Monday, December 5, 2016

Margaret Wente on the Radical Left "taking over our universities"

In her Globe and Mail column this past Saturday, Margaret Wente tries to argue that, in Canada and indeed North America, "radicals have taken over” our universities. It's worth a closer look.

Perhaps her most striking piece of evidence concerns the percentage of self-described Marxists who supposedly inhabit today's universities. In her column, Wente uses the present tense in asserting that, according to “studies of US universities, 18 percent of social science professors say they’re Marxists.” But check out the study in which the 18% figure appears; “The Social and Political Views of American Professors,” by Neil Gross of Harvard University and Solon Simmons of George Mason University is readily available online.

It's clearly a carefully researched (and well-written) study. But it turns out that the study was conducted in 2006; it's a bit of a stretch for Wente to present it as evidence of current trends.

Secondly, the study consisted of a questionnaire that was filled out by roughly half of those to whom it was sent. The authors themselves write that the results were likely somewhat skewed, under-representing conservatives and over-representing those on the political left; a series of follow-up phone calls by the authors indicated that, for whatever reason, those on the left seemed to have been more likely to fill out and return the questionnaire than those on the right. It would seem, then, that even in 2006 it would have been misleading to conclude that 17.6 percent (the exact figure in the Gross and Simmons study) of academics in the social sciences in North American universities were self-described Marxists.

But what of the overall trends? Wente's column suggests that there's been a huge growth in the radical left presence on North American universities in recent years. Is she right? What did the "18 percent" study have to say about overall trends? As it turns out, Gross and Simmons were very far from concluding that professors were becoming more radical. On the contrary, they said, “the number of moderates in academe appears to be growing.” (p. 40) Radicalism was then a somewhat common (though still very much a minority) stance among professors who had “come of age in the 1960s,” but the researchers found that it was far, far less common among younger professors.*

In Wente’s hands, in other words, Gross and Simmons’ evidence is twisted to suggest exactly the reverse of what they said.

It should readily be granted that Wente is not alone in distorting the results of this study; you can find the 18% figure on a variety of right-wing websites, cited without qualification as if it represented today's reality. But in a supposedly "post truth" world, surely we should expect more from our major, mainstream media.

*For what it's worth, my own experience in calling at a great many North American universities from 1975 onwards absolutely supports the conclusion that Marxists are far, far less common on campuses today than they were 10 years ago--and less common still than they were 30 or 40 years ago. It also supports Gross and Simmons' 2006 conclusion that the group that has been growing most is political moderates. Center and center-left political views seem prevalent in social sciences and humanities faculties, center and center right political views in business and engineering faculties.

No comments:

Post a Comment