In the debate about the alleged liberal bias of universities, some people say that it doesn’t make any difference if most professors are left-of-center, because most of their students soon become moderates or conservatives. In other words, professors’ political opinions have little impact.
Indeed, the impact of faculty can easily be exaggerated. Students form their own opinions, and to the extent that they are influenced by others, professors are by no means the most important guides. Peers, parents, clergy, and the mass media almost certainly have more impact. Nevertheless, longitudinal survey data show that the ideology of a given college’s faculty affects its students, even if we hold constant undergraduates’ attitudes when they enter.
The “political climate” of a college, measured in terms of average student opinions and average faculty opinions, has significant and consistent effects on individual undergraduates, influencing their likelihood of voting, their commitment to social activism, and their views on a wide range of contested current issues from the death penalty to taxation. The effects of faculty and peers are independent; the peer effects are considerably bigger. Sometimes, studies find that the peer effects completely negate the faculty effects. However, it may be that liberal students elect to attend certain colleges because their faculty have a reputation for being liberal. Then peer effects would reflect faculty effects.
Incidentally, having a liberal faculty is also associated with increases in students’ interests in the arts.
Pascarella and Terenzini find that “Participation in racial or cultural awareness workshops and enrollment in ethnic or women?s studies courses, for example, are both likely to nudge students’ political orientations toward the left side of the liberal-conservative political spectrum and increase their support for social activism.”
Students in private colleges and selective colleges are most likely to change their opinions in a liberal direction. (This finding is based on measures of attitudes toward a few policy issues.)
Source: Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Vol. 2, A Third Decade of Research (Jossey-Bass), pp. 286, 294-5, 292 306, 294.