University of Wisconsin System staff and faculty are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates’ campaigns in both state and federal elections, lending financial support to Democrats over Republicans by a substantial margin.

The disparity, a ratio of more than 55-to-1 in federal elections, causes some to doubt UW’s ability to foster political diversity on campus.

Instead of providing an environment that promotes unbiased political discussions that enhance learning, some worry certain UW faculty members use the classroom to push a liberal agenda.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a website that posts contributions for all federal campaigns, UW faculty and staff contributed $312,168 as of Oct. 28 toward the 2008 election cycle.

Of that money, $296,416 has gone to Democratic candidates or organizations, and only $5,377 has been donated to Republicans. Third parties and special interest groups have received the remaining $10,375.

Campus partisanship concerns

Mike McCabe, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, whose website contains a searchable database of statewide campaign contributions, said the disparity has a lot to do with “the deteriorating relationship with the Legislature and the university.”

Critical views of UW, like those of Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, are “pretty representative” of views held by many of the state Assembly Republicans, who are currently in the majority, McCabe said.

Nass has often been critical of UW, believing it has a liberal political agenda.

At the same time, critical opinions expressed by former UW Chancellor John Wiley in a Madison Magazine column — blaming a combatively partisan political environment at the state government level for slowing the state’s progress — are fairly mainstream among UW System faculty, McCabe said.

“There’s a lot of people who feel that the relationship has soured,” McCabe said, adding he has spoken at many campuses and has spoken to many university classrooms at the request of professors.

McCabe said when he started his career as a legislative aide in 1981, it was common for legislators to call on UW professors to help with policies and even to draft legislation.

He added the pipeline that used to run between the Capitol and university no longer exists, adding the donating patterns of UW employees at the state level reflect their disapproval with the Republican-run Assembly.

“There’s been this thing called the Wisconsin Idea — the idea that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state,” McCabe said. “The Wisconsin Idea has fallen on hard times.”

According to Mike Mikalsen, spokesperson for Nass, the disproportionate number of Democrats in the UW System — and at UW in particular — creates an environment that stifles conservative thought.

“What is concerning to Nass is in many cases, you have people of conservative views who are fearful of expressing those views for fear of retribution,” Mikalsen said.

Mikalsen said because UW is currently run by Democrats, an “encouragement of balance” is lacking.

Mikalsen added he and Nass have received complaints from students and even faculty who are afraid to participate publicly with Republicans for fear of being unfairly graded, socially censured or even losing their jobs. He added the people who have come forward have asked for confidentiality to protect themselves.

The administration needs to make an effort “from top to bottom” to promote political diversity, according to Mikalsen, who added, “they talk a good game when it comes to the exchange of ideas,” though they do not back it up.

“In the UW System, the one area there is not a good effort is to promote diversity,” Mikalsen said. “With Chancellor Wiley, there was a lack of effort on his part for keeping politics out of the classroom.”

UW political science professor Donald Downs, who has contributed to the Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s campaign, said while ideological balance on the UW campus needs to be improved, there is not an administrative effort to stifle free thinking.

“There’s a definite lack of intellectual diversity on campus, and that’s definitely a problem,” Downs said. “Students need to be exposed to all relevant viewpoints.”

Downs said the university’s leadership fails in promoting balance by not being more vocal in advocating political diversity, adding they are promoting a liberal agenda “by default” by not making it a priority.

UW will “just maintain the status quo” if it does not make more of an effort to raise awareness of the problem, he added.

However, Downs said he has not experienced any fear of retribution from the administration for voicing conservative viewpoints.

He said when he worked for UW history professor John Sharpless in his bid for Congress as a Republican in 2000 against Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., he actually received encouragement within his department.

Downs added he believes the fear of conservatives to speak out publicly is due more to being a minority than to being systematically oppressed.

“It has to do with feeling like a Martian on Earth rather than an Earthling, and that’s more of a social thing,” Downs said.

UW has actually improved in its acceptance of conservative views with the Faculty Senate, abolishing the faculty speech codes in 1999, he added.

The codes, enacted in 1989 under then-Chancellor Donna Shalala, were often used to stifle conservative thoughts by professors, though they were meant to prevent legitimate harassment.

While Mikalsen says the UW administration does not get involved enough to stop the political harassment that can occur on campus and in classrooms, UW Provost Pat Farrell said UW takes “the notion that students aren’t free to voice their opinion very seriously.”

He said allegations of political bias in the classroom are not ignored by UW administrators. However, the issues are handled at the departmental level because individual departments are better equipped to get results.

Farrell dismissed the idea that professors would be afraid to advocate for conservatives for fear of losing their jobs or not getting tenure as untrue.

“Nothing like that could ever happen,” Farrell said. “We’re in the bounds of fantasy when we start talking about that.”

Bias in the classroom

The UW Offices of the Dean of Students defines bias as “an intentional threat or act of harassment or intimidation” directed toward a student because of a certain characteristic he or she possesses.

In the case of political bias, that characteristic in play would be the student’s political views.

Farrell said while sometimes during political discussions, faculty members’ personal opinions are revealed, their intent is not to convince anyone they are right but to engage their students in serious conversation.

He added UW does not allow campaigning in the classroom and said students who are really concerned should take the appropriate avenues instead of speaking anonymously to Nass or Mikalsen.

According to Farrell, there is a real risk of professors who are afraid of allegations of bias censoring themselves and failing to appropriately stimulate students.

He added it is the role of professors to challenge their students.

“That’s part of what universities are about,” Farrell said. “That’s where a lot of great learning occurs.”

The notion of challenging ideas, however, is uncomfortable to some, Farrell said, adding, “They use that notion of bias to hide behind.”

UW political science professor Scott Straus has dealt with false allegations of political bias in his classroom that he was cleared of by the College of Letters and Science administration.

He said despite the incident, he does not feel his academic freedom is in jeopardy after a departmental discussion led to a consensus among political science faculty that neutrality was important.

“Universities don’t want to get in the business of dictating what professors can say in their classrooms,” Straus said, adding that path can be a slippery slope to suppression.

He added he is in the “business of teaching ideas and analysis” and believes professors should take a nonpartisan viewpoint while teaching.

Downs also said the fear of offending students is not productive for the exchange of ideas crucial to learning, adding, “The last thing you want is for people to be afraid to offend liberals or conservatives.”