Back to School with Santorum

Journalists take a closer look at claims about his Penn State days

PENNSYLVANIA — A radio interview on the eve of Michigan’s primary let Sen. Rick Santorum expand on his widely reported remarks about higher education.

It also put Pennsylvania in the cross hairs and gave reporters here a fresh chance to compare reality to rhetoric ahead of his home state’s April 24 vote.

Some took up the challenge.

First, some context: In a late February speech to an Americans for Prosperity forum, Santorum called President Obama “a snob” for wanting “everybody in America to go to college.” He added there are “good, decent men and women, who go out and work hard everyday and put their skills to the test, that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them.”

Seems he was referencing, at least in part, his own college professors.

In discussing his higher education experience with Charlie Langton of CBS Radio’s WXYT in Detroit, Santorum—who earned three advanced degrees in Pennsylvania—said he was punished for his conservative views:

Santorum: “There are schools, I went to one — Penn State — that’s one of the liberal icons, unfortunately it’s gotten a lot worse. I can tell you professor after professor who docked my grades because of the viewpoints I expressed and the papers that I wrote, there’s no question that happened.”

Langton: “Your grades suffered because of your views at Penn State?”

Santorum: “Absolutely, absolutely. I used to go to war with some of my professors, who thought I was out of the pale, these are just not proper ideas. This is not something that’s not unusual, folks, I know this may be a surprise to some people… There is clearly a bias at the university. Saying there’s a bias at colleges, liberal, is like the French inspector in Casablanca saying ‘Oh my, gambling is going on here.’ The fake surprise, this is common fare.”

Few would dispute that college and university faculty, as a group, are more liberal than the general population. Whether they attempt to, or succeed in, indoctrinating students is a different issue. Santorum’s reminiscing about his salad days put that question front and center—and some reporters went about answering it.

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Karen Heller talked with the chair of the political science department from the late 1970s, when Santorum was a student. She also interviewed a professor who had him as a student in four classes and the man who taught him Intro to American Politics.

Their view?

“He was telling a story that isn’t true,” said Robert Friedman, the former department chair. Friedman added: “I never received a complaint from any students that a professor had downgraded them because they were conservative and the professor was too liberal, or the student was too liberal with a conservative professor. Any problem he had with grades had nothing to do with the fact that he was politically conservative.”

James Eisenstein, who taught the intro class, told Heller the intent of faculty was not to “convert students into raging liberals.”

Heller was retracing some of the ground recently covered by Molly Redden of The New Republic. Redden reported that during his college days, Santorum was a budding Republican politician who campaigned for the centrist Sen. John Heinz—information that’s in tension with Santorum’s account of ideological clashes with his professors. Redden’s article was flagged by the Philadelphia Daily News’s Will Bunch in a sharp blog post.

Santorum’s former professors may have selective memories or could have their own motivations. Taking the story a little deeper—and looking more closely at Santorum’s claim that it’s “gotten a lot worse” at Penn State—was a recent article by Adam Smeltz, senior reporter and news editor at the hyperlocal site

After the Santorum campaign didn’t respond to his request for specific examples of bias, Smeltz talked with the current chairman of the Penn State College Republicans, who said some “very outwardly liberal professors” were among his favorites.

Crawford did say some current College Republicans suspected in one class their grades may have been affected by politics. In his case, he said, if it had ever happened—and he didn’t allege it had—the effect had been imperceptible.

His bottom line? “I think you’d be hard pressed to make a case there’s a systemic problem at Penn State.”

What else do we know from present-day observers? In its discussion of Penn State,, a project of the conservative Leadership Institute, noted the college has one of the nation’s largest Army ROTC programs and a “thriving” Air Force ROTC program. “Fortunately, Penn State’s administration seems supportive of these groups and the ROTC programs,” the site concluded.

Penn State has produced other leaders in conservative circles. One grad, Patrick Coyle, is a vice-president at the conservative Young America’s Foundation. In his online bio, he notes while on campus he “fought against liberal orthodoxy.”

The precise character of political relations at Penn State—in Santorum’s time or today—isn’t the most pressing issue of the 2012 campaign, or even of the upcoming Pennsylvania primary.

There is, though, an important takeaway: The impulse some journalists displayed here—to go out, report stories, and take a harder look at politicians’ rhetoric—is one that should be applied to larger issues. Too often when a politician says something that raises eyebrows, journalists assume “everybody knows” he or she is just appealing to the base. They then go on to write about what the political implications might be.

Sometimes, the claims are wrong, unsupported, or overblown. Sometimes, the answer isn’t clear.

Either way, journalists have a responsibility to take a close look at such claims. In this case, Heller, Redden, and Smeltz are among those who get points for doing just that.

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Ken Knelly served as metro editor at The Times-Tribune in Scranton and as senior editor for government and business at The State in Columbia, S.C. He owns Clearberries, a communications consulting and training firm, and works for a Christian college in Northeastern Pennsylvania.