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December 7, 2020+Sam Abrams
+Public Policy

What Americans Think of Professors

Over the past decade, American institutions have taken a beating as people’s confidence in them has plummeted. To be sure, these institutions have historically performed critical tasks by establishing a structure and form to accomplish various ends, from law enforcement to serving the poor, from service institutions to educating the masses. But trust in these groups has declined considerably of late. As such, it should come as no surprise given that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, survey work regularly showed low levels of confidence in various levels of government, the media, religious institutions, and political groups.

One surprising finding, however, involves the American professoriate; a centuries old institution responsible for educating and developing so many minds around the nation. The Survey Center on American Life’s American Community and Civic Life Survey reveals that Americans have greater confidence in America’s professors than religious leadership; the news media; state, local, and federal government; and Donald Trump.

Theoretically, this should be the case because professors are supposed to be methodical, thoughtful, balanced truth-seekers. In fact, most (64%) work for the social good as public school faculty and many in departments like public health, public policy, and basic research and development. The problem is that Americans are not collectively trusting of faculty whatsoever and this is more proof of what happens when the academy becomes politicized and the search for truth becomes both prejudiced and biased.

Specifically, when asked if Americans had much confidence in college and university professors acting in the best interests of the public, overall 57% replied in the affirmative – this includes those who had a great deal (8%) and a fair amount (49%) of confidence in faculty.

However, when broken down by ideology the picture looks appreciably different. Only 38% of Republicans and leaners and just 41% of independents and undecideds have confidence in faculty to do the right thing. In contrast, almost three-quarters of Democrats (74%) have confidence in our nation’s faculty. There are minimal differences in terms of household income; career lines of respondents also only marginally impact these figures.

Partisan differences here are significant and contextualizing these views about professors is necessary. As such, it is valuable to note that partisanship in and of itself is not impacting trust in others; 44% of Republicans report having people in their lives that they can trust most or nearly all the time and the figure for Democrats is 47%.

Moreover, it is also worth stating that the data reveal minimal differences in the educational plans and aspirations of partisans – the same Republicans and Democrats who diverge on their faculty views grew up with very similar values and outlooks toward higher education. When asked about whether the general expectation of them was to go to college after high school versus getting a full-time job after high school there is widespread support for higher education. 19% of Republicans and 16% of Democrats say that they were expected to immediately find work after high school, whereas 47% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats expected to attend college after high school. About a quarter of both groups reported not talking about educational plans whatsoever. What is key here is to recognize that neither Republicans nor Democrats were raised to reject higher education or view faculty as untrustworthy. But current attitudes suggest a serious shift has taken place.

These findings mirror the data collected by Pew Research Center which uncovered partisan differences in whether or not Americans believe that colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days. While the new data do not probe more deeply into why there is such a partisan trust divide on faculty, a significant factor is likely that faculty are overwhelmingly liberal in their orientation and that viewpoint diversity is increasingly disappearing on campus and in classrooms.

It is not a secret whatsoever that many faculty bring progressive ideas exclusively into the classroom and see themselves as scholar activists which limits discourse through intimidation and often promotes single-sided intellectual, political, and social engagement among students. Such narrow behavior is the antithesis of higher education which is supposed to be a dialectic competition of ideas based on reason and evidence. When many faculty are falling short on this front by unabashedly promoting, often progressive, socio-political agendas, it should come as little surprise then that those on the right side of the aisle are appreciably more skeptical of the professoriate. This is a problem, however, that can be remedied if our nation’s faculty remembers and exemplifies its training to “lead their students out” and develop the minds of their students. To do this, teaching and being open to a multitude of ideas is essential. Faculty need to remember that being good teachers, scholars, and mentors means that they do not have to be completely neutral in all facets of their jobs; but that they must be balanced and open to a multiplicity of ideas and views and represent them in their teaching and engagement with students. When such viewpoint diversity is truly epitomized, college and university faculty will likely earn the overall trust that they theoretically deserve.


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