In Defense of Campus Politics

If we are to believe popular accounts of campus politics, we have reached a dangerous tipping point as a nation. Free speech is apparently under attack on university campuses, controversial events are routinely shut down, and college students are reflexively dismissive of conservative viewpoints. And far too often, students use the excuse of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to avoid difficult conversations.

There is undoubtedly some truth to this common narrative. Far too often, students make sweeping statements about the U.S. population, throwing around words like “racist” and “sexist” until they lose their intended impact. Moreover, critics are right to call college campuses bubbles of predominantly liberal students.

Nevertheless, we would be gravely mistaken to describe campus politics as hostile to free speech. To make such accusations, we first need to assume that universities are failing to uphold students’ and professors’ fundamental freedoms. Then, we would have to suppose that campuses have backtracked from a golden standard of free speech that existed in a bygone era. Finally, we would need to paint students and professors with a broad brush, accusing them of a pervasive radicalism. None of these assumptions hold up to scrutiny once we examine the macro-level data on campus politics.

Despite claims to the contrary, colleges remain important bastions of personal freedom. The overwhelming majority of students and professors take the 1st amendment seriously, and they arguably are more receptive to unpopular speech than the overall U.S. population. According to a recent Gallup Poll, most college students prioritize unpopular speech over banning offensive speech. 78% of students say that it is more important to expose students to all types of speech than to prohibit biased or offensive speech; only 22% feel otherwise. In comparison, only 66% of U.S. adults make the same choice as college students. Then, of course, there is the matter of controversial speakers on college campuses. While media reports draw attention to protests at speaker events, college students are actually more receptive to controversial speakers than their non-college peers. College students are more willing to allow a public speech by a communist, a person advocating for military rule, a Muslim clergyman who “preaches hatred of the United States,” or a person who “believes all blacks are genetically inferior.” While most college students find these views to be controversial, even reprehensible, they still respect the right to free speech. Campus politics are certainly far from perfect, but students and professors continue to play integral roles in promoting personal freedoms.

Critics also accuse campuses of backtracking from a golden age of free speech. The trouble is that such a golden age never truly existed, making this a moot point. For instance, the 1940s and 1950s were characterized by the McCarthy Era, during which the government black-listed university professors and teachers who were thought to be Communists. This was an era of fear and wide-scale persecution, and practically no one remembers it fondly. Then there were the 1960s and 1970s, defined by the Civil Rights Movement and massive protests against the Vietnam War. Free speech was alive and well, but the protests of the time were much larger and arguably more violent than the ones occurring now. As noted by Penn professor Jonathan Zimmerman in his book Campus Politics, “over half of American campuses witnessed some kind of student protest, rally, or demonstration. Students went on strike at 350 institutions, 215 schools experienced shutdowns, and 16 governors activated National Guard united to quell college uprising.” All of the criticisms made of college in the year 2018 – the stifling of diverse viewpoints, the protests, and the shutdown of controversial speakers – were common tactics used during the 60s and early 70s. We tend to think of today’s college campuses as particularly hostile to free speech, but maybe we should be thinking of the advancements made on college campuses in fraught times. Perhaps we should talk about college students taking a principled stand against racial injustice and wars escalating out of control, or perhaps we should recall the efforts to bring women, minorities, and first-generation students to universities. But instead of making nuanced historical comparisons, we persist with the tired narrative that today’s college campuses are antagonistic to free speech.

           Penn Website

Finally, critics are mistaken to talk about monolithic populations on college campuses. Sure, there are radical students and Marxist professors at any university, but college campuses are overwhelmingly moderate and not particularly political to begin with. 42% of college students identify as neither liberal nor conservative, compared to 31% calling themselves liberal and 20% describing themselves as conservative. Furthermore, college students who spend quality time with college professors are shown to moderate their views, whether they are liberal or conservative. In fact, there is a surprising amount of diversity represented among both conservative and liberal students. According to Zimmerman, “over half of self-identified liberal students oppose the abolition of capital punishment, 40 percent of them want the government to open more areas for offshore oil drilling, 47 percent say undocumented immigrants should be deported, and 49 percent think that most people in poverty could improve their situation if they tried enough.” The same diversity of opinion is seen among conservative students. Specifically, “60 percent favor handgun controls, 49 percent support affirmative action, and 47 percent believe in abortion rights.” In other words, the narrative of free speech being under attack ignores the incredible diversity of opinion that exists among college students; it presupposes that college students are die-hard activists, which is not actually true in most cases.

Like college students, professors reflect a huge range of opinions. Zimmerman reports that 43 percent of professors oppose affirmative action, 44 percent disagree with the remark that “business corporations make too much profit,” and 31% oppose same-sex relationships. While 51% of professors identify as Democrats, fewer than 10 percent describe themselves as “very liberal” or “radical.” Again, we find that college campuses are home to a huge range of viewpoints that are not captured in sensationalist reports of free speech under attack. Professors are quite moderate in their views, and they are not indoctrinating students in radical ideologies that impede on free speech.

College campuses are certainly flawed institutions, and no one is claiming otherwise. Nevertheless, claims that college campuses are hostile to free speech ignore reality on the ground. Students and professors remain committed to free speech, they hold up favorably in historical comparisons, and they capture a huge range of viewpoints. Critics should ask themselves why, if colleges are supposedly hotbeds of radical activism, college students have some of the lowest political participation of any generation. And then they should reconsider the assumption that college students are particularly radical or political to begin with.


(Note: This article is adapted from Nathan’s opening speech at the January PPU Debate, which was about campus politics and free speech.)

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