As students protest a number of right-wing and conservative speakers and professors at campuses across the country, the debate about First Amendment rights becomes complicated. This also raises the question about whether such protests further isolate conservative faculty members and prevent students from critically engaging with various viewpoints.
For one well-known conservative professor, free speech protests illuminate a lack of diverse political opinion on college campuses. This can ultimately affect students’ quality of education, says Dr. Carol Swain, professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University.
“One of the main purposes of universities is to expose people to ideas,” Swain says. “Universities are not supposed to be about indoctrination of a singular point of view, and as far as teaching students how to engage in critical analysis, that cannot take place in an environment where we try to insulate them from anything that might make them feel uncomfortable.”
Swain made national headlines over a controversial column she wrote for The Tennessean after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015.
“What would it take to make us admit we were wrong about Islam?” she wrote. “What horrendous attack would finally convince us that Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children unless it is monitored better than it has been under the Obama administration?”
Following the publication of her column, which was deemed anti-Muslim, Vanderbilt University emailed a statement to the entire student body offering supportive services for students hurt by the ideas expressed in Swain’s local news editorial. While the university disagreed with Swain’s comments, Vanderbilt upheld her right to make them.
“We in no way condone or support the views stated in the editorial, and understand that they are deeply offensive to many members of our community — Muslim and non-Muslim alike,” Dr. Susan Wente, provost at Vanderbilt, said in a statement to students and faculty at the time. “We are fully committed to ensuring our campus is a safe and welcoming environment for all. Closely related to this commitment is our support of free speech, which is put to the test when polarizing speech such as this is shared. It is in these times more than ever when we must keep dialogue open.”
However, the university’s reaction still “stunned” Swain. “I’ve never seen a university send out an email like that for anything other than a [physical] threat on campus,” she says — not for an editorial in a local newspaper unaffiliated with Vanderbilt.
Swain says that she encourages her students to practice free speech in the classroom, and her syllabi state that her classes would engage in ideas that may be divergent from some students’ perspectives. Several students have also told her that she is the first conservative professor they have ever had, she says.
Dr. Shelby Steele, the Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank, agrees, saying that many students do not get the chance to hear from conservative scholars like himself very often.
“I don’t teach anymore, I would not be welcome,” Steele tells Diverse. “The rule of thumb today is that universities are for liberals, and academic think tanks are for conservatives.”
Education studies show that conservative professors are in the minority at higher education institutions and that colleges are becoming more liberal. In 2014, a Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA report found that nearly 60 percent of college professors identified as liberal or ‘far-left’ and about 27 percent identified as moderate.
Only about 13 percent of college professors identified as conservative or “far-right.” This means that, in the academy, liberal or far-left professors outnumber their ideologically opposite colleagues nearly 5 to 1.
If we promote diversity in race, gender and religion within the student body, diversity of thought should be just as important, scholars on both political spectrums say.
In their book Passing on the Right, scholars Dr. Jon A. Shields and Dr. Joshua M. Dunn Sr. say that many conservative professors are, in their own words, “closeted” and “simply hiding in plain sight” from more progressive colleagues.
Conservative professors’ teaching environments can also get uncomfortable, Swain and Steele both acknowledge. “What I experience is being experienced by [conservative] faculty members all over the country,” Swain says. “Maybe not in the same particular form that I did, but they are all under attack.”
Steele says he was a professor long before he was a conservative, but that when he began to identify as one, “attitudes changed dramatically.” He adds that if a university were to hire a conservative faculty member today out of an act of generosity, “that person would be isolated very quickly.”
According to these scholars, when some students or faculty members hold the beliefs of the political minority, students may engage less in the classroom or professors may refrain from expressing their own political viewpoints for fear of backlash or harassment from students, colleagues or even higher administrative officials at their institutions.
And when students bar certain speakers from a campus because of their political beliefs, they remain ignorant and victimized, Steele says. Instead of protesting, he encourages students to invite speakers who hold divergent — even controversial — views and to engage with them “in an honest and respectful way,” standing up to the “intellectual challenge” that even the most tendentious figures bring. If students cannot do this, they cannot “get sharp or tight or understand [their] own point of view,” he says.
“What students are getting today is far, far more distorted in one dimension than they have any way of knowing.… They don’t know how bad it is,” Steele warns. “If they are students, they are there to learn, but they’re simply not being given any sort of critical, objective encounter with learning. It’s going to cost the nation and cost our culture.”
“Cocoons” and ideological “bubbles,” as Swain calls universities today, do not prepare students ideologically for the world outside those spaces — a world where there will be “fewer people that are going to be willing to engage in the political correctness” and fewer safe spaces, she says. Steele adds that university classrooms should offer opportunities for students to discover ideas and opposing points of view, and not places for professors to “preach” their own politics.
“As a college professor, I would teach novels,” he says. “I would teach writers that I disagreed with — all the time. And I tried my very best to give their arguments the fullest, most objective representation that I could, and I would insist that my students learned what their point of view was. That kind of open-mindedness is very rare today.”
While Swain and Steele are just two of the many conservative professors at American collegiate institutions, they call attention to the dangers of group-think and an increasingly agitated intolerance for views that deviate from what Steele says is the “liberal orthodoxy” found within higher education institutions.
Nonetheless, critical thinking and engaging with somebody who has a different point of view does not constitute “a betrayal of one’s race or politics,” Steele says. For students, it is the difference between thinking and growing as individuals and falling into complacency with the status quo.
- This story also appears in the Sept. 7, 2017 print edition of Diverse.
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at email@example.com.