Professors and politics blend uneasily in the classroom, especially in an election year. Think of the Duke University history professor Gerald Wilson's response several years ago to a student's question during the first meeting of his survey course. When the student asked, "Do you have any prejudices?" Wilson quipped, "Yeah, Republicans."
Although most of the class was amused, the politically conservative questioner took umbrage; he had merely been seeking guidance on the favored format for course papers. He dropped the course, and although Wilson apologized, the student complained to Students for Academic Freedom, a watchdog group that relishes reports of such incidents.
Wilson's jocular remark, and the student's reaction to it, call attention to a deeper and more complicated dilemma. As the election cycle unfolds, professors can expect to be asked about their political views: "How do you feel about McCain?" "Do you think we're ready for a black president?"
Nothing in higher-education policy explicitly precludes honest answers to those questions. Indeed, refusing to respond might appear evasive if the question is sincere and germane to the course. For the political scientist, as well as the historian and sociologist, politics involves discussing their subject. But what about the chemist or literary scholar, whose views on campaigns may also interest students?
Even in teaching a relatively apolitical subject, occasional references to politics or ideology should be permissible, for surely no scholar is confined in revealing his or her views by the subject matter of the course. That point has been amplified by the American Association of University Professors' recent report on freedom in the classroom. But the issue isn't simple, and land mines are plentiful. Here are some tricky situations that might arise when the classroom conversation turns political, and what to keep in mind:
A student asks about your political views. Take care in responding to such a query. Be conscious that students of a persuasion different from your own might be offended by an offhand reply like Wilson's, and are likely to register their displeasure. Campus Watch, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, and other conservative watchdogs are listening closely. Such counsel is equally apposite at both ends of the political spectrum; conservative professors are closely watched by liberal students, although analogous Web sites are less visible on the left.
Moreover, the risks of apparent proselytizing — given the implicit lack of parity between professorial and student opinions in a classroom setting — inhere in any such revelations. Because a mere identification of one's politics could distort classroom dynamics, it might be preferable to invite students who are interested to discuss the issue outside class over coffee or through an e-mail exchange.
In addition, cautionary language might be in order — for example, "Just because I'm supporting _____ doesn't mean any of you should feel constrained to follow. I hope this course will, in fact, make your political views even more independent than before. And, of course, mine may change before the election."
The tone of the exchange may also be crucial. A series of facetious or disparaging responses to a student's question could violate the AAUP's mandate that "professors demonstrate respect for students as individuals" and recognize that "students should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion."
A student asks you to comment on a colleague's opinions or behavior. "Wasn't Professor Jones crazy last night at the teach-in when he said immigration policy doesn't matter?" Here we enter an especially sensitive arena. The AAUP's professional-ethics statement says that professors must show "due respect for the opinions of others" and "be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues." Indeed, disparaging a colleague's scholarship ranks not far below plagiarism on the list of faculty transgressions.
Should you be asked about a colleague's rantings (which you may justifiably believe were "crazy"), proceed with great caution. Go no further than to identify briefly your own views on the issue, implying a divergence but not at your colleague's expense. In fact, declining to comment at all in class might often be the wisest course.
A student wants to know how you feel about a current political crisis. The days after the September 11 attacks provided examples of obviously inappropriate responses: the New Mexico historian who told his freshman class that day that "anybody who blows up the Pentagon gets my vote," for instance, or the English instructor in California who accused Muslim students of being terrorists and complicit in the deaths of the victims. But insisting on business as usual at such a time would abdicate a vital professorial responsibility.
My own experience may be helpful, since I happened to teach a law class on the morning of September 12. After recalling vivid personal memories of December 7, 1941, and noting both parallels and differences between the two traumatic events, I invited the students to express their views and fears for what turned out to be about half the class period. When discussion seemed to lag, I suggested that we return to our scheduled subject — which happened, providentially, to be the Supreme Court's national-security decisions and First Amendment freedoms in times of national stress.
On the one hand, it would be unconscionable — at least for those of us who teach in the social sciences — to ignore such a national trauma. On the other hand, even in the immediate aftermath of such events, we must avoid the temptation to respond in ways that convey partisan views. (For example, "It's all because of the Bush administration's disastrous foreign policy," or "Thank God we have a firm leader like George Bush in times like these.") The professor can, and sometimes should, invite students to express such political views in class, although seeking to maintain balance and distancing them from the podium. She should especially avoid demeaning or disparaging a student's view in class — even one that may seem to her to be disingenuous or reprehensible.
A student asks you to comment about a pending issue that isn't a crisis. For example, "Professor, don't you find Israel's position on the settlements to be outrageous?" If the question pertains to the subject matter of the course, it may offer an ideal vehicle for substantive discussion, which is surely not guaranteed to be dispassionate but should be seized. If the issue is unrelated to the subject, and if you have a personal view that you are willing to share, a brief response might still be appropriate — for example, "I do find the settlement policy provocative" — although it runs the risk of prolonging a possibly contentious discussion and pre-empting the regular class subject. An alternative in that situation might be to suggest a private discussion outside class, noting the risks of displacing the assigned subject matter and escalating existing differences. If you have no view on the issue or don't wish to convey an opinion, you might ask the student who posed the question to briefly explain his or her premise and reason for asking, although again at some risk of displacing other topics.
A student wants to know what you "really think" at the end of the semester. If the maxim that "one can never get into trouble speaking in the past tense" is as useful a guide for college professors as for politicians, it may be equally true that one gets into substantially less trouble by speaking one's mind on the final day of class. That is especially true if you have cultivated a relationship of trust and confidence with your students. While the same basic standards apply just as they would throughout the course, the timing may offer broader latitude than would be appropriate at other times. Of course, such 11th-hour revelations could, however, sound uncomfortably like a late appeal for partisan conversion on the students' part — unless blind grading of papers and exams or some other assurance of impartiality has promised the class that politics could not influence or distort the professor's evaluation of students' performance.
When professors' speech crosses the line. Policies and norms of the AAUP that are deeply valued within academe protect students not only from professorial proselytizing but also from "exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment." Classroom sexual harassment that is purely verbal can, in extremis, warrant sanctions if it is persistent, is directed to a student or students, and is abusive or severely humiliating. Actionable harassment may also be found if such expression is "reasonably regarded as offensive and substantially impairs the academic or work opportunity of students" or others — although in the classroom "it must also be persistent, pervasive, and not germane to the subject matter."
Thus, while students do not enjoy academic freedom comparable to that of faculty members, they are entitled to a learning environment in which they may freely question and challenge their professors' views on politics or other matters. Within that environment, political views may be offered and discussed — as much during a presidential-election season as at other times. Yet it is the professor's responsibility to ensure that students are free to form and express their own views, however intense and deeply held those of the professor may be.
Meanwhile, a professor's right to express even controversial views, in or beyond the classroom, lies at the core of academic freedom. Indeed, as the AAUP's founding statement recognized, in 1915, a professor's duty is "not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves."
Barring controversy from the classroom profoundly disserves that objective. Insistence by supporters of government intervention that "bias" is not tolerable and that "balance" must be ensured through measures such as the Academic Bill of Rights is pernicious, unnecessary, and deeply misguided. What is appropriate are institutional expectations that professors will respect students' opinions — some of which may diverge sharply from their own — and will express their political or ideological views in ways that may challenge, but will not disparage or coerce, their students.
Robert M. O'Neil is the founding director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, a former president of the University of Virginia, and a professor emeritus of law at UVa.