Sam Seitz

The liberal leanings of American universities have been a major source of concern among conservative pundits of late. In some respects, I think there is a degree of truth to right-leaning critiques of the university system. Professors are overwhelmingly liberal, most students (at least at mid-tier and elite universities) are fairly progressive on social matters, and college graduates are statistically much more likely to support the Democratic Party. In other words, there is a pretty clear liberal bias within academia. I’m less convinced that this poses an existential problem for conservatives, however, as it is far from obvious to me that a bias against Republican ideology necessarily represents a bias against conservatism more broadly. It seems more likely that Republicans are just doing a poor job of representing conservatism well. Furthermore, I am certainly not convinced that a disproportionate representation of liberal perspectives invalidates the value of higher education; while professors’ political leanings probably impact the research questions being investigated and topics being taught, they certainly do not degrade the quality of the research or instruction. By way of comparison, look at the military, an institution adored by the right and known for its entrenched conservatism. The military is often slow to embrace change, and it is quite cautious as an institution, but this doesn’t invalidate the work it does. Nor does it suggest that the institution is deficient. After all, every organization develops its own standard operating procedures and culture; some are more liberal, others more conservative, but neither is intrinsically better.

It is also simply not true that universities attempt to stifle conservative perspectives. From personal experience, I would say that 35%-40% of my professors were conservative, and none of my professors have ever attempted to impose their political perspectives on the class. My university has also done a good job inviting a diverse group of speakers to campus, including the Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And while there have certainly been high profile incidents in which conservative commentators and academics were shouted down, many, though not all, of these altercations can be at least partially blamed on the speakers themselves. After all, people like Coulter and Yiannopoulos are not looking to create a forum for ideas, they are attempting to provoke and offend. Their speech is of course protected, but they make pretty bad messengers, making it unsurprising that their positions receive little respect from the thoughtful students and faculty of America’s universities. Again, it may not be that university students hate conservatism per se, just that they hate its current advocates. If this is the case, it suggests that students are more opposed to vitriolic demagogues than they are to Republicans and conservatives. I think it’s also worth considering how conservative student groups would react if some militant Marxist-Leninist revolutionary or Islamic fundamentalist came to speak at a university, shouting offensive, provocative, and perhaps even dangerous statements. I reckon they would adopt some of the tactics embraced by their more liberal classmates, and I certainly wouldn’t hold it against them.

But outside of extremist speakers, I am really skeptical there is much suppression of speech at all. There is obviously strong condemnation of racism, sexism, and other attacks on people’s identity, but it would take a lot to convince me this is something regrettable. There are also certain ideas that are less accepted by the majority of students and professors, and these will normally receive a lot of pushback. However, these ideas are certainly not suppressed or censored, they are merely more rigorously interrogated. Perhaps this is good, perhaps not. Either way, it’s a far cry from the kind of totalitarian thought-police scenario portrayed by certain pundits on outlets like Fox News.

When I consider college free speech, I’m also often reminded of Tyler Cowen’s “shadow prices of speech hypothesis”:

If you go to a new country with the same goods and prices as your home town, you won’t buy very much. Alternatively, if your port of call has radically remixed relative prices, you will do lots of shopping and go home pretty happy.

And so it runs with shadow prices for speech, including rights to say things and to ask questions.  Whatever you are free to say in America, you have said many times already, and the marginal value of exercising that freedom yet again doesn’t seem so high.  But you show up in China, and wow, your pent-up urges are not forbidden topics any more.  Just do be careful with your mentions of Uncle Xi, Taiwan, Tibet, Uighur terrorists, and disappearing generals. That said, in downtown Berkeley you can speculate rather freely on whether China will someday end up as a Christian nation, and hardly anybody will be offended.

For this reason, where we live typically seems especially unfree when it comes to speech.

Conservative students might not feel this way at first, as the corollary to Cowen’s hypothesis is often a large degree of culture shock. However, this doesn’t mean that they won’t benefit from being able to express new and different views than they could in the conservative enclaves from which they have emerged. Indeed, if Cowen is correct, it is conservatives who benefit most from the liberal bent of most American universities, as the novelty of the new norms on acceptable speech and ideas is so much higher for them than it is for liberals. But it’s also worth pointing out that liberals benefit too, as college also provides a new “relative price mix” for them, even if the change isn’t quite as extreme.

In short, no matter where you stand ideologically, you will encounter a plethora of new viewpoints when studying at university. True, this effect is more pronounced if you are a conservative, but it seems to me that “small-town America” conservatives have the most to gain from entering a more diverse environment full of new and enriching perspectives (I always find it funny when rural Trump supporters who live in towns with a population of 2,000-5,000 say that the coastal elites are the ones in the bubble). It is also not as if conservative thought is ignored or dismissed within academia. Indeed, I have become more conservative since starting college, and I am currently rooming with two conservatives, one of whom is an avowed Trump supporter. So I don’t think I would characterize myself as sheltered from conservative thought or Republican ideology. But even if I’m the exception to the rule (and this very well might be the case), it isn’t obvious what the solution is. Political tests and quotas (affirmative action for conservatives?!) seem incredibly dangerous, and if abused these measures could hurt conservative academics as much as help them. Moreover, they seem to fly in the face of free inquiry by more or less mandating that a certain number of academics hold certain views. It might just be the case that liberals are more attracted to academic work than conservatives. After all, despite controlling most state legislatures and governor’s mansions, the GOP has, by their own admission, failed to end the dominance of liberal thought in elite state universities. If even conservative-dominated governments cannot change the political demographics in academia, I’m not sure what can.