Political Neutrality In The Classroom

In a heated presidential election campaign, are college classrooms becoming improperly political?  Two recent news reports address the issue.

At The Ohio State University, a professor notified fellow professors that the Obama campaign was willing to send a volunteer to classrooms to encourage students to register, a pitch that would take about five minutes of class time.  The message also said the staffer could talk to students about volunteering with the Obama campaign, but if professors “weren’t comfortable” with that, the presentation would be limited to voter registration.  A report about the message appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the OSU administration reacted promptly.  The University Provost sent a message to faculty stating that “we must make absolutely certain that Ohio State does not engage in partisan political activities,” which includes “inviting political organizers into our classrooms.”  The message added that national elections are important and exciting, but the OSU faculty and administration needed to ensure that “Ohio State will be seen as a base for impartial discourse.”

More recently, a professor at a Florida college is reported to have handed out pledges to vote for President Obama to her students during a math class; when the reports came to light, the school commenced an investigation to determine if its policies had been violated and the professor went on a leave of absence.

Do these reports show that our colleges and universities are being vigilant in ensuring that classrooms aren’t used as political indoctrination sessions?  Or, as some conservatives claim, are such reports merely addressing the tip of the iceberg of partisan political discourse — discourse that conservatives suspect is overwhelmingly liberal in orientation?

Colleges always will be hotbeds of political discussion among students, but I think most colleges and universities are legitimately trying to avoid partisan hackery by faculty members.  I was encouraged by the Lantern article which quoted OSU students as saying that professors weren’t expressing their personal political views in the classroom or pressuring students to vote one way or another.

This is an election where there is heated feeling on both sides.  Under such circumstances, you’d expect a professor to cross the line now and then.  The important thing is for school administrations to keep an eye our for such policy violations, respond to any reports with appropriate investigations, and remind faculty and staff of the rules.  American institutions of higher education should strive to achieve a neutral setting where students feel free to discuss and debate all political viewpoints — which is a lot of what college should be about.

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