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Over 80% of Conservative Students Perceive Academic Bias at Wake Forest

As a religion and biology major at Wake Forest, John, a senior, chose to take part in the University’s rich tradition of liberal arts. John asked not to be identified because he is still taking classes in the departments we discussed. Along the way, he has taken classes about ecology and evolution, developing secular theories about religion, and the sociology of race in the United States.

Within each of these classes, John had to make a choice: share his dissenting, more conservative opinions and deal with the potential costs or stay silent due to the perceived bias of his professors. 

According to the 50 participants of a recent Wake Forest Review survey, conservative students are frequently faced with the decision and often chose to stay silent. 83.7 percent of respondents said they have had a professor who they felt was biased against conservatives.

Of those who said they had a biased professor, 80 percent said they held back from participating in class or did not answer questions due to potential academic or social consequences of participation.

The survey was not scientific but did receive a response from a broad swath of conservative students at the school. The results of this survey at least indicate that there should be further research that can help eliminate potential response biases. Further of analysis of the results also showed a serious trend.

An analysis of each of the departments mentioned by respondents found that there is a strong and statistically significant correlation between the number of times a department was mentioned as biased by conservative students and the proportion of right-leaning professors in the department. 

So, the correlation indicated that the fewer right-leaning professors in a department, the more likely conservative students perceived a department as biased.

However, the proportion of left-leaning professors in a department was not correlated to mentions of bias. You can see the analysis .

However, not all conservative students see the bias of liberal professors as a problem.

“Certainly if a professor grades negatively for political views and there is evidence of that, it should be brought up to the administration and certainly a majority of professors are liberal,” said junior Daniel Ross. “A conclusion that because professors lean left, conservatives have it tough on the Wake Forest campus is a stretch.”

Survey respondents were also asked to give their reasons for not participating in class.

35.5% of these students said they held back because they believed participating would hurt their grade.

35.5% said they held back because they believed participating would hurt their relationship with the professor.

29% said they held back because participating would have caused me to be “ganged up on” by their classmates, and the professor wouldn’t have helped direct the dialogue.

“Every single other person around me started making comments about me being white, male, born in America, and going to Wake Forest,” he said. “It was definitely trying to silence the voice of dissent. A lot of these people are big about expressing their own truth, if I was going to express my truth in this situation, my point of view would not have been welcome.”

During John’s time at Wake Forest, he faced each of these scenarios in different classes across academic disciplines.

For example, an essay question in the final exam for an ecology and evolution class proposed a scenario where the student has a friend who is “a little bit suspicious of climate change and whether government policies can do anything to reduce it.” The question then asked students explain why your friend is wrong.

“The point of the question was to debunk more of a political stance, rather than any scientific one,” John said. “The nature of the question wasn’t to explain how something works or how some process works, but rather to silence climate skeptics.”

Based on the stakes of the question, John chose to give the answer he believed the professor wanted. “If I was a climate skeptic myself and gave an honest answer, it would have hurt my grade,” he said. “It was a final exam.”

In a sociology class, John had a professor who said that “white people inherently have to be racist because they are in a position of power in society.” This time, he chose to speak up.

“There were times that I gently pushed back against it, in favor of some more individual traits – like look at people based on their personalities rather than the color of their skin,” he said. “The entire classroom around me started raising their hand, saying things like you’re a white man, you don’t know what it’s like to be a trans-woman of color.”

The barrage of comments, which John characterized as ad hominem and strawman attacks, did not end there.

“Every single other person around me started making comments about me being white, male, born in America, and going to Wake Forest,” he said. “It was definitely trying to silence the voice of dissent. A lot of these people are big about expressing their own truth, if I was going to express my truth in this situation, my point of view would not have been welcome.”

The professor of the class, who John hoped would reorient the discussion to evidence-based arguments, instead said that “the worst thing about racism is that it can make good people believe evil things.” John believed that this comment was directed at him and his beliefs.

John’s experiences show the calculus that conservative students go through regarding the costs they are willing to bear in a class. In these examples, John was willing to endure the social costs of facing critical comments from classmates and a professor, but not willing to face the academic cost of answering an exam question honestly.

This calculus is different for different students. For example, women as a population tend to be more agreeable than men, which would cause them to take social costs from participating in class more seriously.

In a statement to the Review, Dean of the College Michelle Gillespie emphasized the University’s commitment to providing “powerful learning opportunities that challenge all students to develop open minds and think critically.”

