The Contemporary University in the United States and Canada

With Seymour Martin Lipset of George Mason University and Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto

We have joined forces in a study of the current crises in the American University. We have decided to expand our initial field of research to add a comparative dimension by including Canadian institutions in our study.

Our focus now is on the nature of the criteria of a "traditional liberal arts education." What is the importance of imparting "objective knowledge"? How much weight if any should be given to creating a common moral and philosophical universe (and what should the content of that universe be)? Should colleges and universities play a role as institutions in achieving a more just society or is such a pursuit entirely inimical to the idea of a liberal education and to the goal of producing citizens who can responsibly play their individual roles in a democratic society? Are there permissible limits on campus discourse, and if so, how broadly should they be drawn, and who should draw them? The project will focus on the extent of consensus and dissensus on such important questions.

There are other concerns. Worry about the country's ability to hold its own competitively with the rest of the world has caused some to question the U.S. approach to training future leaders in business, technology and other fields. The American University, some argue isn't performing adequately in preparing students for the challenges awaiting them in the job market of an increasingly integrated idea-creating and -disseminating post industrial economy. What is the right balance between traditional liberal education and professional preparation?

Apart from the extent and adequacy of their commitment to teaching, faculty can not agree on what to teach. Perhaps the most heated aspect of the current debate centers around the concept of multicultural education. The push for cultural diversity has been championed by some and challenged by others. Arguments about the proper shape and substance of a university's curriculum abound.

In dealing with such issues we are comparing American universities with those of Canada, an approach which , as we expected, throws new light on the institutions of both countries. For example, past analyses of the American academy demonstrated, not surprisingly, that faculty as a whole are far more liberal and Democratic than is the general population. The American university has even contained a strong minority of socialist academics while socialism has rarely been supported by even more than a very tiny minority of the general population in the United States. Left leaning professors are much more numerous among social scientists and humanists, are found disproportionately at more distinguished universities, and were found in previous studies to have published more than conservative faculty. The same pattern obtained in Canada. However, while our analysis so far is preliminary, it no longer seems to be the case that liberal faculty in the United States publish more than conservative faculty. If these findings hold up, a fundamental shift has taken place within the academic community.

These are important concerns. However, our trans border study sheds considerable light on other aspects of the American and Canadian academic communities and enables us to test the validity of various impressions concerning differences and similarities between them. This includes political concerns, as well as such issues as affirmative action and academic standards. We also have data on orientations toward research versus teaching, faculty unionism, graduate training and how the composition of the professoriate differs by such variables as gender, social origin and ethnic and religious background. What are the important issues in each country and how do they compare with each other?

Our findings on diversity and affirmative action are especially exciting and provocative. While students, faculty and administrators support the idea that we should teach other cultures, including examining American history in ways that take into account our diversity, they are sharply opposed to race based admissions or hiring. Administrators are almost as sharply opposed as are teachers and students. Further, the larger the number of minority students in attendance at a university, the more likely students and faculty are to regard their institutions as doing a less than adequate job. This remains true holding the selectivity of the college or university constant. To view references to the three articles we have recently published on this part of our research. Click Here

There is considerable debate in both the United States and Canada about the lowering of teaching standards, the degree of politicization, discrimination against conservative faculty, tenure, and in a larger context, the state of academic freedom and the role of academic unions. Some would deny that major changes have occurred in those areas in either country, but if the changes have occurred, they question the degree to which such changes have affected academic life. The study also examines variations between Francophone and Anglophone institutions in Canada and between minorities and social majorities in the United States.

Any serious effort to examine the aims of liberal education and related issues must necessarily begin with an in-depth look at the attitudes of those most intimately involved in the current debate, i.e., faculty, students and administrators. While some outstanding surveys have been completed in higher education with these groups, there are none, so far as we can determine, which are as comprehensive as our study or which touch on all of the key issues we are examining in a comparative context.

Again, some of our preliminary findings are quite exciting and, indeed, unexpected. For example, Americans have, for long, been more committed to meritocratic standards than have Canadians. However, this situation now appears to be changing.

Our surveys, in the U.S. and Canada, consist of randomly selected samples of each of the three communities involved with such issues at research universities and senior baccalaureate colleges. These are the institutions which are (1) pace setting in terms of the debate over directions in higher education; (2) generally the most influential in training and credentialing the leadership of the next generation; and (3) generally the most influential in terms of their research output.

Some questions have been drawn from earlier studies of the university to measure change, and others from various elite studies (e.g., those of Rothman and colleagues) to permit comparison of faculty and administrators at elite educational institutions with other leadership groups in the community. The interviews were conducted by telephone and we obtained a 70 percent response rate. We have a sample size of 2500 faculty, 2500 students and about 1,000 administrators in the United States and a slightly smaller sample for Canada. Each group has been asked slightly different questions, and some questions were tailored to fit the unique circumstances in each country.

The Angus Reid Group, a Canadian research firm with wide experience working in the United States, conducted the interviews.

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