student groups recognition as official campus groups, despite the presence of many officially recognized leftist student groups,” 2) “Leftist domination of almost all official campus newspapers,” and 3) “Refusal of administration to allow student groups to present conservative speakers on campus.” This dissertation tests all three of these claims.

Allegations of bias against political conservatives and in favor of liberals in America’s universities are frequently heard from a variety of critics. This dissertation puts these claims to rigorous empirical test with five large-N correspondence experiments. In three experiments, university administrators are randomly assigned to receive a request to 1) form a new political student group on campus, 2) publish a political editorial in the campus newspaper, or 3) reserve space for an invited speaker to lecture on political issues from a politically liberal, conservative, or neutral student. In comparing rates of response across conditions, there is no significant bias against conservative students by university administrators.

In two additional experiments, this dissertation tests the political bias of university professors in the social sciences and the humanities. Subjects in these experiments were randomly assigned to receive a request for information about working on proposed research projects where the hypothesis aligned with liberal or conservative ideologies, or was unstated. The results of these experiments reveal significant bias against conservatives on three different measures among both social science and humanities professors, driven largely by political scientists in the social science sample, and by philosophers and professors of gender studies in the humanities sample. These results have significant implications for the history of universities as havens of political activism, norms of academic freedom, opportunities for the development of social capital among campus conservatives, and the polarized decline in trust in institutions.

Dr. Parsons is a graduate of Florida State University’s political science doctoral program.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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