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Classroom Debate

Conventional wisdom and Rush Limbaugh have it that college professors are politically liberal. If so, that begs the question: How much influence do those leftist-leaning faculty members have over their vulnerable, easily influenced students? When it comes to influencing political ideology, apparently very little. At least that’s the findings of assistant professor of political science Mack Mariani.


Mariani looked at the notion that professors influence their students politically and decided it was, what he calls, “a testable proposition.” So he joined forces with Gordon Hewitt, an assistant dean of the faculty for institutional research at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and the duo analyzed surveys of 6,807 students at 38 colleges. Their conclusion: “There is no evidence that faculty ideology at an institutional level has an impact on student political ideology.”

But wait. Does that let liberal professors off the hook? “It doesn’t,” says Mariani. “They could be trying to indoctrinate students, but just might not be very good at it.”

That is something to be calculated at another time with another survey. Mariani’s study is too narrow to determine that. “We didn’t look at what goes on in the classroom,” he says. “We looked merely at the effects.”

The research was published in PS: Political Science and Politics, the journal of the American Political Science Association. It resulted in four main findings:

“First, it is very clear that faculty members tend to be liberal and are much more liberal than the general population,” Mariani says.

“Second, there is evidence that there is a degree of self-selection going on among students when they choose a college. Students tend to enroll at institutions that have a faculty orientation make-up more similar to their own.

“Third, students whose ideology changes while in college tend to change to the left, but that movement is within the normal range of 18- to 24-year-olds in the general population.

“Fourth, and most important, there is no evidence that faculty ideology at an institutional level has an impact on student political ideology. Student political orientation doesn’t change for a majority of students while in college, and for those that do change, there is evidence that other factors have an effect on that change, such as gender and socioeconomic status.

“Based on the data in this study, college students appear to be more firm in their political beliefs than conventional wisdom suggests. Though their political ideology isn’t set in stone, it doesn’t appear to change as a result of faculty ideology, at least at an institutional level.”

The data used in the research includes surveys of students when they entered college and when they left college.

“That data seemed to be a very useful tool to see if students moved farther to the left during college and whether that movement was associated with the liberalism of their faculty,” says Mariani. “We found that students don’t change much. To the degree they do change, it seems to have to do with gender, family wealth and peers.”

Mariani says that women tend to move farther to the left during college than men. Family income also plays a role.

“Wealthy students tend to move more to the right than to the left and non-wealthy students tend to move more to the left,” Mariani says. “Both of those findings parallel what we know about general political party and ideological inclinations. Women tend to be more liberal and more Democratic than men. Wealthy people tend to be more conservative and Republican than non-wealthy people.

“We also found that peers are very important. We see evidence that people sort themselves out. More conservative students are drawn to more conservative colleges, and more liberal students are drawn to more liberal colleges, in terms of faculty ideology.”

Will this research end the controversy about liberal professors indoctrinating students? Far from it, says Mariani. “One of the frustrating things about writing in this area is that people tend to see what they want to see,” he says. “So, a lot of folks on the right have conveniently dismissed this study as protecting the far left faculty. And the folks on the far left have seized on this as, ‘Ha! There’s no problem whatsoever as far as ideological disposition of the faculty.’ ”

Mariani, noting that he and Hewitt have differing political viewpoints, says he believes their finding that students “are not simply adopting the liberal views of their professors” is a fair conclusion. “Gordon is a Democrat and I’m a conservative,” Mariani says. “We wanted to set aside our predispositions, and we wanted this to be a fair test of the data.”

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