A sure sign that opponents of the academic freedom movement are getting desperate is when they cease trying to dispute the central issue -- that higher education has been corrupted by sectarian ideologies and partisan politics -- in order to make political hay of technicalities.
Case in point is the American Federation of Teachers. On January 22, the powerful teacher’s union released a study titled “The 'Faculty Bias' Studies: Science or Propaganda?” Purporting to debunk eight studies documenting the dominance of left-liberal political views in academia and the concomitant exclusion of conservative perspectives, the study’s central claim is that the authors of these earlier studies are guilty of substituting their personal politics for methodological rigor. Propaganda, not scientific analysis, is their main pursuit.
The AFT knows whereof it speaks. Indeed, the union’s study is a textbook example of ideology garbed in the gown of empiricism. Tendentious and ill-sourced, the study invites the surely unintended conclusion that the AFT no longer has a defensible case to make in favor of the one-sided academic status quo.
The problems with the study are immediately apparent. Examining evidence that registered Democrats in academia far outnumber their Republican counterparts, the study asserts that “it is not possible with any precision to calculate a ration of Democrats to Republicans” and chastises previous studies for trying.
Such objections are redolent of red-herring. The studies under discussion all acknowledge their limitations -- a study of party affiliation among faculty by David Horowitz and Eli Lehrer criticized by the AFT plainly states that it “make[s] no claim to definitively identify that problem” -- but point out that they paint a representative picture of the decidedly liberal slant of higher education. Notably, the AFT study does not seriously challenge the fact that Democrats are represented on university faculties at rates that far exceed those of the general population. Even as the AFT affixes sneer quotes around “faculty bias,” it declines to rebut the reality of the phenomenon.
Elsewhere, a high ratio of self-righteous admonition to factual analysis is evident. The study chides that it is “irresponsible to suggest that the conclusions reached in these reports represent a scientifically derived set of facts.” Yet the studies to which the union takes such exception do not pretend to be “scientific,” as the AFT, in an aside buried deep in its report, acknowledges. Thus is the study revealed as a cynical exercise in political score-settling.
Equally unimpressive is the study’s cavalier dismissal of syllabi as reliable guides to the content of university courses. Of a study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the AFT’s study complains that “the authors have not observed the classes but only reviewed the course outlines” from the courses. Leaving aside the thought of how the AFT would respond to the suggestion that critics be allowed to sit in on courses -- this is the organization that consistently condemns outside critics of higher education as “McCarthyite” censors for the crime of speaking their minds -- this claim is hard to credit for two reasons.
First, syllabi are comprehensive. They reveal on what basis professors grade their students (involvement in political activism is frequently a factor); what books they assign (often from only one-side of the political spectrum); and what their motivations are (many professors frankly announce their commitment to nurture political activists). Second, they are unimpeachably objective, insofar as they are compiled by and represent the views of the professors themselves.
Skeptics might consider the series of investigative studies published on FrontPageMag.com. Based largely on course syllabi, they cast light on a prevalent pattern of unprofessional conduct by professors and expose entire academic departments where the top priority is indoctrination rather than education. One suspects that this is the real reason the AFT is so eager to shred the merits of syllabi: They reveal too many unpalatable truths about the decline of academic standards.
Ironically for a report that concerns itself with scientific methodology, the AFT’s study is itself suspect. Analyzing “extensive rebuttals” to the studies under discussion, for instance, it cites as a principal source Media Matters for America, the “progressive” organization that styles itself as a media watchdog of a “conservative agenda.” A serious study might be expected to find a more impartial source, or at least to acknowledge the partisan prejudices of Media Matters. Instead, the AFT’s study rehearses its dubious claims without a trace of skepticism. So much for science.
If the January study is the best the AFT can do to counter critics of academia, it seems that the battle over the future of higher education is being won. Despite the determined efforts of faculty unions to suppress all outside criticism, the word is out about activists posturing as professors and whole departments and curricula hijacked by political and ideological extremism.
There is a profound irony in all this: If only the AFT committed half as much time to the maintenance of high academic standards as it does to efforts to block reform and discredit critics, it wouldn’t need to fritter away time and money on frivolous studies aimed at distracting attention from the indefensible.
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