Political science: Fair, but not balanced

Few things at UC Irvine are as homogeneous as the party identification of its political science faculty. According to the Orange County Registrar of Voters, 90 percent were registered Democrats. Of the few who were not, only one was a registered Republican.

Imbalance in party affiliation is common nationally. One study lead by Daniel Kline, an associate professor of economics at Santa Clara University, revealed that Democrats outnumber Republicans in humanities and social sciences seven to one. However, of the political science faculty registered in Orange County, the number is closer to 18 to one.

According to William Schonfeld, the former dean of the School of Social Sciences at UCI, the effects of political imbalance, if any, are subtle. One of those effects is in the realm of research where ideology can alter the variables or questions one uses to determine what constitutes superior research.

“Only certain types of questions are considered acceptable,” Schonfeld said.

He went on to provide the example of equity, the concept of economic fairness. Naturally, the question asked is how to limit inequity. However, another question just as politically profound often gets left behind and that is whether anything should be done at all. Inequity, like height, can be viewed as a natural condition, one not based on economic background and social situations.

“The second question,” Schonfeild said, “would be looked at more critically by peers, since it diverges from the common consensus. Ideology can give greater weight to one perspective over another.”

However, the political imbalance on voter registration records rarely finds its way into the classroom.

“Professors hardly delve into politically controversial issues, and when they do it’s to stir debate rather than push an ideology,” said Jow Haider, a fourth-year political science major.

Third-year political science and criminology double major, and current vice president of the UCI College Republicans club, Brenna Miller, acknowledged that although she could identify no conservative faculty, she could not recall many instances where classroom discussions have been infused with ideology.

“[Professors generally give] balanced representation where [I] learn something about alternative views,” Miller said. “Even if I don’t agree with [a viewpoint], I have to respect it.”

This balance of representation is partly due to curriculum. The focus of curriculum is not conducive to traditional party line debates.

Deborah Avant, a political science professor at UCI noted that in her experience, most political issues are too varied to fall among party lines.

“There are many issues of debate in political science and most of them do not fall along party lines. Most importantly, political science is more a process of thinking about political issues and political processes than a political ideology,” Avant said.

Avant also mentioned that the political science program challenges students to understand political concepts. In this way students learn not to cut themselves off from others simply because of his or her party affiliation.

“Students should ask whether they have been required to think critically about issues and the degree to which their professors push them to argue logically on the basis of evidence and how much they know about the way politics works in different areas,” Avant said.

Professor Carole Uhlaner, the undergraduate director of the Political Science Department noted that sometimes Democratic and Republican issues are significant to the discussion in a course.

“A lot of the subjects that we cover in political science…are related to US political party affiliations. They talk about elections, they talk about voting and so forth. Clearly, Democrat and Republican labels are germane not necessarily to what the professor is presenting, but … to the subject matter,” Uhlaner said.

Yet this does not hold true for all courses in her department.

“[In] a lot of other subject matters … [such as] political theory, the subject matter in international relations, a substantial [part] of the subject matter in comparative politics … Democrat or Republican party labels are really pretty irrelevant,” Uhlaner said.

Thus, party identification generally tends to become de-emphasized in an educational setting where the goal is not to advocate one view over another, but to understand all of them.

Even if a faculty member left an ideological footprint in the classroom, the degree to which it would indoctrinate student opinion is questionable. According to a major study of 7,000 students at 38 institutions published in PS: Political Science and Politics, the journal of the American Political Science Association, professors have little influence on students political views. Family, peers and the media largely shape political views more than a professor would.

In referencing a recent effort of teaching judicial philosophy Matthew Beckmann, an assistant professor in political science used an example that easily could have transitioned into party politics with U.S. Supreme Court appointments being a hot button topic. Yet, rather than falling into this trap, Beckmann stayed out of the donkey-elephant battle by simply discussing concepts and positions people have thought of and could take.

“As with everything else, the goal wasn’t to advocate one view or another, but to understand all of them,” Beckmann said.