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"Study Casts Doubt on Claims That Conservative Students Face Discrimination in Classes "

Thursday, March 30, 2006
From The Chronicle of Higher Education

"Study Casts Doubt on Claims That Conservative Students Face Discrimination in Classes

By JENNIFER JACOBSON

A study showing that conservative and liberal students do equally well in courses with politically charged content casts doubt on conservative activists' claims that liberal faculty members routinely discriminate against their conservative students.

The study found no difference in the grades conservative and liberal students receive in sociology, cultural anthropology, and women's-studies courses. It also found that conservative students tend to earn higher grades than their liberal classmates in business and economics courses.

Titled "What's in a Grade? Academic Success and Political Orientation," the study was conducted by Markus Kemmelmeier, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada at Reno, who was the lead author; Cherry Danielson, a research fellow at Wabash College; and Jay Basten, a lecturer in kinesiology at the University of Michigan.

The researchers published their paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin last October, but it has attracted little attention, even as activists like David Horowitz continue to press state legislatures to adopt a so-called academic bill of rights to make college campuses more "intellectually diverse" and more tolerant of conservatives.

Mr. Kemmelmeier's study follows two others, published within the past seven years, that found that conservative students tended to earn slightly lower grades in majors such as sociology and anthropology. The professor, who describes his politics as slightly left of center, says he did not undertake the study to contribute to the ongoing discussion of political bias on college campuses, but to address ongoing questions in social psychology about the choices people make regarding their interaction with organizations and what personal characteristics contribute to their success within those organizations.

The earlier studies are "consistent with what Horowitz might suggest -- that conservative students are actually not doing all that well in fields that are thought more left-leaning," says Mr. Kemmelmeier. But there's a problem with that argument, he says: The students' performance "has nothing to do with bias" on the part of their professors.

In a four-year longitudinal study that began in the late 1990s, he surveyed 3,890 students at a major public university in the Midwest. Asked to describe their political orientation, 2.7 percent identified themselves as far left, 34.6 percent as liberal, 42 percent as middle of the road, 20 percent as conservative, and 1.2 percent as far right.

Mr. Kemmelmeier then compared the transcripts of a variety of students taking the same courses, specifically courses taught in the economics department and the business school (which Mr. Kemmelmeier considered "hierarchy-enhancing," or conservative) and those taught in American culture, African-American studies, cultural anthropology, education, nursing, sociology, and women's studies (which he considered "hierarchy-attenuating," or liberal).

He found that in the latter courses, students' political orientations had no effect on their grades -- which, the study says, suggests that disciplines such as sociology and anthropology "might be more accepting of a broad range of student perspectives," while economics and business classes "appear to be more sensitive to whether student perspectives are compatible with those of the academic discipline."

In economics and business classes, the study found, conservative students earned better grades. It also found that conservative students were likely to graduate with higher GPA's in those courses than liberal students who entered college with similar SAT scores.

According to the study, conservative students might have an advantage over their peers in such courses because the conservative students might view the courses as more relevant to their future careers and therefore might be motivated to work harder.

Also, the study notes, conservative students might be "more comfortable" with such subjects "because making money is more likely to be a personal goal for them than for liberal students." Moreover, in economics and business courses, "teaching methods and classroom structure might be more amenable to conservative than liberal students, for example, by emphasizing competition over cooperation."

But the study's authors say that liberal students are unlikely to face discrimination from conservative faculty members in such courses. To discriminate against liberal students, professors would need to know the political views of individual students in what are typically large classes; it's unlikely that professors would know their students that well, Mr. Kemmelmeier says. He adds that many professors who teach big courses don't grade their students' papers themselves -- teaching assistants do.

Mr. Kemmelmeier and his colleagues acknowledge that instructors sometimes do grade students to reward or punish them for behavior not at all related to their academic performance.

Still, he does not deny that conservative students -- and sometimes liberal students -- feel sidelined by their professors' views, if those views are openly expressed. "I'm not yet clear that this means the professor will really grade them down," Mr. Kemmelmeier says. "I find it plausible, but I’ve seen no evidence of it." "