Partisanship in the Classroom: Stanford Faculty and the 2012 Elections

As the election cycle heats up across the nation, Stanford campus is no exception to the excitement and activism. Already, a number of “get out the vote” initiatives have popped up, prominently located in Arrillaga Dining and White Plaza. Elections 2012, a course offered through the Political Science Department, is enrolled with 400 hundred students. And political student groups, such as Stanford Democrats and Students for Mitt, will soon begin their campaigning efforts in the coming weeks.

Stanford’s faculty too, is no exception to this wave. In 2010, for example, Stanford professors were one of most politically active faculty in the country, ranking third nationally in the amount contributed to political campaigns.

Their activism, however, raises a tricky dilemma: on one hand, Stanford grants the faculty academic freedom, which, according to the Faculty Handbook, allows professors to determine their own political or social views, “free from institutional orthodoxy or internal and external pressure.” On the other hand, there are educational considerations that might preclude overt partisanship and bias in the classroom; students deserve a neutral and balanced experience, perhaps most particularly in political science and economics classes, which naturally lend themselves to electoral debate.

In this election cycle, Stanford professors have indeed taken sides: most lean Democratic. According to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, Stanford employees donated a total of $406,435 to Democrats and $88,395 to Republicans, across federal, state and local elections. This equals roughly 80% of contributions going to Democrats.

In the presidential race alone, $246,703 has been donated to President Obama, while only $24, 665 has gone to Governor Romney.  This breaks down to 90% of contributions going to Obama.

Although the CRP study suggests a decided Democratic leaning, a few things should be taken into consideration.

First, the study includes all Stanford employees, making it difficult to get an accurate sense of strictly the faculty.  Second, contributions aren’t the only way to measure political activism. Conceivably, a faculty member can be extremely partisan, without contributing much to organized campaigns. Last, looking at the raw total of contributions to either side can miss the relative “weight” of individual contributors, in how much they impact campus culture. Professors with more influence, seniority, and appeal to the students, can contribute far more to a sense of partisanship than the lump sum of their contribution would indicate. And Stanford has a number of high-profile professors with decidedly conservative leanings.

Michael Boskin, for example, is a university professor and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, and served as chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, under George H. W. Bush.

Condoleezza Rice, also a senior fellow at Hoover, served as Secretary of State under George W. Bush. This summer, she delivered a keynote address at the Republican National Convention, expounding on the virtues of conservative foreign policy.

Finally, Professor John Taylor has served as a senior economic advisor to the Romney Campaign, directly contributing to policies that may become the law of the land with a Romney victory.

Taylor has been an outspoken activist in this campaign. In August, he co-authored a White Paper that articulated Governor Romney’s plan for economic growth while simultaneously critiquing Obama’s record.  He also recently co-authored an Op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, along with four other Senior Fellows at Hoover, which bemoaned “The Magnitude of the Mess We’re in”—directly attributing that mess to President Obama.

On September 20, days after freshman had arrived for NSO, Taylor testified at a congressional hearing entitled “Regulation Nation: The Obama Administration’s Regulatory Expansion vs. Jobs and Economic Recovery,” charging Obama with overseeing “the worst recovery…perhaps in American history.”

Professor Taylor is also a staple teacher of Econ1A, Stanford’s introductory economics course, and his textbook, Economics, is in standard use for all Econ1A courses at Stanford.

“There are two important dimensions to the question… of [how] the policy preferences of faculty [should] impact their teaching: one legal and one ethical” asserted Robert Reich, professor in the political science department and director of the program in Ethics and Society.

On the legal side, the question “concerns the status of the university as a 501c3 organization and prohibition on electioneering by non-profits.” Continued Reich.

As a tax-exempt educational institution, Stanford must maintain neutrality in the election, and cannot support, or criticize, either side.

Pursuant to this prohibition, Stanford’s Administrative Guide Memo limits the use of University facilities for political activities, to cases that do not imply University involvement or endorsement. This newspaper has already reported on the fuzzy line this regulation rests on; Students running for public office cannot use Zimbra email, but groups, such as Students for Mitt, can do so to organize activities and explicitly advocate in an election.

According to Taylor, so long as he’s not working on University time, his involvement in the campaign is completely legitimate.

“I took a leave of absence when I worked on the transition team for Obama” Echoed Professor Gregory Rosston, Deputy Director of the Public Policy Department.

The ethical question, according to Reich, “concerns whether faculty should allow their political views to permeate the classroom.”

“I don’t let my own views enter the classroom, or when I do, I make clear they’re my own.” Stated Professor Taylor.

“My primary focus in the classroom is to impart technical skills and knowledge of economics, which are not partisan or political.”  He continued.

While this insight does not solve the question of partisanship in the classroom for the majority of disciplines, it makes headway in economics, which may among the most pertinent to political activism.

Taylor implies that the technical aspects of economics are value neutral, and thus there is not threat of partisanship, or politics at all, entering the classroom in problematic ways.

“There are assumptions that everyone agrees on.” added Rosston.

This view, however, of economics as a value-neutral science, is not uncontested. Philosopher Michael Sandal of Harvard University argues that economic terms such as utility imply decisions about what is valuable in life.

Simple choices such as what goes into the curriculum are decisions by the professor about what is valuable. For instance, a curriculum heavily slanted towards conservative, supply-side economic theory is a moral choice, no matter how technical the subject matter.

The line between objectivity and partisanship can be fuzzy and difficult to straddle. Another approach to question may be to allow values and activism to permeate the classroom. Students should not only learn technical skills but good citizenship and public debates. And perhaps these virtues are best fostered in a value-laden discussion, where students own views are challenged, and where they are forced to articulate their own views.

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