Statue of John Witherspoon at Princeton University
Photo credit: Max VT (CC-By-NC-SA 2.0)

President Donald Trump tweeted on Friday a complaint that many on the right can resonate with, there is a problem in our education system. 

“Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not education. Therefore, I am telling the Treasury Department to re-examine their Tax-Exempt Status and/or Funding, which will be taken away if this Propaganda or Act Against Public Policy continues. Our children must be Educated, not Indoctrinated!”

Go to Campus Reform or the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and you can see a plethora of examples of how leftist ideology permeates college campuses. 

Not every campus is monolithic, much depends on the department one associates with, as, for instance, business schools tend to be more centrist. Research has shown; however, academia leans left. A study from 2007 showed only 9.2 percent of college professors identify as conservative. A 2016 study found that Democrat professors outnumbered Republican professors 11.5 to 1. They also broke it down by subject area: Business – 4.5:1, Journalism/Communications – 20:1, Law – 8.6:1, and Psychology – 17.4:1. Those ratios have grown since 2004.

Mitchell Langbert, in an article for the conservative National Association of Scholars’ publication Academic Questions, outlined his findings in 2018.

He writes:

The political registration of full-time, Ph.D.-holding professors in top-tier liberal arts colleges is overwhelmingly Democratic. Indeed, faculty political affiliations at 39 percent of the colleges in my sample are Republican free—having zero Republicans. The political registration in most of the remaining 61 percent, with a few important exceptions, is slightly more than zero percent but nevertheless absurdly skewed against Republican affiliation and in favor of Democratic affiliation. Thus, 78.2 percent of the academic departments in my sample have either zero Republicans, or so few as to make no difference.

My sample of 8,688 tenure track, Ph.D.–holding professors from fifty-one of the sixty-six top ranked liberal arts colleges in the U.S. News 2017 report consists of 5,197, or 59.8 percent, who are registered either Republican or Democrat. The mean Democratic-to-Republican ratio (D:R) across the sample is 10.4:1, but because of an anomaly in the definition of what constitutes a liberal arts college in the U.S. News survey, I include two military colleges, West Point and Annapolis.1 If these are excluded, the D:R ratio is a whopping 12.7:1.

Even The Washington Post acknowledges this. Jon Shields outlined the problem in his 2018 piece for National Affairs

Anyone with any intellectual honesty would have to say in terms of faculty make-up, Trump’s claim is correct.

Whether that means students are indoctrinated, some would find debatable. Still, considering the growing attacks on free speech and generally illiberal behavior seen on campus and recent graduates, it is hard to see how that is not the case. 

Granted, perhaps the blame can’t be entirely laid at higher education’s feet. Some responsibility belongs to public K-12 education and the culture at large as well. 

A person rarely leaves college as a conservative if they were not one at the start. 

President Trump’s suggestion that the tax-exempt status or federal funding (does he mean federally subsidized student loans?) of a university who propagandizes students be removed is troubling. This illiberal response to higher education’s lack of viewpoint diversity is blatantly unconstitutional. 

Trump’s suggestion is no better than conservative groups’ non-profit status being slow-walked or denied by the IRS under the Obama administration. 

Casey Mattox, a free speech advocate & attorney, said the U.S. does not need a “Fairness Doctrine” for higher education. 

“We need people making their own informed decisions about what kind of university they want to attend and what they’re paying for. If you want a diversity of views (and you should) attend colleges that best promote them,” he tweeted. 

“I hear from conservative free speech advocates all the time with very legitimate complaints about free speech on their campuses. But few considered the speech environment before choosing their school. We need to do more of that. Incentivize free speech and a diversity of views,” Mattox added.

His suggestion offers a free-market approach that parents and students should adopt. If free speech and viewpoint diversity are important, conservative students and families should consider that before selecting it. Federal financial aid follows students. 

We don’t need the federal government to select winners and losers among colleges and be the arbiters of what is considered propaganda. That is a double-edged sword which can come back to bite conservatives down the road.

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