Leaning to the Left

Last spring, in an introductory environmental-studies course, Rob McGuire '07 received an assignment that gave him pause. The professor distributed a list of statements about environmental issues made by conservative talk-show icon Rush Limbaugh. The assignment: agree or disagree with Limbaugh's viewpoints, using logic, evidence, and well-reasoned arguments to back up your position.

A first-year student at the time, McGuire found himself wondering whether he should be honest in his responses. He was a committed Republican, one of the only conservatives in the class, and although he didn't usually identify with Limbaugh's more extreme views, he did agree with many of the statements on the list. The problem was, he knew his professor did not. McGuire and his classmates had spent a good part of the semester analyzing environmental problems, encouraged by their teacher to explore issues from all sides before formulating a solution. Still, he wasn't sure how his professor would respond if he stood by his political beliefs. Would he be penalized with a low grade? Should he choose a safer course and side with his teacher?

McGuire stayed true to his convictions, and when his graded paper was returned, he carefully read his professor's comments. The professor disagreed with each of McGuire's points, but he applauded the well-reasoned arguments. The grade: A+.

The story is an instructive one at a time when the nation seems sharply divided into liberal and conservative camps--and when that division has engendered controversy about politics in higher education. Some conservative critics charge that a liberal "orthodoxy" prevails in academia, undermining open debate and intellectual diversity. Colleges and universities, they argue, have become intolerant liberal bastions, where conservative professors are rare, conservative views unwelcome, and conservative students, in effect, silenced.

Not so, respond many professors and administrators, who say colleges remain places where questioning, complexity, analysis, free inquiry, and unfettered debate are encouraged. Politics inevitably figure in some courses, they note--because issues in some disciplines require an understanding of political contexts--but personal political views, they say, aren't part of the equation when it comes to grades.

What about Kenyon? Do McGuire's initial doubts suggest that conservatives are a marginalized, uncomfortable minority at the College? Or does his experience reflect an environment that welcomes--indeed, insists on--all viewpoints? Is liberalism an "orthodoxy" at Kenyon or simply one of many stances, albeit a majority one?

The Kenyon Campus

According to some studies, the public seems to think that the nation's colleges and universities do tilt left of center. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey of 1,000 adults ages twenty-five to sixty-five from every state except Alaska and Hawaii, half of those polled said that liberal bias in the classroom is common in higher education today. Even among the respondents who described themselves as liberal, 30 percent said that academia leans too far to the left.

Kenyon President S. Georgia Nugent takes issue with that assertion. There's an important distinction, she says, between liberal numbers and liberal bias. "It's probably fair to say that a majority of faculty members at most colleges and universities tend to hold liberal political views," she says. "My view is that, in the majority of instances, that does not make a difference in how they teach and in their professional lives."

Rob McGuire would agree. The Middlesex, New Jersey, native arrived at Kenyon in fall 2003 to find himself surrounded by liberal classmates, a very different environment from the largely conservative neighborhood where he grew up. Still, he loved the campus and the people, and he valued the way that debates during study sessions or over coffee helped him better understand viewpoints different from his own.

"In being challenged, our beliefs become stronger," says McGuire, who is vice president of the Kenyon College Republicans. "I believe that's why we're all here, to get a liberal-arts education and to challenge our beliefs."

The English major often has found himself at the center of political challenge, both in and out of the classroom. In some of his classes, his status as a conservative earns him quite a bit of attention. In one cultural sociology course, for example, his teacher frequently called on him to counter liberal arguments about issues under discussion, telling him that "we need to hear what all sides have to say." Although he sometimes tired of being singled out, he applauded his professor's efforts to expose the class to a full spectrum of views.

"I like it when we have someone like Rob McGuire in this course, someone who's willing to stand up and say, 'You have to look at it from another way,'" says Robert Mauck, the assistant professor of biology who taught McGuire's environmental-studies course and assigned the paper on Rush Limbaugh's views.

"As a biologist, I am data driven," adds Mauck, who also holds the Harvey F. Lodish Professorship in the Natural Sciences. "I approach environmental issues the same way. What do the data tell us? How does the logic of our arguments hold up in the face of the data? At some point, the questions often come down to a personal value system--how much do I value wilderness versus an incremental decrease in our foreign oil dependency, for example--but the logic of the arguments should stand up to examination. That is what I was looking for in the assignment."

