Memo to President Trump: College students are not sponges
On July 11, President Donald Trump announced that he was ordering the Treasury to reexamine the tax exempt status of colleges because “too many . . . are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education.” This latest warning was one of a series of threats aimed at forcing both higher education institutions and K-12 schools to return to in-person instruction in the fall. Setting aside the President’s motivations, two things are clear: There is no valid basis in existing law for revoking schools’ tax-exempt status, and students are far more resistant to political indoctrination than President Trump would like us to believe.
Colleges and universities may lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in lobbying or other political activity that departs from their educational purpose, but federal law prohibits the IRS from targeting nonprofits for heightened scrutiny “based on their ideological beliefs.” For this reason, the IRS was widely condemned in 2013 for using a political filter in reviewing applications for tax-exempt status.
While the tax-exempt status of colleges and universities is therefore likely to remain in place, the Trump administration’s assault on American educational institutions remains cause for concern. In his Independence Day remarks, delivered at Mount Rushmore, the president warned of a “far-left fascism” in “our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms,” declared the “violent mayhem” in cities run by Democrats to be “the predictable result of years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism, and other cultural institutions,” and concluded that “[a]gainst every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country.”
The president’s claims of left-wing indoctrination have a long history. At least since 1951 and the publication of William F. Buckley’s influential God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom,’ conservative critics have accused colleges and universities of indoctrinating students with left-wing, Marxist, and anti-capitalist ideologies. As Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos put it in a 2017 speech — 66 years later — liberal professors tell students “what to do, what to say and, more ominously, what to think.”
These critiques have become engrained in many Americans’ views of higher education. According to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, of the nearly two-thirds of Americans who were dissatisfied with U.S. universities, almost half (including 79 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats) cited as a major reason that professors push political agendas in the classroom.
Data on party affiliation and political contributions confirm that professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences, do lean left, though the distribution varies considerably by institutional type, geographic region, and discipline. Multiple studies demonstrate, however, that student views on subjects such as climate change, healthcare, and immigration do not change significantly, compared to others in their age cohort, from matriculation to graduation. A 2008 study, for example, found “little evidence . . . that faculty ideology is associated with changes in students’ ideological orientation” and that the “students at colleges with more liberal faculties were not statistically more likely to move to the left than students at other institutions.”
Other studies have reached similar conclusions.
In one recent study, only 10 percent of students felt pressure to align with their faculty’s views, and although conservative students felt that pressure more often than liberal students, the authors did not find evidence “that feeling pressured actually results in substantial changes to these students’ political inclinations.” In fact, most conservative students report that the liberal college environment “challenged them in ways that were positive and beneficial. It made them clarify values and ideas about different issues or about what being a conservative means.”
Matthew Woessner, a life-long Republican, and April Kelly-Woessner, both professors of political science, found that students’ political party preferences shifted “almost randomly” over time. “Students aren’t sponges,” the Woessners conclude. Their beliefs are “remarkably resilient.”
None of this is to say that the dearth of conservative faculty on some college campuses is desirable, or that colleges should not encourage and support the expression of a wide range of viewpoints. The freedom to express ideas without risk of institutional interference has helped make colleges and universities in the United States the premier institutions of higher education in the world. Every time academic freedom has been attacked, as it was in the McCarthy era, students, faculty, and American society have suffered.
As the American Association of University Professors noted in its 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure: “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” The statement goes on to declare that teachers are “entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce in their teaching controversial matter that has no relation to their subject… As scholars and educational officers… they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, and show respect for the opinion of others.”
In our judgment that last admonition — “at all times be accurate, exercise appropriate restraint, and show respect for the opinion of others” — is as appropriate for political leaders as it is for teachers and scholars.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.
David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.
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