She pointed to the mission statement of the undergraduate college, which says,“It seeks to encourage habits of mind that ask “why,” that evaluate evidence, that are open to new ideas, that attempt to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others, that accept complexity and grapple with it, that admit error, and that pursue truth.”

If students feel that professors are not following these values, Gillespie said that they should share their concerns in mid-term and end of the semester course evaluations for a class.

According to John, one professor in the Religion department, Jarrod Whitaker, told John’s class that bias reports filed against him would not be taken seriously by the University.

John said that while the class focused on secular models of religion and evaluated theories of religion and why people were religious, Whitaker would constantly “explain why Christian theology is problematic, racist, sexist, imperialist, and fundamentally evil.” He did not make similar comments about any other religions.

“His point was specifically that Christianity is in a position of power, everything came down to who is in a position of power and how we can problematize that,” John said. “If you try to challenge him, he will absolutely dominate you. Even to women who argued with him, he told them that even if you don’t know you’re being oppressed, the systems we can clearly see show us a patriarchy.”

After a class where Whitaker asserted that the Virgin Mary must have “got laid,” John, who is a devout Catholic, met with him after class for several hours to discuss his comments. Whitaker became “so heated when I made counter-arguments that another professor came in to make sure everything was alright.”

“His position was that it was not only illogical to believe in God, he said that to believe in God is one of the most immoral things you can do, and to believe there is an objective Truth is the most tremendous evil that is responsible for all the great suffering in the world,” John said.

“If, as you imply, one or more of my students is experiencing distress in my classes, then I accept responsibility because no student should feel threatened in any university class,” Whitaker said when asked about potential bias in class. “On the other hand, sometimes when we investigate our own beliefs and interpretations, even in the safe environment of a university, it can be personally upsetting, simply as a matter of critical inquiry.”

“As a professional teacher, I am fully aware of this and consequently take extra pains to walk my students through the methods and theories academics use to contextualize any religious tradition’s truth claims or historical practices,” Whitaker said. “In addition, I personally favor no tradition above any other yet at all times reaffirm my students’ religious convictions, while asking them to think through their own beliefs with a critical, analytical, and self-reflexive perspective.”

“If individual students are encouraged to thoroughly explore, revisit, and defend their ideas, that’s higher education at its best,” Provost Rogan Kersh said in a statement to the Review. “Of course, if faculty are impugning students in their classroom as a group–whether conservatives, LGBT students, Muslims, Latinas, or any other group–then I would hope that students report the behavior through any number of means available to them.  

12 Comments

  1. Quite a headline for a survey the author states “The survey was not scientific but did receive a response from a broad swath of conservative students at the school.” The first part of the sentence says it was not a scientific survey – well yes. It was not a random sample. The survey covered “50 participants” out of an undergraduate class of over 5000. We have no breakdown of the number of conservative students at WFU, but it is a school in a very conservative state with a very non-diverse student body (according to US News WFU Is the least diverse student body in the top 27 schools with which WFU competes.) fifty is in no way a sufficient number. And we would ask, of that 50 how many were in the staff of WFR, which numbers 30.
    The statistical analysis falls far short by not asking the right question (GIGO). The first question is not the ratio of conservative registered R, as opposed to liberal professors (D) in each area of study. The first question to ask for evaluating the number of comments is not the ratio of professors as liberal or conservative but an adjustment for the number of classes taken in each area by the survey respondents. If they took far more classes in English and History as opposed to Art, Music and Theater (as one might surmise for most students who are not arts majors), then one would expect the number of comments to reflect the number of classes taken regardless of the instructor’s voter registration. Without this adjustments to the correlation data in the results are meaningless.
    I would also object to classification of professors by their voter registration in NC. WFU is located in one of the most conservative countries of the comparable modern democratic capitalist countries (no universal health care, mandatory parental leave available for new parents etc.) NC has one of the most conservative governments in the US. And as survey after survey reflects, the more education a voter has the more likely he or she is to register D as opposed to R. Given that 94% of the classes taught at WFU are taught by people with terminal degrees it would be highly likely that many of them would register D in NC. If they were located in the North East then perhaps more of them would register R.
    Mr. Wolfe has given us another conservative as victim at WFU. Following “Outnumbered: Conservative Faculty Speak Out”, “How Wake Forest Turned to the Left”, and “Wake Forest Declines to Enforce Harassment Policies for Conservative Student” one wonders why any conservative student stays at WFU

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  4. Connor Murphy

    Beyond the more complex dilemmas with The Review’s survey that have already been touched upon in comments here, there are also some errors with basic arithmetic that leave some unanswered questions:

    How do you reach a percentage of 83.7% in a survey of 50 respondents?

