Culture

Conservatives Are Souring on Colleges. Blame Colleges.

No wonder the right distrusts academia. It has turned downright hostile to conservatism.

Victory at Missou?

Photographer: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Despite decades of talk radio hosts complaining about pointy-headed liberal academics, Republicans in 2010 were still pretty fond of higher education. Fifty-eight percent of them said that colleges had a positive effect on the country, a number that ticked along in roughly that range in 2011 … 2012 … 2013 …2014 … then, whoa. It started to go off the cliff, hitting a mere 36 percent in Pew’s most recent poll.

Looking at this poll, Philip Bump of the Washington Post blames this on the focus “by conservative media on tensions at universities."

“Conservative media,” he adds, “focused its attention on the idea of 'safe spaces' on college campuses, places where students would be sheltered from controversial or upsetting information or viewpoints. This idea quickly spread into a broader critique of left-wing culture, but anecdotal examples from individual universities, such as objections to scheduled speakers and warnings in classrooms, became a focal point.”

It’s the sort of theory that may sound plausible on first read, except … see the first sentence of this column. Conservatives in the media have been complaining about liberals in academia for a very long time -- just about as long, in fact, as academia has been trending liberal. After all, William F. Buckley rose to fame, and midwifed the modern conservative movement, after writing "God and Man at Yale." As the book’s title suggests, it complained that elite educational institutions were excessively secular, collectivist and disposed toward government intervention in the economy. It was first published in 1951.

Since then, there have been plenty of mediagenic episodes for conservatives to get outraged over. If you’ve forgotten, Google “Ward Churchill” or “Sandra Fluke,” to name just two of the many, many students and professors whose sagas represent the lefty excesses of academia.

And nonetheless, Republicans apparently kept right on loving their colleges until 2015. After all, many Republicans can thank college for getting them a good job. A team to root for on frosty autumn days. Some lovely, hazy memories of beer pong tournaments. Heck, maybe they even learned something.

So why, just in the last couple of years, would conservatives turn against colleges with a vengeance?

What’s changed, I submit, is that colleges have readily supplied conservatives with images of an institution that is not merely left-leaning, but actively hostile to conservatives, as conservative speech on campus has increasingly been threatened. It started with students pressing for speakers to be disinvited from graduation speeches -- sometimes liberals, but often conservatives. Then angry minorities were allowed to shut down conservative speeches with increasingly raucous protests that eventually turned to violence. And when violence occurred, schools seemed noticeably uninterested in identifying or punishing the people who committed it.

Indeed, schools' responses to leftists' riots have been: to make it maximally inconvenient for conservatives to speak (or be heard); to deliver a slap on the wrist against violent protests; and to allow students to corner, bully and imprecate upon professors.

Academia is a left-wing institution, and I suspect that when the people in charge of it look at left-wing protesters, they see basically good-hearted kids who are overexuberant in their pursuit of the common good. And who wants to wreck the lives of a nice kid who made a bad mistake out of the best possible motives?

Whatever the reason that this has been allowed to happen, the picture that emerges from these events is of an academia where orderly conservatives are unwelcome, but disorderly -- even violent -- leftists are tolerated. No wonder conservatives' opinion of academia is falling.

Compare the welcome that the socialist Senator Bernie Sanders received at fundamentalist Liberty College to the chaos when right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at Berkeley. If Sanders had gotten the Milo treatment, liberals might start to question whether academia is an unalloyed good. Conservatives have seen one disturbing incident after another in a short period of time. Whose fault is that? Not conservative media. Blame the rioters and the universities that allow them -- and the smartphones that have made it easy to capture the misbehavior in vivid, viral videos.

Schools are going to have to adjust to the new realities of our panopticon world just as police departments have. They cannot defend the principle of free speech while winking at violations, because those violations are apt to become national events. When violent students try to shut down discourse, a quiet slap on the wrist is no longer an option.

Even setting aside high-minded ideals, administrators should crack down out of simple self-interest. Their jobs almost all ultimately depend on government funding, either directly, from state legislatures, or indirectly, through subsidized student loans. They also depend on contributions from alumni who are, as a group, much more conservative than either the activists or the administrations. And finally, they depend on students, parents and employers to continue to think that a degree from their institution is valuable. As the University of Missouri at Columbia found out, that is not something you can simply take as a given.

If universities brand themselves as explicitly left-wing institutions that make no effort to be fair to conservative views … if they allow left-wing groups to appoint themselves as the thought police of what is theoretically a shared space … then they will open up gaping holes in their budgets and their enrollments, and the left’s fiefdom will fall to the enemy. It would behoove them to seek a binding peace now, one that offers both sides some living room. That could reverse the tanking public support for universities.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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