In the Classroom

Kenyon professors are divided on the issue of bringing politics into the classroom. Lauren Ostberg, a sophomore from Maumee, Ohio, recalls several friends who enrolled in the political-science course Quest for Justice last fall and spent the entire semester trying to determine if their professor was liberal or conservative. They never figured it out.

On the other hand, when historian Peter Rutkoff teaches his course on the culture of the 1960s, he tells his students at the outset that he was a very engaged activist during that time. "I would submit that the greater danger comes when faculty say they're not presenting any political views and claim political neutrality when, in fact, they are not," says Rutkoff, the Robert Oden Professor of American Studies. "I'd rather have truth in advertising. Let the students know where you're coming from."

Willow Belden, a sophomore and self-described liberal from New York City, says that a number of her teachers have either hinted at their political persuasion or declared it outright in the classroom. But rather than stifle debate, she says, such disclosures often lead to stimulating class discussions.

"All of the professors I've had, even if they are openly liberal, expect you to take both sides of the story into consideration," says Belden, the senior news editor for the Collegian, Kenyon's student newspaper. "They're not going to let you get away with a weak argument just because they agree with you. They make you prove your point."

Belden's experience squares with the College's central commitment to promote critical thinking, notes Provost Gregory P. Spaid '69. Spaid, a photographer who joined Kenyon's art faculty in 1979, says, "One of the charges of a liberal education is to broadly educate our students and to represent knowledge as something that can always be challenged. I don't think that the Kenyon faculty see their position in front of the students as being a pulpit from which they preach orthodoxy."

Miriam Dean-Otting, a professor of religious studies, has mixed feelings about revealing her political leanings in class. Although she often has discussed politics with students outside of the classroom, she steers her students away from such discussions inside the class. She was particularly sensitive about political discussion on the day after the presidential election, when the entire campus was buzzing with election news. As students began to wander in for a seminar, Dean-Otting decided to put an end to political talk before it could begin. Almost all her students had professed to be liberals, but one, she knew, held more conservative opinions. "I thought it would have been unprofessional to say anything that would have made her feel left out," says Dean-Otting.

Bryan Stokes, editor of the Collegian, says other faculty members are similarly sensitive. "At Kenyon most of the faculty are very receptive to all political views and do their best to keep either side from feeling slighted," he says.

During the fall presidential campaign, the more tense political debates took place in residence halls, common areas, and over coffee, according to Stokes. "The environment was, at times, bitter" among the student population, he says. "If anyone made any conservative points, the response against them was completely overwhelming, and it sort of became a large number of liberal students against a small number of conservative students."

Speaking Out

The divisive 2004 campaign did call attention to the fact that politically liberal views are in the majority at Kenyon--and to the question of whether conservatives feel stifled. Professor of History Reed Browning, a member of the faculty since 1967, discussed the dangers of liberal dominance in an essay published in theChronicle Review last spring. The prevalence of a single political viewpoint in higher education, he wrote, "limits the possibility for truly free and open debate on campus."

John Macionis, the Prentice Hall Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Sociology, believes that the College has indeed moved in the direction of a single dominant viewpoint. Before the mid-1980s, both the professoriate and the curriculum were more balanced politically than they are today, says Macionis, who came to the College in 1978. During the eighties, Kenyon began working to increase gender and racial diversity in the faculty. By 1985, Macionis feels, the political center of gravity had moved notably left, because many of the newly filled positions were in fields that attracted mostly liberal-minded scholars.

Many of those scholars, moreover, were products of their era. Rutkoff notes that a large proportion of faculty in higher education today, including many professors at Kenyon, grew up under the influence of the political and social movements that shaped the sixties and seventies. Their outlook, both personal and professional, reflects the political and cultural visions of the civil rights, women's rights, and antiwar movements.

At the very least, the presence of a large and sometimes vocal liberal majority can be intimidating, says Macionis. He points to the overwhelmingly liberal voices raised during the campaign. Indeed, Kerry-Edwards signs, bumper stickers proclaiming President Bush a war criminal, and cartoons taped on office doors depicting Republican politicians as apes still can be spotted around campus.

"You look at things like this and it's easy to see how some people could feel marginalized," Macionis says. "If you are a conservative, you are effectively silenced. And what do you say to those who feel they've lost their voice?"

You tell them to speak out, says Fred Baumann, the Harry M. Clor Professor of Political Science. Baumann says that the student body at Kenyon is one of the most liberal he's seen since he came to the College nearly twenty-five years ago--and so is the faculty. "I would say that very serious alternatives to the prevailing orthodoxies, which tend to be more on the left, are excluded," he says. "And they need to be there if you're going to think intelligently."

