Academics find online education equal parts threatening (are we going to loose our jobs now?) and thrilling (wow, what a wonderful way to deliver course content). Mostly though, it is thrilling.
We see online education as a way to provide education to non-traditional or disadvantaged students. The MOOCs (massively open online courses) offered by Coursera are meant to provide students who are not at elite universities the chance to gain knowledge from some of the best professors in the country. Hundreds of thousands of students from across the globe sign up for these classes.
Even in schools where the admission standards are not so steep, online courses can be beneficial. Students with busy schedules or commuting difficulties can take more courses and move towards their degree much faster.
Online education is seen as liberating the student – the consumer of knowledge. By dissolving the barriers of time, location, and money, the digital environment has given students a kind of freedom to learn that they never had before.
What about the professor? Is the professor in need of liberation?
There is an new online university with the (rather uninspired) name Conservative University. A tagline from their website is “A counter balance to liberal academia”.
This is not a “university” in any real sense. There is no credential to be gained. It’s stated goal is to promote conservative principles – which makes it less about exploring ideas and more about pushing a message.
Despite not living up to its moniker, Conservative University is a canary in a coalmine and should not be dismissed easily. The digital environment – with lower barriers to entry – give people and groups an opportunity to try new things. Many of these new things are addressing needs not yet met in the physical environment. Cyberspace tends to foster a lot of cookiness and craziness, invention and innovation. These new things are like the proverbial canary, harbingers of things to come in wider society.
What Conservative University illustrates is a flaw within traditional academia. There are cultural and institutional barriers that prevent professors and other educators from discussing research that can be seen as supporting conservative ideas.
One of the reasons why tenure is seen as such an important element of the academic profession is because it allows professors to explore controversial issues and not have their voice silenced for fear of losing their job. Tenure allows academics the freedom to explore topics to some degree.
But academics are caught in a web of relationships that make the expression of conservative opinions difficult, even after tenure.
Imagine a professor combining her knowledge of the data with her learned opinion to produce a course narrative, in other words she professes, that the disproportionate number of black and Hispanic youths failing in schools or entering into the criminal justice system is linked to family structure. This would not be racism or political opinion wrapped in pseudoscience – although it could be interpreted that way. It is indeed political, but it is certainly not pseudoscience. Almost every major study links social pathology to differences in family structure Some may argue which way the arrow of causality goes – is it social pathology first and then differences in family structure or is it differences in family structure leading to social pathology? Whatever way the arrow points, a course in education, social work, or sociology that focuses on this research and then leads students to think about what can be done to keep families together is a perfectly legitimate course (as is the inverse – a course that focuses on the wealth of research showing the deleterious effects of structural racism and discrimination on nonwhites).
The professor who teaches that class may be branded as racist. If the school has a particularly active student body, there may be protests and calls for the professor’s dismissal. Given the fact that most academics in the social sciences are liberal, she may find herself on the outside looking in, with her colleagues whispering to each other “I don’t like her politics”. Academics know this, and so even with tenure professors with conservative leanings have a tough row to hoe.
There is both anecdotal evidence and empirical data to support the idea that college campuses are liberal. Mike Adams, a professor at University of North Carolina at Wilmington, sued the university for denying him tenure because of his political views. It took seven years, but a judge eventually ruled in his favor. A study done in 2005 reported that about three-quarters of professors describe themselves as liberal. A study done a few years later in 2007 reported that professors are moving further to the left!
The Freedom to Profess
By dissolving the barriers of time, location, and money, the digital environment has given college students a kind of freedom they never had before. They have far more options for learning and gaining credentials. It’s the American Dream, isn’t it? The freedom of opportunity.
Seeing Conservative University made me realize that some of the discussions about education need to shift to the educators – mainly those educators with conservative ideas. They shouldn’t have to look for employment at one of the few conservative colleges we have, nor should they resort to questionable platforms like Conservative University.
They should be able to stand up in State U, present research on limited government, the importance of family and religion, and make the case for conservative ideas with impunity. They need freedom as well – a freedom to profess their conservative views.