In this era of fierce partisanship, conservative students are pushed away from the social sciences and humanities by both the left and the right. Republican students, according to a 2014 University of Colorado survey, were far more likely than their Democratic peers to say they feel intimidated when expressing their political views in class.
Relatedly, a 2017 national campus expression survey of around 500 colleges students found that conservative students “are far more reluctant to speak up” about politics in class than their liberal peers.
At the same time, movement conservatives exacerbate such fears by highlighting and exaggerating the intolerance of higher education. A PEW survey this year found that 58 percent of Republicans now think that universities have a negative effect on the nation, up from 45 percent just a year ago. If conservative distrust continues to increase, classroom segregation may get even worse.
These findings undermine some of the more partisan claims about universities. Many conservative critics, for example, insist that far-left radicals are indoctrinating students. But how can conservatives be turned into liberals by left-wing professors if they aren’t taking their classes? The reality is that leftist professors are largely preaching to self-selected choirs.
Some on the left, meanwhile, say that there are so few conservative professors in the social sciences and humanities because the right-wing mind is inherently allergic to science and rational inquiry. If that’s true, why are conservative students more likely than their liberal peers to gravitate toward the most scientific majors?
All this points to a deeper and bipartisan problem: After all, no other U.S. institution better prepares students for their lives as citizens by promoting civil debates across the ideological spectrum.
That’s always a crucial educational goal. But it has become critical in this terribly polarized nation that we’re living in today. Consider, at least a third of parents would be upset if their son or daughter married someone of a different political party, according to one 2015 study.
If universities truly aim to be radical, countercultural institutions, they should ameliorate — not reinforce — this sort of polarization by helping students learn how to be good citizens.
This is an achievable aim. Conservatives students could, for example, be reassured by their university’s social scientists and humanists that they are needed in their classrooms and will be treated with respect. Professors could also broaden their syllabi to include a wider range of thinkers and subjects.
Universities could even improve the diversity of their faculty at the margins — perhaps hiring conservative professors as visitors, as the University of Colorado has recently done. This might prompt conservative activists and politicians to de-escalate their war against the university — a development that would confer greater public legitimacy at a time when it is desperately needed.
One thing is certain: Universities need to experiment with new, bold initiatives if they want to be part of the solution, and not part of the cause, of our American echo chamber.
Jon A. Shields is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the co-author, with Joshua M. Dunn, of "Passing On The Right: Conservative Professors In The Progressive University."