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When the Majority Suffers: The Case for Intellectual Diversity on College Campuses

2020 has been a tumultuous year. Even without considering COVID-19, the internal strife within the United States is at its explosive peak. The two parties are raging against each other, families are split down the middle, and political disagreements have become dangerously redefined in moral terms that attack people’s characters rather than their reasoning. 

Amidst this chaos, many college students are back at school. Much has been written about the contributions that colleges make to today’s polarization, particularly when ideological uniformity on campus leads to discrimination against those who disagree. And yes, when used as a tool for censorship, ideological homogeneity on college campuses is a destructive force against the political minority. Yet, at the same time, because they are constantly challenged to reflect on their beliefs, members of the minority leave college uniquely suited to contribute complex and thoughtful ideas to the world. In this sense, they are the extraordinarily lucky ones. 

Consistent philosophical challenge is perhaps the greatest gift that young, intellectually curious college students can receive. Without challenge, ignorance prevails, and it becomes far easier to demonize the political opposition than to understand it. That is the fate that befalls many college students whose beliefs already fall in line with their campus’ prevailing political philosophy. Thus, it is for the majority’s sake, not primarily for that of the minority, that colleges must dramatically enhance their ideological diversity. In this way, not only will harmful censorship disappear, but all students will enjoy the gift of ideological challenge, gaining the skills to contribute to the diversity of thought and dynamism of ideas that is so vital to life after college in a free society.

In 2017, the Higher Education Research Institute found that first-year college students were more politically divided than during any time in the previous 51 years. Many schools, particularly highly-selective colleges, lean almost entirely liberal. Other institutions, such as Liberty University and Brigham Young University, are dominated by conservative perspectives. On its surface, a dominant political dogma appears to disadvantage those students who do not conform to it. In 2017, in order to speak safely at the University of California at Berkeley, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro required about $600,000 worth of security. At Liberty University, multiple reports accused recently fired President Jerry Falwell Jr. of censoring the school newspaper, The Liberty Champion, whenever it strayed from his own pro-Trump stance. In 2019, members of a pro-life organization at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were violently attacked without provocation by a woman who objected to their displays. And in 2017, due to his belief that the Roman Catholic Church should welcome members of the LGBTQ+ community, Reverend James Martin was disinvited from speaking at the Catholic University of America. 

This censorship on both sides of the aisle must be unequivocally denounced. When students are given license to silence speech simply because it does not conform to their own political beliefs, the natural result is a misguided sense of moral and political superiority that runs counter to the democratic values of the United States. Additionally, shutting down minority viewpoints encourages members of that minority to self-censor. In 2019, three professors at UNC-Chapel Hill surveyed undergraduates and found that 68 percent of conservatives, 49 percent of moderates, and 24 percent of liberals had at least once refrained from advocating a political viewpoint in class for fear of social or academic retribution. That same study indicated that 25.5 percent of students, 19 percent of whom identified as liberal, believed that it was justifiable to prevent someone with an objectionable idea from speaking on campus. This trend not only prevents students from accessing the inherent benefits of exposure to diverging viewpoints, but it also discourages future students from applying to institutions in which their views may not be respected. In the end, a destructive cycle of increasing ideological uniformity emerges on both conservative and liberal campuses. 

When censorship is used as a tool to enforce a college’s political dogma, members of the political minority suffer. That said, being in the minority does not guarantee hardship in and of itself. In fact, in a school that respects opposing viewpoints, it can be the key to developing an informed and well-rounded perspective on the world. 

In January 2020, the National Association of Scholars reported that, in a study of 12,000 universities, just 5.7 percent of professors are registered Republicans. Another study conducted in 2014 using information from the Higher Education Research Institute found that the ratio of liberal to conservative college professors is six to one nationally, a statistic that rises to 28 to one in New England. This may partially lead to the trend of many conservatives becoming more liberal during their college experiences. A four-year study of over 100 campuses found that during college, the percentage of students who identified as moderate or conservative decreased by eight percent and two percent respectively, while the number of students who considered themselves liberal or very liberal increased by nine percent. These changes are often framed in a negative light, as though the evolution of students’ political beliefs can largely be attributed to partisan campaigns led by professors or students to foist the majority viewpoint upon those who disagree. However, this may not always be the case. Out of 7,000 students at over 120 American colleges, 50 percent viewed conservatives more positively in their second year than they did in their first, while 48 percent felt the same about liberals. This finding would indicate that changes in students’ political beliefs may actually come organically from their exposure to positive aspects of opposing viewpoints, though the general liberal bias at most universities does skew the changes toward the left. However, the study also found that 31 percent of students felt more negatively about conservatives, while the same was true for 30 percent of students about liberals. 

Clearly, there is much improvement to be made, and not just for those in the latter statistic. Even if students come to view the opposing ideology more positively during college, it does not change the fact that a conservative at a right-leaning university or a liberal at a left-leaning one is far more likely to face political confirmation than opposition. Heterodox Academy, a non-profit dedicated to promoting ideological diversity on college campuses, found in 2019 that about half of all students from all along the political spectrum felt that their campus environment restricted them from saying things that could be construed as offensive. The standards for offense likely differ based on the political leaning of the campus, but they definitionally fall in line with the majority perspective. As a result, those who possess a popular belief, whether it be conservative or liberal, are far less likely to hear a refutation of that belief because those who disagree with them are afraid of causing offense. By contrast, those in the minority must learn how to defend and reflect on their beliefs, as they are constantly bombarded with opposition. These students are forced by circumstance to become more knowledgeable about their own politics. Although members of the political majority can and do encounter those with differing viewpoints, in the end, it will always be easier for students to fall victim to confirmation bias than to actively question the validity of their own beliefs. 

For this reason, colleges must make a concerted effort to equalize the presence of political philosophies on their campuses. That effort may involve committing themselves to accepting students with diverse political backgrounds, inviting speakers with a variety of political views to campus, discouraging students from shutting down political opposition, or fostering environments in which students respectfully discuss their opinions. Certainly, some beliefs do not merit civil discourse: blatant hatred, racism, and bigotry should not be given the same space as mainstream conservative and liberal values. At the same time, mainstream conservative and liberal values should not be blindly equated with hatred, racism, and bigotry simply to shut down difficult but necessary conversations between members of opposing parties. 

As of now, political minorities at colleges are the only ones who must constantly reckon with what they believe and why they believe it. Members of the majority, though they may sometimes face pushback from professors or fellow students, inevitably experience an environment that is far more likely to reinforce rather than question their perspectives. Thus, ideological uniformity in colleges creates a process of rising polarization: future generations of voters and political leaders are not regularly being taught to tolerate or understand viewpoints that differ from their own, so they naturally grow up to misunderstand or demonize their political opponents. More than any other stage in life, college offers people the unique opportunity to explore and adapt what they believe. When institutions dedicated to learning do little to expose students to opposing political viewpoints, they must be criticized as antithetical to a well-rounded education. Colleges are accorded the inestimable responsibility of instilling students with the skills to positively contribute to society. Given this power, they must dedicate their resources toward creating a world in which political ideologies are not dividing lines on a battlefield but merely labels of convenience, distinguishing perspectives that differ in significant ways but at the same time interact with, challenge, and improve one another in a society founded on the freedom to do just that.

Photo: Image via Flickr (Jimmy Emerson)