    50 / 100% = 0.5
    0.5 x 83.7 = 41.85 students

    The Review is reporting that 41.85 conservative students feel they have professor who express bias against conservatives.

    How do you reach a percentage of 35.5% in a survey of 50 respondents?

    50 / 100% = 0.5
    0.5 x 35.5 = 17.75

    The Review is reporting that 17.75 conservative students expressed feelings that participating in class could hurt their grades or relationship with a professor.

    How do you reach a percentage of 29% in a survey of 50 students?

    50/ 100% = 0.5
    0.5 x 29 = 14.5

    The Review is reporting that 14.5 conservative students expressed feelings that participating in class would lead to being “ganged up on” by their peers.

    How can Wolfe collect a response from a fraction of a student?

    What The Review is claiming is mathematically impossible, from what I can tell, and indicative either of cherrypicking response data or wholesale fabrication of data.

    With good faith in mind, I want to assume there was an error in calculating basic arithmetic.

    However, these basic arithmetic errors occur three times in the article. Given the credibility and standing of The Review, as well as their confessed political biases, it is not outlandish to assume that The Review could be cherrypicking response data here, or entirely fabricating response data.

    The only way to know for certain is if all the unedited response data collected while reporting on this story were to be released by The Review in a show of transparency to its readers.

    This isn’t even accounting for the fact that 50 respondents cannot adequately represent a student population at Wake Forest, for which there are no concrete demographic information.

    I’m not saying that some conservative student’s don’t feel that way – I know several who do. That said, reporting flawed or incorrect survey data risks invalidating the argument and undermining the position that The Review is arguing.

    • Guess it will be a long time (Hades freezing over) before the data and questionnaires are made available.

  5. I’m sure students will look at reviews of the University. Make sure you tell potential students thinking of attending that this bias is present and ensure they go elsewhere.

  6. To TD: ” The survey covered “50 participants” out of an undergraduate class of over 5000. ”
    That is actually a pretty high sample. Usually you get a sample of less than 1% of a population.

    Also you are quick to discount students experiences based on your own prejudices of what you think the faculty make up is in terms of political affiliation. College administrations and faculty tend to be much more left leaning then the population in general. Additionally, you wish to shift focus from conservative students to faculty. That wasn’t the point of the survey or the article.

    Your wish to deny bias against conservatism on college campuses does not make it less real. Maybe you should keep an open mind rather than jumping to attack mode.

    • Was this a random survey? I notice that the author is double majoring in Politics and International Affairs and Communications. And the response rate is heavily weighed (38%) to English, and Politics and International Affairs classes. Ryan’s acquaintances?
      Again, the first question to ask for evaluating the number of comments is not the ratio of professors as liberal or conservative but an adjustment for the number of classes taken in each area by the survey respondents. If they took far more classes in English and International Affairs as opposed to Art, Music and Theater (as one might surmise for most students who are not arts majors), then one would expect the number of comments to reflect the number of classes taken regardless of the instructor’s voter registration.
      If it was truly a random selection of participants 50 would suffice, but it still needs to be adjusted for the number of classes taken by the respondents.

      • The survey heavily weighed (38%) to English, and Politics and International Affairs classes.
        Professors Tom Brister, Allen Louden and Robert Whaples from the politics, communications and economics departments are on the WFR Board.
        Perhaps one of them can comment on the validity of the samples and statistics in this survey?

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  8. For anyone who doubts the prevalence and weight of leftist bias: I have a social experiment for you. Take a business course, raise your hand whenever it’s relevant, and start making economic arguments against capitalism. Then take a gender studies course, raise your hand whenever appropriate, and start making arguments that gender is biologically determined and that the wage gap is a myth. See which minority stance makes you the most ostracized and uncomfortable… and who grades you the most fairly.

  9. I took several classes with Jarrod Whitaker, and also spent an entire semester abroad at a WFU program led by Jarrod. He is one of the most inspiring teachers I’ve ever had, and he helped me develop a world-view that is simultaneously more critically engaged and also more open-minded. Yes, he can be “in your face” at times, but I have yet to come across a professor who cares more for his students. I am also Catholic. My experience of how Jarrod interacts with Christian students is that he is excited to engage in theological debates with students who want to be challenged this way, but that he does not do this with students who state that they prefer not to argue about/delve deeper into their faith.