Ideologically unbalanced universities risk blinding students to opposing views
THERE is nothing better than being a conservative at the University. Just enough like-minded individuals are present on Grounds to make one's political life bearable, while sufficient opposition exists to fully vet one's worldview by graduation. Being the political minority on Grounds does not place conservative students at a disadvantage. Rather, numerous personal benefits accrue to individuals who hold a minority political persuasion during their college years. As a conservative at a predominantly liberal institution, you learn to defend your beliefs, withstand intellectual challenges and adapt your worldview when someone presents a persuasive counterpoint.
I worry, however, that my liberal peers do not garner the same political benefits from their college experiences. The University appears to be a very insular culture, with liberal perspectives overrepresented compared to those from the right. Consider the 2008 presidential election when President Obama received 78 percent of the vote in Charlottesville, compared to 53 percent statewide. If those election results are any indication, then the Charlottesville community, including the scores of students who switched their registration to vote here, clearly shows a preference for liberal politics that is not representative of views statewide.
Universities historically have been hotbeds of political liberalism, and that continues today. "Professors are more likely to identify themselves as liberals than those in any other occupation," according to a recent article in The New York Times, which cites information from a study performed by Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse. Approximately 43 percent of professors identify themselves as liberal, compared to 9 percent who identify themselves as conservative.
Does this political bias impact the experience of the average college student? An article from Inside Higher Ed cites a study by Gordon Hewitt of Hamilton College and Mack Mariani of Xavier University that indicates between entering college and graduating student political ideology does shift slightly to the left. The study tracked changes in student political orientation over time to determine if political indoctrination was occurring on college campuses. The article says, however, "Whether the students attended a college that was more liberal or conservative did not correlate with the shift - which it would have had liberal professors been engaged in indoctrination." This study indicates that there is no systematic trend of discrimination against conservative students that can be traced to faculty perspectives.
The study is interesting not necessarily because of its conclusions, but because of its assumptions. The fact that individuals sympathetic to liberal ideology dominate higher education is taken as a given, and the students' political shift to the left over the course of their education does not concern the authors so long as the shift cannot be attributed to faculty influence.
Strangely enough, I agree with the conclusions drawn by Inside Higher Ed. So what if liberals control universities? The real problem is not that one viewpoint is overrepresented, but that those who hold the viewpoint consider their worldview to be reality, rather than simply a lens through which they interpret the world.
Both liberals and conservatives are susceptible to this type of closed-mindedness. As soon as an idea that threatens the favored view of reality is proposed, the idea is assaulted - often along with its source - and swiftly disregarded. What makes the threat of this intellectual rabidity so dangerous on university campuses is that universities should be nurseries for uncommon ideas.
The whole point of education is to broaden the mind in the hope that new solutions will be developed for the problems facing society. That requires healthy debate and the ability of individuals to voice their opinions without being shouted down.
For me, the ideal of the Academical Village is encompassed in a quote written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall when describing the philosophy of Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The risk inherent in a University dominated by one ideology is that we lose respect for those who hold opposing views. Students never should dismiss a minority viewpoint without first rationally considering its value. Sometimes, the most easily disregarded ideas are those that come closest to the truth.
Ginny Robinson's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com.