Within the past few years, colleges across the U.S. have experienced a radical shift in campus climate. Student protests over speakers have become more common and violent across the country, and college students are more afraid to speak out and share their opinions than ever before. According to a 2017 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey, 61 percent of college students say campus climate prevents people from speaking freely.
Professors of all political persuasions frequently fear retaliation from students for stepping out of line against the political and social culture on campus. Examples include the stories of Bret Weinstein of Evergreen State College, who was deemed racist by students for opposing an act of racial segregation on campus and resigned out of fear for his safety, and Allison Stanger of Middlebury College, who got a concussion after being attacked by student protesters when attempting to moderate a campus talk.
Present in each of these cases is a culture of shame, ostracism and retaliation against those who question or challenge a commonly held idea or belief on campus. This is a culture of political orthodoxy, and it is devastating colleges across the country.
While it is difficult to explain the rise of orthodoxy, much of this change can be attributed to at least two major factors: a dramatic decrease in the political diversity of faculty, especially among elite colleges, and a general increase in political polarization.
To give some perspective as to how homogenous the political affiliations of faculty have become, a study published last spring by the National Association of Scholars found Colgate’s Democrat to Republican faculty ratio to be 19.1:1. This statistic is consistent with a 2007-2008 UCLA Higher Education Institute (HERI) survey of Colgate faculty political views, which found that 69.9 percent were far left or liberal and just 2.7 percent were conservative, a left to right ratio of approximately 26:1.
At about the same time faculty political views were shifting to the left, the U.S. experienced rapid political polarization. According to the HERI, the percentage of politically neutral college freshman decreased by 9.6 percent between 2000 and 2016 while politically left and right students increased by 7.8 and 1.9 percent, respectively.
Given that most colleges had already favored liberal democrats in their student and faculty populations, these changes meant that universities went from being predominantly left-leaning to being so homogeneous politically that it began transforming the culture of tolerance and discussion.
While it is difficult to quantify the day-to-day social consequences of this development, recent student surveys from Dartmouth College serve as a reference, particularly for elite colleges where these changes have been the most pronounced.
Last year, Dartmouth students were asked, “How comfortable would you be having a roommate with opposing political views than yours?” While 61 percent of independents and 69 percent of republicans reported being comfortable having a roommate with opposing political views, just 39 percent of democrats reported being comfortable.
When a survey from last spring asked Dartmouth students how their sentiments toward another student would change after discovering they had political beliefs opposite to their own, we see a similar disparity in responses between democrats and republicans: 55 percent of democrats said they would be less likely to befriend the student as opposed to 12 percent of republicans. Additionally, 39 percent of democrats said they would be less likely to trust the student as opposed to 10 percent of republicans.
From an academic perspective, the unfortunate consequence of these changes is that one of the most fundamental purposes of the university, the exchange of knowledge and ideas in the pursuit of truth, is deeply restricted. A culture that shames and ostracises individuals for having dissenting views results either in those views going unheard and unchallenged or the formation of echo chambers of thought and discourse.
The importance of knowing and contending with an opposing opinion in the context of pursuing truth and knowledge is summarized in an excerpt from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.
“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”
If Colgate is to carry out its motto of “Deo Ac Veritati,” or “For God and Truth,” it must begin addressing the issue of political orthodoxy. Until then, professors and students alike, whether they be liberal, conservative, libertarian or moderate, will continue to regularly sacrifice discussion and the pursuit of truth for acceptance among the campus culture. And given the current campus climate existent across the country, who could blame them?
Contact Connor Madalo at [email protected]