A new book, Closed Minds?: Politics and Ideology in American Universities (Brookings Institution Press, 2008), by Bruce L. R. Smith, Jeremy D. Mayer, and A. Lee Fritschler examines claims that America’s universities are dominated by faculty members who indoctrinate students in a leftist or liberal ideology and, instead found evidence of an “emerging risk-averse campus climate that threatens to impoverish the intellectual vitality of undergraduate education.”

The authors found that, while the majority of professors in their study sample were, indeed, liberal, there was little or no evidence that they engaged in “overt political activity, either in the classroom or in activities outside the classroom.” On the contrary: “The fear of appearing too liberal may, indeed, reinforce many faculty members’ innate tendencies toward caution” and professors may skirt controversial topics altogether.

This is, certainly, one more example of the growth of insidious self-censorship in US institutions – one can see it in the press, in museums, and, here, certainly, on campuses.

Good teaching in humanities and social-science fields, as the authors insist, “calls for stretching students’ minds and may involve challenging the assumptions that students bring to the classroom.” But the disincentives to doing that are many:

With anything professors might say potentially publicized in blogs and becoming scandal fodder in the news media, professors, the authors predict, “will increasingly find it safer to shun controversial issues and conflicts over deeply held values in their teaching and in discussions with students.”

Course evaluations, so important in tenure review, are an added factor intimidating professors: who would want to risk negative evaluations by challenging too forcefully a student’s views?

Finally, the appointments process (especially in the humanities and social sciences) favors the hiring of “safe” candidates. Holding views that are either too conservative or too liberal poses risks for the hiring department — and for the candidate. As the authors observe, “the department does not want to bring down the wrath of a dean sensitive to outside criticism from donors or state legislators.”

Yet, there is a crucial need is that undergraduates be taught about controversial issues and how to be comfortable in debating such issues – this is part of maintaining a democratic society, where educated citizens can – and are willing to – enter informed debate.

(This post relies to a large extent on information in The New Climate of Timidity on Campuses, an article by A. Lee Fritschler and Bruce L.R. Smith published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 55, Issue 23, Page A80)