A common point in centrist and conservative spaces is that academia has a liberal bias. This charge is levied most often at the social sciences. The logic is easy to follow. There is universal agreement that professors in the social sciences are liberal and vote Democratic. Moreover, it is in social science departments (sociology, anthropology, gender studies and the like) where ideas that challenge inequality are produced. You rarely see a sociologist or someone from African-American studies making claims conservatives find agreeable.
So this must mean their activities are biased. It must mean their research confirms liberal ideas about society, and their teaching will be about indoctrinating students into a liberal worldview. Right? No.
It is a fundamental misunderstanding of research and teaching.
It's the questions, stupid
There is a link between social scientists being progressive and the research they conduct. But the conservative narrative is wrong.
I am a dyed-in-the-wool progressive. I'd love for my research (whenever I get to do any) to support progressive policies. But I can't make up data or draw conclusions too far afield from what evidence suggests. I have my professional ethics in place. I could face severe repercussions for fabricating or grossly misinterpreting data.
Even if I could get away with such a thing, would I want to? If I'm researching a social issue, I want answers that work. I gain little from drawing faulty conclusions. What if my "progressive goggles" tricked me into seeing something that wasn't there? Social sciences work on the principle of "the preponderance of information." A faulty study would get swamped by other sociologists who found evidence to the contrary. For my biased conclusions to lead to a consensus — consensus is something scholars hope to achieve over time — other sociologists would need to misinterpret data the same way I did.
Conservatives want research that supports their conclusions. Unfortunately for them, conclusions are grounded in evidence even for the most value-laden forms of research (think critical scholarship).
This does not mean, though, that the liberal orientation of academics has no effect. I can tell you it does — just not in the way conservatives want the public to believe. Imagine 10 conservative scholars recruited to study racism in the United States. Do you know what this collection of conservatives will find? Well, racism in the United States.
The bias is in the questions asked, not the conclusions.
Conservatives want the public to believe conclusions are biased so they dismiss them without going through the trouble of thinking about them. Racism in policing? The research is biased. Transphobia in society? The research is biased. Dismiss it and read this opinion piece by a writer who, oh-by-the-way, works at a conservative think tank.
Dislike college climates? Blame your kids
The notion that campuses are hostile to conservatives has some degree of validity. But, again, not for reasons conservatives give.
You see, I am teaching in a hostile climate. My 1990-early 2000s references are met with dumbfounded looks from students. If I listen carefully, I can hear muffled snickers. In the face of this social pressure, I have officially retired any references to "Friends" and Beyonce. I am being silly here. Student opinion has minimal impact on me, and in turn, they care little about what I think of them. My influence is restricted to the grades I give.
The point here is that students are the enforcers of cultural norms on college campuses, not professors. Students are the ones who draw moral lines of right and wrong. A student brave enough to say "men are naturally better at math" will get whispers and looks from other students. That is what creates the so-called "hostile climate."
Conservatives have done an excellent job of indoctrinating folks into believing that academia indoctrinates folks. The story they tell is that the social norms that dominate college campuses are imposed from above by leftist professors who stifle conservative thought. This false narrative benefits them. They don't have to reckon with the idea that at a fundamental level, their focus on traditional family values, religion, raw capitalism and the maintenance of patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy are simply antithetical to most young people.
Toward a progressive narrative of bias
The purpose of this essay was to urge readers to think differently about the damaging narrative of bias on college campuses. It starts with the fact that academics, especially in social sciences, are liberal. There is no disputing this. Unfortunately, the claims of bias in teaching and research — narrated in such a way as to benefit conservative political ideology — don't necessarily follow. The conclusions from academic research are still valid and reliable, and whatever hostility conservative students feel on campus comes from their peers, not their professors.
This conservative narrative of bias on campus is self-serving and it's used to support the status quo. It encourages dismissal of academic scholarship and young people who embrace progressive causes.
This is unfortunate.
It's time for progressives to take control of this narrative. Admit that most of the questions asked by social scientists are of primary interest to people on the left. It's just a fact. We can admit that most young people are not interested in conservative values on college campuses.
Let's acknowledge these trends. Then put the onus on conservatives. They have to articulate what they want to be answered by social scientists and integrate that into what's already known. They will also have to realize they must discard their antiquated notions about class, race, sex and economic inequality to appeal to younger voters.
They probably won't want to do those things.
That's why they stick to a false narrative.