CSU professors walk the line between content and opinion

Blake O'Brien

Despite expectations that they might be otherwise, at the end of the day, professors are people too — meaning, just like students, they have opinions.

Many professors, especially those teaching subjects like political science and philosophy,  teach content that overlaps with their opinions, and they all have their own way of dealing with it. 

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Michele Betsill, a professor and chair of the political science department at Colorado State University, said she tries to stay away from sharing her views with students.

“My personal strategy has been to not put (my opinion) on the table, not to reveal it,” Betsill said. 

There’s no formal set of rules, Betsill said, but the American Political Science Association does provide a Guide to Professional Ethics that professors within the department are expected to abide by. 

According to item 8 under Section B of the code, “(Professors) must be very careful not to impose their partisan views, conventional or otherwise, upon students or colleagues.”

Still, this guidance can be interpreted broadly. Professors have different strategies for communicating — or not communicating — their personal opinions with students, Betsill said.

According to CSU’s Faculty Council, faculty members are encouraged to “at all times be accurate, exercise appropriate restraint, show every respect for the opinion of others and make every effort to indicate that he or she is not an institutional spokesman,” according to the faculty manual. Still, all faculty members’ rights are protected by the First Amendment, both as academicians and as citizens.

Peter Harris, a political science professor at CSU, takes the same approach as Betsill: He tries not to reveal his own political opinions.

“I try and avoid (sharing opinions) to begin with,” Harris said. “If I have to share something that sounds like an opinion, I’ll give both sides of it, so the students don’t know where I fall.”

Harris said he thinks some students can be discouraged from speaking their mind when a professor is constantly giving their opinion about politics, in particular.

“Opinions are almost completely worthless on a University campus,” Harris said. “What we should be doing is advancing good argument and engaging with logical, evidence-based arguments.”

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In his International Relations class, for example, Harris said that he teaches about theoretical perspectives that each make a different argument. Then, it’s up to the students to evaluate the credibility and logic of the arguments.

Professors in other departments also have to be aware of their opinions in the classroom. Jeff Kasser, a professor of philosophy at CSU, said his personal views are irrelevant while teaching.

“I really don’t think I bring my opinions into the classroom because I’m not me in the classroom,” Kasser said. “I am inhabiting a role. I’m doing my job not being myself.”

But as a professor, Kasser does have to make a call on what content is covered and the course’s agenda, he said.

“That is part of my job,” Kasser said. “So, I have sympathy with my colleagues who think transparency is important, that we should own our influence in the classroom.”

Though she chooses not to reveal her political opinions, Betsill said there are benefits of professors who go the opposite route.

“(Being transparent) can model how someone can present their personal opinions and defend them,” Betsill said. “And that’s a really important part of what we’re trying to train students to do.”

Harris also understands professors that choose to share their personal views. In fact, he said it’s essential that some professors are transparent with their opinions.

“There’s professors on this campus who have a reputation for being fearless conservatives, and that’s a very good thing because students need someone to go to,” Harris said. “Similarly, there’s people on the campus that are very liberal, and it’s a good thing students know they can go to them.”

Regardless of what side of the argument a professor is on, their opinion is typically well-informed, Betsill said.

“We are citizens. We are engaged citizens,”  Betsill said. “We have our opinions – they are often heavily informed opinions because of research that we’ve done – but we all have our own perspective.”

Blake O’Brien can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @BTweetsOB.