Have you ever had a professor who bleeds through his hemp shirt in the area of his heart, and wondered, “What does fair trade have to do with chemistry?” If so, you’re not alone.
“Being conservative in our classes, to us, oftentimes it does seem like there is a bias or that our views aren’t represented as much,” said Christina Chiappe, the Cal Poly College Republicans president and a social science senior. “So we wanted to see if there was any correlation, or if it was our imagination, as far as professors and what their actual party affiliation was.”
The Cal Poly College Republicans ventured to the San Luis Obispo County Clerks Office and found the political affiliations of every registered full-time faculty member on campus. The results show a higher density of Democrats in every college at Cal Poly except the College of Agriculture.
“To kind of put this in a nutshell, we all know as professors that we’re outnumbered if we’re on the conservative side,” said Laura Freberg, a professor of psychology and the Cal Poly College Republicans faculty advisor.
Freberg said that her work as a biological psychologist with a brain and behavior focus is quite apolitical. When her husband ran for several public office positions on a Republican platform in the ’90s, however her colleagues questioned her.
“If someone asks me a direct question I’m going to give a direct answer,” she said. “I spent a good chunk of the ’90s in federal court trying to keep my job.”
Freberg filed a discrimination suit again the university that was eventually settled in court.
“My position was that I was not being treated fairly, in my view, in terms of promotion,” she said. Chiappe said another reason for the survey was because her club wondered “is it that liberals are more academic, and that’s why they’re professors, or is it that they are being hired more often because of their political views. If you are a Republican, are you less likely or more likely to be hired?” she said.
William Bailey, director of Employee Equity and Faculty Recruitment at Cal Poly said, “It’s illegal for us to inquire as to someone’s political beliefs.”
Although it was confirmed that hirers cannot inquire about candidate’s political affiliations, Freberg believes there are loopholes in learning such information. Simple indicators like the way an applicant dresses, socio-economic status or dissertation topics could lead hiring committees to make assumptions, she said.
She said she witnessed one of her colleagues directly ask a candidate in an employment interview what he thought of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant “because in the ’80s, of course, that was a real hot button issue,” Freberg said. “The poor guy was just really flustered. He didn’t know what to say. It’s like, how does that have anything to do with being a psychology professor?”
Kaity Cofer, a nutrition junior, said, “My teacher currently is extremely liberal, and every assignment that we do kind of relates back to, ‘oh, this is because Bush has done this to the economy or we’re stuck in this rut because.’ and it always kind of relates back to anti-Republican,” but, “I think that teachers should be able to voice their opinions just like anyone. Being our age, we should be able to think for ourselves.”
Freberg feels differently. “I’m thinking ‘what is it like to be a conservative student taking a class from somebody who really thinks all conservatives should just fall off the face of the planet?’ It must be very difficult,” she said.
On the other side of the spectrum, Erin Mellon, vice president of the Cal Poly Democrats and a business junior, said, “If you really identify with one party or the other, if you’re trying to teach, it’s really hard not to bring that into your teaching.”
Mike Latner, an assistant professor of political science, said that the Cal Poly survey results most likely represent a worldwide trend. “The idea of academic freedom and there being a safe place to pursue ideas is the whole foundation behind how we can lead to progress. So it doesn’t surprise me that universities are liberal places,” he said.
In a 2005 study of 11 California universities ranging from small, private religious campuses to large public schools published in the Critical Review, two economics professors found that across all schools studied and in all departments, there was a five-to-one Democrat to Republican ratio, and in the liberal arts, the ratio was higher than eight-to-one.
Latner, who is registered as decline to state, said he teaches an explicitly political set of classes and that “it would be a disservice to my students to try to pretend that I was neutral or to try to hide my own political views. I think of politics as an open forum and so I want to put my views out there and I want to put people who disagree with me out there.”
By discussing alternative viewpoints, Latner believes professors prepare students for the real world.
“Ideology tends to fall apart when it hits the sort of messy world of reality,” he said. “There is no time for radicalism (once you graduate) because you’re in the rat race. Part of what the university is about is saving space for radicalism because radicalism has freed us from the tyranny of tradition, in a way.”
Chris Hartog, an assistant professor in the political science department, said he speaks of his personal political preference, decline to state, sparsely in class.
Hartog said while unconventional views could bother or mislead some people in a classroom setting, “it could also be that that minority point of view is the best one and everybody else is thinking something stupid.”
Latner acknowledged California as generally a liberal state and said, “Republicans have a sense of being the underdog in California.”
Of her colleagues in the liberal arts department, Freberg said, “They don’t just not want to work with you, they hate you. Every time I’ve put out a broadcast e-mail advertising a College Republicans event, I’ll send it to the liberal arts faculty. I get hate mail.”