All of a sudden, Republicans have turned against America’s colleges and universities. This shouldn’t come as a shock.
The finding comes from a new poll by Pew Research Center, which asked whether “colleges and universities have a positive (or negative) effect on the way things are going in the country.” In 2015, 54 percent of Republicans said colleges’ impact was positive, compared to 37 percent who said negative — similar to past years. This year they were nearly reversed: 36 percent positive vs. 58 percent negative.
Democrats continue to look favorably on colleges: 72 percent positive, just 19 percent negative. As with many other American institutions, then, public opinion is split along partisan lines. But this is a fairly new development concerning colleges. What gives?
Again, this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention. Although colleges have for decades been viewed as liberal bastions, the ideological imbalance has gotten out of hand more recently.
(An aside: Is that a broad characterization? Yes. So is asking how “colleges and universities” affect “the way things are going.” I suspect many Republicans still hold State U in high esteem. But if it’s worth asking how a broad category of people view colleges broadly, it’s also worth looking at the landscape of higher education equally broadly.)
What has changed is our awareness of just how radical the new ideologues are, and how impotent — or complicit — college administrators are when faced with their activism.
Recall the fall 2015 protests at the University of Missouri, sparked by a handful of gauzy allegations of racism committed by students, not faculty or administrators, which nonetheless ended with the school president’s resignation. The blow-back to that incident has been more severe than declining public opinion. Freshman enrollment at Mizzou this fall is expected to be 35 percent lower than two years earlier, before the protests.
Recall the numerous incidents this year, from California to Vermont, in which students have shouted down or even physically blocked conservatives invited to speak on campus. In most of these cases, the response from campus administrators has been tepid.
But overzealous students and timid administrators are not the only problems. Consider what Fredrik deBoer, an academic in Brooklyn and self-described man of the “radical left,” wrote about the academy’s traditional ethos of “non-coercion and intellectual pluralism” in reaction to the Pew results:
“I grew up believing that most professors lived by that ethos. I don’t, anymore. It really has changed. For years we fought tooth and nail to oppose the David Horowitz’s of the world, insisting that their narratives of anti-conservative bias on campus were without proof. Now, when I try to sound the alarm bells to others within the academy that mainstream conservatism is being pushed out of our institutions, I get astonished reactions — you actually think conservatives should feel welcomed on campus? From arguments of denial to arguments of justification, overnight, with no one seeming to grapple with just how profound the consequences must be.” (emphasis original)
Republicans read the stories about protesters and witness the bias for themselves; it’s worth noting that Republicans who have college degrees were slightly more likely to view colleges negatively than those who don’t. It was inevitable that these trends, along with our greater polarization more generally, would have an effect on public opinion. The burden is on colleges to show they know how far out of kilter things have gotten, and how they plan to move back toward the center.