Is the University of Iowa truly a bastion of liberal politics?

Some conservatives say they feel uncomfortable at school

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IOWA CITY — When University of Iowa associate professor of political science Tim Hagle led the George W. Bush re-election campaign for southeast Iowa in 2004, he heard gasps from a few crowds when he introduced himself as a UI professor.

“‘There’s a Republican there?’ Because they just couldn’t believe it,” Hagle recalls.

The popular notion that the UI campus is a liberal bastion is in part a reflection of its environment. Johnson County has twice as many registered Democrats as registered Republicans, according to the most recent data from the Auditor’s Office.

The role of campus politics has spurred recent discussion.

In a federal discrimination lawsuit, a conservative lawyer claims she was denied a job at the UI law school because of her political views. The Johnson County Republicans this week protested on campus and recently sent a letter to UI President Sally Mason, sharing concerns about what they see as a lack of political diversity among faculty. Last year, a UI professor responded to the annual “Conservative Coming Out Week” with an emailed profanity that made headlines.

Some students and faculty say there are more conservatives on campus than people realize, but they do believe the more liberal political environment can affect classroom discussion.

“Sometimes you can tell by how a professor talks about certain things or certain people,” said junior Kelsey Boehm, chairwoman of the UI College Republicans. “I’ve never felt very uncomfortable directly about my political views, but then again, knowing that a lot of my professors are liberal, I’m hesitant to speak out as much as I would otherwise.”

Others say even if the UI faculty leans liberal, they believe professors work hard to keep personal politics from making students feel their views are unwelcome.

“Part of the learning environment is the professor and the student are both willing to be challenged,” said Bill Cook, 19, a sophomore political science major from Crystal Lake, Ill., who is active in Democratic organizations. “They encourage students to challenge them.”

UI leaders won’t comment on the specifics of the discrimination lawsuit but have said generally the university respects the right of everyone to express opinions.

Spokesman Tom Moore said the university has reminded staff “that it’s imperative for all of us to engage in civil and respectful discourse.”

The letter to Mason from the Johnson County Republicans said a recent check of voter registration found only one member of the law faculty and one in political science were registered Republicans. In a response letter, UI Provost Barry Butler said those numbers may or may not be true, but he noted party registration is “clearly not relevant to any hiring decision by the university,” and officials do not ask about it.

The perceived imbalance is a concern Regent Bob Downer hears from time to time, but he said he doesn’t see it as a significant problem. Downer, an Iowa City attorney, is one of five registered Republicans on the nine-member state Board of Regents, which governs the public universities.

Downer said he knows Republicans in Johnson County who sometimes register as Democrats to vote in primaries, so relying on that to measure balance can be misleading.

“I think we should be balanced, and there should be no favoritism from a grade standpoint or anything of that sort,” he said. “But by the same token, I don’t regard having strong political views as necessarily a disqualification.”

Junior Robert Crozier, a self-described Ron Paul Republican, said the slant he sometimes notices in the classroom is often not blatant or even purposeful.

“It’s not the facts; it’s the framing” of the discussion, he said.

The 26-year-old journalism major from Cedar Rapids said being a Republican in a town with so many Democrats often means “people automatically assume things about you,” such as being anti-gay rights or in support of war. That can spill over into classroom discussions, he said, and “you’re subject to judgment.”

History professor Jeff Cox sees two issues at play: Making all students, particularly those with strong religious convictions, feel comfortable discussing their views; and partisan-based attacks on academia.

The first issue is something on which most professors work hard to keep balance, Cox said, because he believes some students do feel their views aren’t welcome. It’s the professor’s responsibility to set the tone, said Cox, a self-described liberal Democrat.

“I think there’s a professional obligation there ... to keep partisan politics out of the classroom as much as possible,” he said. “It’s a fine line, but I would never, for instance, assert to students that I support a particular candidate for office or anything like that.”

He believes the issue of partisan attacks on higher education, alleging hiring discrimination or liberal indoctrination, are unfair. While it may be true more professors are liberal, Cox said, it’s because many faculty view Democrats as being more supportive of higher education. He believes most work hard to keep partisan politics out of the classroom.

Hagle, faculty adviser to the College Republicans, said it’s a question of how faculty deal with politics in class. He hears from students who believe their conservative viewpoints aren’t as welcome, but he said it’s hard to measure how widespread that is.

“From a student perspective, if you’re in class and getting cues that anything conservative you say isn’t well-received, there is a nagging suspicion that if you mention it in a paper or essay, that it’s not going to be approved of,” he said.

That self-censorship concerns Lucas Draisey, 21, a junior political science major at the University of Northern Iowa and chairman of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans. The group has 20 chapters in Iowa, with the UI’s one of the largest and most active.

“It really does kind of stifle a free flow of ideas on university campuses,” he said. 

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