If college doesn’t make people liberal, then where did all these liberals come from?
Growing up in Iowa City, I took the old stereotype for granted. The town is liberal, and it has a college. Makes perfect sense, I thought.
Yet reflecting on my own political evolution, I realize not only was the conclusion wrong, but the whole question as well.
I took an interest in politics in the George W. Bush years and quickly absorbed my family’s moderate Republicanism. I became a teenager just two days after then-Secretary of State Colin Powell infamously detailed faulty evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in front of the United Nations.
Dozens of my classmates plastered their notebooks and binders with “Attack Iraq? No!” bumper stickers. It’s the first time I remember my peers taking sides on a political issue.
Surrounded by preteen peaceniks, my misguided youthful rebellion led me to support military interventionism. As a high school senior in 2008, I made a small donation and caucused for Rudy Giuliani, who promised to get tough on terrorism.
Four years of college surely transformed my political views, but I didn’t end up further left or right on average. I became radically anti-war, but also radically pro-capitalism.
My own case study doesn’t answer the question at hand, except to show that each of our political journeys is messy. They’re not straight lines right to left, but winding trails on a multidimensional plane.
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Dozens of sociologists and political scientists have studied the phenomenon of liberalism on campus. Unsurprisingly, progressive researchers at government-funded colleges tend to be skeptical that their own institutions might be biased.
Scholars from University of Ohio and North Carolina State recently published findings from a multiyear study tracking new college students’ political views. They found survey respondents’ attitudes about liberals and conservatives shifted in similar ways between their first and second years of college.
“While students still favor liberal ideologies over conservative ones, this gap does not widen over the first year,” the researchers wrote.
I argue the question cannot be answered in a meaningful way, because it’s inherently flawed. It relies on the same narrow and misleading political binary that infects our political world at large. The left-right paradigm fails to capture the nuance of human political thought.
The more important question is whether taxpayer-funded colleges are tangibly benefiting Democrats’ political causes, or inhibiting Republicans’.
In the decade since I graduated high school — wrestling with my own shifting views about the Federal Reserve and secret drone programs — the rest of Iowa has publicly wrestled with the controversial intersection of politics and higher education.
The University of Iowa faced a yearslong legal battle with a woman who alleged she was passed up in 2007 for a job on the law school faculty because of her conservative political views. A jury eventually concluded the school did not discriminate.
Then there was the UI women’s studies professor who faced intense criticism in 2011 after she cursed at College Republicans via email in response to their “Conservative Coming Out Week” campaign. She did not face any official rebuke, and remains a tenured faculty member.
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And most recently, a federal judge last month ordered UI officials to reinstate a Christian student organization, which had been shut out of university functions over concerns about the group’s policy on openly gay members.
If Iowa’s public colleges don’t tilt left, they haven’t always done a great job fighting that perception. Each case gives fodder to the Republicans politicians fighting to rein in what they see as liberalism run amok at our public universities.
In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum sparked outrage after he called American colleges “indoctrination mills,” just a few weeks after Iowa Republicans made him the winner of our presidential nominating caucuses.
Last year in Iowa, the Legislature saw a proposal requiring Regent institutions to balance partisan affiliation among faculty members. The bill never advanced, but drew criticism in the national media and opposition from several key lobbyists in Des Moines, including even the Republican appointees on the Iowa Board of Regents.
Those headline-grabbing controversies can’t honestly be taken as evidence of a vast leftist conspiracy on college campuses to advance the Democratic Party platform, yet they certainly don’t bolster academia’s claims of nonpartisanship.
Higher education leaders are fighting to maintain public support in an age of austerity. To do it, they must demonstrate their value to all Iowa taxpayers — even the third of us who are Republicans.
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