Locating the Liberal Bias

Good news arrives in thick envelopes. Thin envelopes carry rejection. High school seniors across the nation are learning this law of physics, as schools like the University of Oregon fill their enrollment quotas for the next academic year. It takes only a page to inform an applicant of rejection. A student and the university accepting him or her for enrollment immediately begin making arrangements for the fall. The extra postage on the thick envelope is the first of many commitments to follow.

Hidden in those arrangements is the true beginning of the liberal bias that pervades higher education. Many studies have shown that college professors are overwhelmingly not conservative. Self-identified conservatives usually comprise less than 10 percent of the professorate of liberal arts universities.

That bias is well-known. Good professors will often acknowledge their prejudices and encourage students to challenge assumptions in class. The root of the bias that pervades college campuses is deeper than that — unseen and systemic. It begins with that first envelope and continues with the second.

The fat-envelope letter usually lauds the successful applicant by stating how many applicants the school filtered out to make room for the recipient. Another letter arrives shortly afterward with a dorm assignment, including a short blurb about the stranger who has been assigned to share that dorm room for the next nine months.

Colleges and universities build their populations of students and faculty around certain ideals that enamor liberals more than conservatives: diversity and social engineering.

Enrollment quotas at schools make headlines. But racial distinctions overshadow all the other quotas an admissions employee must try to fill: an even mix of men and women, enough flute players for the band, a good spread of geographic roots, the right socioeconomic milieu.

Why? Because schools have determined that diversity produces the best learning environment for all its students. The college years pay the best dividend if students find their assumptions challenged. A diverse student body will naturally produce a rich learning environment. Lost among these platitudes is the fact that some diversities are easier to measure and predict than others. Race and class are easiest to see, but other differences might have greater impact.

Every stereotype hints at a potential diversity. Blondes have more fun. Longhairs can’t be trusted. Every group needs a giggler. Smokers have fewer but deeper friends. The naturally tanned are shallow but well-liked. Women who end every sentence as a question are endlessly annoying. Facial hair befits a rich inner life.

Who determines which diversities best serve students? The admissions counselors, whose word is final.

They know what’s best for each student, all the way down to that first college roommate. Different schools take different approaches to this task. Some look for certain commonalities so the first few weeks away from home include plenty of quick bonding. Other schools take an almost fiendish pleasure in throwing different types together, either by planning or by chance. But in almost every case, the school chooses who will be sleeping near another during what might be the most formative months of young adult lives.

Social engineering is done from the top down. Engineers design machines. In this case they are fine-tuning a small society, and all the people (students and teachers) are parts of that machine. The students happen to be the cogs that are easiest to swap in or out as the machine gets calibrated for the coming year.

Is there a pervasive liberal bias on campus? Yes. But it does not begin with the politics of the professors. It flows first from the system’s administrators, most of whom you never see. They use nothing more than the applications they have received, a guarded or mental list of quotas, floor plans for the dorms, and a pile of thick and thin envelopes. From those ingredients, they invent a world that high schoolers hope to inhabit.

After the envelopes are opened, the Deistic die is cast. The machine starts up and it runs itself, each piece playing a part. But it’s worth noting that the pieces were chosen and arranged by the offices sending out those thick and thin envelopes.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) received thick envelopes from Trinity College in 1975 and Yale University in 1984. He writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.