Most Israeli College Students Are Not Afraid to Express Political Opinions in Class, Study Shows

Most students in a Hebrew University study said they were not afraid to express political views that did not match those of their teachers.

Yarden Skop
Yarden Skop
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Yarden Skop
Yarden Skop

Politicians’ claims of political bias in academia to the contrary, a survey of university students in Israel suggests that few are reluctant to express their opinions in the classroom out of fear of a negative reaction from either their professors or from other students.

Fewer than 10 percent of the 1,257 respondents reported having had teachers who refused to listen to political views different from their own in class. More than 60 percent of the students polled said they had no fear of professors having a negative reaction to their political views, while 10 percent said they were slightly fearful, 10 percent said they were somewhat fearful, 5 percent said they were significantly fearful and 3 percent said they were extremely fearful.

The responses were similar when the reactions of teachers were replaced with the reactions of their fellow students.

“The extent of students’ fear of expressing political opinions due to the professor’s position is almost identical to the fear of other students’ reactions. That puts in perspective the finding regarding the fear of expressing opinions in front of professors. If, despite the power the professor has over the student in the university environment, the fear of the professor is like that of a fellow student, that means the problem is not particularly severe,” one of the study’s authors, Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan, explained.

Dr. Sulitzeanu-Kenan, a senior lecturer in the political science department and the school of public policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, authored the study together with Omer Yair, a Ph.D. candidate in the department.

Students in law and the social sciences from Israel’s five main research universities (Haifa, Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion, Bar-Ilan and the Hebrew University) completed a questionnaire evaluating teaching capabilities and not necessarily political bias.

Respondents were asked about the frequency with which their professors displayed seven behaviors considered by many students and instructors as expressing a political bias. These included an attempt to convince the class that a certain political position was more valid or giving lower grades to students who expressed political opinions that did not match their own. Students were also asked how much they feared expressing their own political opinions due to a possible negative reaction from the professor.

Subjects were also asked to place themselves and their professors along an ideological axis, from right to left (extreme right, right, right-center, center, left-center, left, extreme left). This way the researchers could see students’ estimations of their teachers’ political positions and the perceived ideological gap between a student and her professors.

“We show that the perceived ideological gap between a student and her professors increases perceptions of political bias, whereas perceived ideological diversity amongst the student’s professors is negatively associated with reported political bias,” the authors wrote in the abstract of their study.

“Most students consider their professors to be further left than themselves. I would have been surprised to find otherwise. What is new here is the measurement of students’ reports regarding the degree of bias, and the connection with their fear of expressing political opinions,” Sulitzeanu-Kenan added.

A class at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which hired the largest number of returning academics.Credit: Tess Scheflan

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