The Professors: A Survey of a Survey

Last spring more than 9,000 faculty members in American colleges and universities received a questionnaire called “The 1977 Survey of the American Professoriate.” This questionnaire, twenty pages long, consisted of 128 multiple choice questions. It had an impressive deep red cover stating that it was “directed” by Everett C. Ladd, Jr., of the University of Connecticut and Seymour Martin Lipset of Stanford. An accompanying letter from Lipset and Ladd informed those who received it that:

The primary reason for this faculty survey is to collect information useful to the formation of sound education policy. If intelligent responses are to be forthcoming, they must be based on an adequate reading of faculty preferences and the maximum input of faculty understanding. It is important that policy makers (inside and outside academe) know the views of the more than a half million men and women who, through their research activities and their training of over eight million college students each year, play so large a role in American educational and scientific life.

When I received the questionnaire, I read it and threw it away—a common reaction apparently, since about half of the questionnaires were not returned to the surveyors. After thinking further about the questionnaire, however, I became increasingly concerned because of its possible effects on American education, and decided to analyze it.

The questionnaire consists of ten sections including such matters as “Academic Standards,” “National Affairs,” and “The Norms of Science and Scholarship.” The covering letter did not say who sponsored the survey. I have since learned that it was paid for primarily by the Carnegie Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. More important, the findings have been getting much attention, and are being publicized as accurately representing the views of American professors. The Chronicle of Higher Education, which reaches some 67,000 academics and administrators, has recently been publishing a series of articles summarizing the results of the survey. I have seen articles on it in such different publications as Newsweek, The Manchester Guardian Weekly (“Why Campus Morale Has Plunged”), and Stanford University’s Campus Report (“Survey Shows Academics Support Private Business, Fear Big Government Growth”). Mr. Ladd himself stated in February 1978 that “policy makers take our material seriously,” and he pointed out that within the last two months he had received inquiries about his survey’s data from such groups as the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Commission on Higher Education.

I regard the questionnaire as defective in at least two ways: first, it prejudices many questions to the point where respondents may reasonably object to dealing with the issues on the surveyors’ terms. Second, it ignores what might be called the Heisenberg Principle of the social sciences: that some things cannot be measured without being altered by the measuring process.

I’m not claiming of course that Lipset and Ladd have deliberately prejudiced the questions, only that many of their questions reflect ways of perceiving the issues that are repugnant to …

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Or None of the Above September 28, 1978