Politics or Civility?

New sociology research suggests that nonpolitical campus characteristics may influence whether conservative students thrive with or feel intimidated by faculty at overwhelmingly liberal institutions.
August 18, 2010

ATLANTA -- The oppressed conservative student is a regular theme in the right's critique of higher education. You know the stories -- mocked for displaying the American flag or a Ronald Reagan bust, shouted down for suggesting that that Iraq war is just, always in fear of earning a low grade for criticizing affirmative action or some other widely held belief among the left-leaning campus majority.

Research presented here Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association affirmed that many conservative students feel that way, but also that many do not -- and that the latter group in fact thrive on the very campuses that tend to be portrayed as hostile to them.

The difference, the research suggests, isn't the relative size of the conservative minority or the commitment level of the more liberal majority. Rather, campus characteristics -- many of them most commonly associated with small liberal arts colleges, and harder to pull off at large universities -- may be the determining factor. In fact, one suggestion from the research that might distress fiscal conservatives is that low student-faculty ratios may contribute far more to the comfort of conservative students than would efforts to promote ideological "balance" on a syllabus or in a department.

The study presented here was conducted by Amy J. Binder, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, and Kate Wood, a graduate student there. They did in-depth interviews with conservative students at two colleges that they named only in general terms -- "Eastern elite," a small private institution, and "Western public," a large university. Both are institutions that have been identified by conservative critics as being particularly left-leaning. At both institutions, they sought out as interview subjects the students who are members of conservative groups or who are visibly conservative, and also "in the closet" conservatives -- by asking the conservative student leaders for the names of those who had indicated their agreement but who were not involved in public campus discourse.

The conservative students at Eastern elite were under no illusions that they were anything but an extreme minority -- and the institution's reputation is such that some were discouraged by friends back home from even enrolling. But almost uniformly, they were happy. They identified their professors as being liberal, but admired them nonetheless.

In fact, as Wood noted here, "they viewed the experience of being in the minority as a positive one" in teaching them to examine and defend their beliefs, and "almost every single one said that they received a better education" by being in the extreme minority, a finding "in contrast to the conservative critique." Further, she said, "not a single one of them said that they regretted not going to a more conservative school."

The students at Eastern elite were clearly aware of the conservative critique and many times answered questions about possible bias by saying that they had heard about that elsewhere but had never experienced it themselves.

At Western public, in contrast, many conservative students did feel that they were the victims of bias in interactions with students and faculty members. The research focuses on student perceptions, not the reality of what went on in the classrooms. So Wood said it wasn't clear whether the bias actually took place, but she said that the researchers wanted to see why it was that some students perceived fairness and challenge, while others felt a bit abused.

So what were the qualities that made some conservatives feel so contented, even in their minority status?

They were many of the same qualities that elite liberal arts college advocates talk about. "They were proud of their institution. They saw their peers -- liberals and conservatives -- as future leaders of the country," and that made the conservatives want to be part of the community and part of the conversation.

They also felt that they had very close relationships with faculty members with whom they disagreed on politics. "They viewed their faculty members as professionals, as experts in their fields, as people who would never be biased" based on a student's politics, Wood said.

One key measure of the extent to which conservative students felt comfortable at the college, she said, was that the most popular majors for conservative students were identical to those for liberal students (and all students). There were a small number of courses that conservative students tended to avoid, Wood said, citing "critical gender studies" as one.

She also noted that the college has policies that make it easy for students to change schedules at the beginning of the semester, and that this seemed to relieve any students who might be worried about a professor's politics. It's not that they left classes they signed up for, but the knowledge that they could try something and change their minds was reassuring, she said.

Much of this related to "very small class size" and to a sense that all students and faculty members were part of a common community, and wanted to disagree with one another respectfully. As a result, Wood said, while the conservative students generally said that they didn't hold back their views, they didn't describe going to class looking for a fight -- and they talked about wanting to disagree with professors in respectful ways, since they felt treated with respect.

In contrast, she said, at Western public, with larger classes and much less faculty-student interaction on an individual basis, students were more likely to say that they were the victims of bias -- but also that they didn't really know the faculty members. And at Western, students talked about "trying to get in fights" with professors in class, of "trying to catch their professors in the act of liberal indoctrination."

Another difference Wood noted relates to the role of faculty members on both campuses who were in the conservative minority. In the close-knit environment of Eastern elite, these faculty members were visible on campus, taking part in the debates, organizing lectures and so forth. At Western public, she said, there was a similar cohort of right-leaning faculty members, but they were far less active.

The implication of the findings, Wood said, was that colleges of all sizes should focus on the elements of community and civility that seem to make it possible for disagreement at Eastern elite to be welcome in ways that don't belittle those in the ideological minority. She noted that some elements present at Eastern elite -- such as its prestige and traditions -- aren't things that colleges can up and create.

"But it's clear that access to faculty members makes a huge difference, and that anything that creates smaller pools of students" -- so that people know one another -- has a real impact.

Sarah S. Willie-LeBreton, associate professor of sociology at Swarthmore College, was the respondent to the paper, which she praised. She noted that much of the public discussion about conservative students focuses on incidents that take place at certain campuses or claims made by various groups. "It's nice that somebody is finally asking the students themselves" in a comprehensive way, she said.

For faculty members, the research is an appropriate challenge, Willie-LeBreton said, to "celebrate our conservative students' sense of minority status and to think about what can be learned from that."

Willie-LeBreton said that Eastern elite sounded like it shared many values with Swarthmore, and that she thought that "taking all students seriously" was a big part of a faculty member's job. But she said that she worried that in much of higher education today, "it's hard for professors" to engage with students "when faculty members have been marginalized" through larger class sizes that hinder close student interaction.


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