New Study Examines Political Correctness at American Colleges

Posted: August 4, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By James Greif

Solon Simmons
Solon Simmons

A new study from a Mason researcher finds that professors who adopt an attitude that is often disparagingly called “politically correct” are as tolerant and fair-minded as those who do not, even if they differ over what they think political life demands of a scholar.

The study, titled “Ascriptive Justice: The Prevalence, Distribution and Consequences of Political Correctness in the Academy,” was published in the June 2008 issue of the academic journal the Forum.

Politically correct faculty members are more willing to reveal their own views in the classroom and to choose research topics on the basis of personal values, but they do not differ from other faculty members in their willingness to ignore views on national politics in hiring or in their support of political diversity, the study reveals.

“There is evidence here of political imbalance in the academy, but not necessarily of political bias,” says Solon Simmons, author of the study and assistant professor at Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

Using data from a survey of professors at American colleges and universities, the study explores the distribution of political correctness in the university setting and examines its implications for university life. Among the key findings of the study are

  • The attitudes that are most closely associated with political correctness have more to do with multiculturalism than with postmodernism, social sensitivity or illiberal values, as critics have contended.

  • So-called political correctness, though widespread in the academy, appears to be relatively benign with respect to political discrimination.

  • While a politically incorrect attitude is uncommon among faculty, those who hold it are overrepresented in the most selective universities relative to their group size.

Additionally, the politically correct are more prevalent in the humanities and social sciences – with the notable exception of political science – and among the baby boomer generation, in contrast to more recent generations of scholars. While the politically correct are more willing to reveal their political views in the classroom and to let their passions guide their choice of research topics, there is strong support for academic freedom and no evidence of political intolerance in the group.

“The critical manifestations of political correctness as a concept suggest that it has more to do with perceptions of material discrimination than it does with social sensitivity or moral relativism,” Simmons concludes.

Simmons suggests the term ‘ascriptive justice’ as a more accurate description of the attitudes portrayed by the term political correctness.

“Ascriptive justice is a conception of justice that places a central value on characteristics that attach to individuals for reasons that they cannot control,” Simmons says. “A person who is committed to a conception of ascriptive justice is skeptical of those universalists who claim that we should all be treated the same because they believe that life is still in some way slanted against members of disadvantaged groups – not least of which would be women and minorities.”

The data for the new study comes from the “Politics of the American Professoriate,” a survey conducted by Simmons and Neil Gross, assistant professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, in the spring of 2006. The study is based on a representative sample of full-time college and university professors teaching in U.S. institutions. It was designed to measure the social and political attitudes of these professors on a wide range of topics, including several questions that are relevant to the study of what is often called political correctness.

A link to the full study is available online (registration required).

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