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Little evidence of UC 'crisis'

April 07, 2012
  • Students walk past the library at UC Berkeley. According to a report by the California Assn. of Scholars, the University of California supports overwhelmingly liberal academia that stifles dissent.
Students walk past the library at UC Berkeley. According to a report by the… (Los Angeles Times )

Pop quiz:

The University of California ...

A) is overpopulated by liberal professors.

B) is afflicted by a "cancer of politicization."

C) is contributing to the dumbing-down of college education.

D) is ripe for more aggressive oversight by the university's Regents.

E) all of the above.

According to a report by the California Assn. of Scholars, the state branch of a national organization founded "to confront the rise of campus political correctness," the answer is E. But when the group shows its work, things aren't that clear. "A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California" is a melange of anecdotes, second-hand studies (some of them national surveys that may not reflect the situation at the UCs), leaps of logic and ideological hyperventilation. Clearly some UC professors and programs have on some occasions transgressed the line between education and indoctrination, but the report fails to establish the existence of either a "cancer" or a "crisis" requiring urgent action by the Regents to restore a "rigorous marketplace of ideas."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 17, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 18 Editorial Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Bias: An April 7 editorial about political bias at the University of California said that a report by the California Assn. of Scholars cited three complaints about writing teachers bringing politics into the classroom. In addition to those examples, the report referred to complaints from other students, family members, a teacher and a UC San Diego faculty commission.

The report contains several horror stories involving instructors who foist their opinions on students and it cites some tendentious course descriptions and reading lists. You don't have to be a Republican to object to a computer science instructor who calls Arnold Schwarzenegger a "Nazi actor" or a community studies teacher who (according to a student) used her course as a vehicle for a "personal vendetta against the state of Israel, against Zionism, against Israelis and against Jews." Subjecting a captive classroom audience to a one-sided political harangue is poor pedagogy, and so is stacking the deck in reading assignments.

The report cites a national study suggesting that a majority of teachers in the U.S. believe it is important to teach students to effect social change. But is that sort of politicization pervasive at UC? The report makes much of the political predilections of the faculty. Citing research from early in this decade, it points to dramatic disproportions in the ideology and party identifications of UC faculty in the humanities and social sciences. For example, it cites a 2004 study showing that Democrats in Berkeley's social sciences departments outnumbered Republicans by 21 to 1. Imbalances like that are eye-opening, but they don't prove that professors are pressing their politics on their students or are incapable of exploring other points of view.

In fact, the report is short of proof of any kind that UC suffers from a "cancer of politicization." Anecdotes abound, but quantification is elusive. Anticipating assertions that most teachers conduct their classes responsibly and without politicization, the report notes that "the word 'most' is consistent with the existence of a huge problem. If even 10% of classrooms are corrupted, that would be horrendous, and yet the word 'most' would allow far more than that."

True, but where is the evidence that 10% or anything close to it is an accurate figure? There isn't any. Instead, the report merely asserts that indoctrination is "so widespread, and so open, that it is now clear that politicization is acceptable both to faculty and administration." Clear to the authors, perhaps, but not to the reader.

Nor does the report justify its apocalyptic title by documenting a link between politicization and declining standards. The best it can do is speculate: "If graduates cannot even write short declarative sentences competently, that is not surprising when writing courses neglect writing and focus instead on radical politics." The report says that writing courses "often" turn into tendentious political lectures, but offers only three examples, including a UC San Diego student whose teacher reportedly railed that "the United States is nothing beyond a despicable and hypocritical country that continues to oppress minorities and the disadvantaged." If that happened once, it was too often, but where is the pattern?

Anyone who has been to college knows that a minority of professors, liberal and conservative, succumb to the occupational hazard of inflicting their political (and other) views on their students without allowing any dissent. When that occurs, at UC or elsewhere, administrators need to remind faculty of the importance of open and uninhibited discussion. But the California Assn. of Scholars insists that more must be done to address the "crisis." It suggests that the Regents require "annual campus reports of progress in returning the campus to intellectual health, making it clear that administrations that have not achieved substantial progress will be replaced." Before instituting such an intrusive policy, the Regents should demand more proof of a problem than is contained in this report.

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