The only way to bring varying viewpoints into the discussion is to speak up, he adds. "I think it's incumbent on conservatives and those who don't like the orthodoxy--including liberals who are fair-minded--to yell about it," he says. "I think you get somewhere with it."

Conservative students at Kenyon do speak up, but in ways that they say are in keeping with the College's spirit of mutually respectful debate. Sophomore Lilly Bitting of New Canaan, Connecticut, president of the Kenyon College Republicans, recalls that last fall their national parent organization urged them to campaign aggressively for the Bush-Cheney ticket. Of the local group's forty-five members, Bitting says, many felt that an aggressive approach wasn't appropriate at Kenyon, and the group decided to break with the national charter and promote a conservative platform rather than a presidential candidate.

"We wanted to preserve the respect Kenyon students have toward the College Republicans," says Bitting, an economics major. "At Kenyon, I find that as long as you respect someone else's opinion, they'll be respectful of yours."

Bitting expects this spirit of civility to prevail at a forum tentatively scheduled for March that will focus on the question of whether liberal bias pervades higher education. The Kenyon College Republicans plan to host the forum and invite faculty on different sides to present their views.

A National Debate

The harshest criticism of higher education, nationally, has come from Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), an organization founded in 2003 that now has chapters at 135 colleges and universities. Legislatures in nineteen states are debating versions of an "Academic Bill of Rights" drafted by SAF founder David Horowitz. The document lists eight principles and procedures aimed at ensuring academic freedom by "fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives" in faculty hiring and promotion, the selection of guest speakers, and the development of curricula and reading lists.

Horowitz believes that such a document is needed to "enumerate the rights of students to not be indoctrinated or otherwise assaulted by political propagandists in the classroom or any educational setting." The adoption of his proposals, he adds, would lead to a more intellectually diverse academy that promotes civil discourse and critical thinking.

Having been rebuffed by university presidents and faculties, he has focused his efforts on state legislators and on Congress. In many states, tensions have prevailed for years between the legislature, which funds public higher education, and the public colleges and universities themselves. State subsidies to higher education are at record lows around the country, and legislators' attitudes toward the academy are sometimes scornful.

In Ohio, Senator Jack Mumper (R-Marion) and three of his colleagues are drafting language designed to rein in what Mumper says is widespread liberal bias among Ohio's state universities and colleges. He is seeking support for actual legislation rather than a nonbinding resolution. "If you make it a resolution, it becomes a recommendation. If you make it legislation, you can put some teeth in it and create some sanctions."

Mumper ultimately may settle for a resolution because of questions about how a law would be enforced and even about how its terms would be defined. In either case, private schools such as Kenyon would remain unaffected, as the reach of the legislature is limited to schools receiving state funds.

However, legislation under consideration in the United States House of Representatives could affect Kenyon and other private institutions whose students receive federal financial aid. U.S. Senator Jack Kingston, a Republican representing Georgia, introduced language based loosely on Horowitz's bill into the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, which currently is in committee. If passed, the measure would have an impact on almost every institution of higher education in the country.

Kenyon administrators and professors take a dim view of Horowitz's efforts. "I see this so called 'bill of rights,' the platform that he has constructed, as one that would explicitly introduce into college and university appointments a kind of political litmus test," Nugent says. "I would see an attempt to legislate political views as a severe threat to academic freedom."

Even those at the College who appreciate Horowitz's efforts to raise awareness about intellectual diversity in higher education question the need for the Academic Bill of Rights. In his essay for the Chronicle Review, Browning wrote that Horowitz's approach to the problem "is unwise, inviting unprecedented governmental and judicial intrusion into the personnel decisions of higher education."

Baumann and Macionis share these concerns, as does the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which represents about 45,000 scholars on 500 campuses. A statement issued by the AAUP in December 2003 maintained that the provisions of Horowitz's bill already are included in the organization's academic freedom policies, which serve as models for similar policies at most universities and colleges, including Kenyon. "Not only is the Academic Bill of Rights redundant," the AAUP statement noted, "but, ironically, it also infringes academic freedom in the very act of purporting to protect it."

Whatever the fate of Horowitz's proposals, the focus at Kenyon will remain the same, Nugent says. "At every point and in every way that we can, the College should emphasize balance, that all viewpoints need to be heard."

While the polarization of the last election is still evident in some ways, so is the student body's energy and enthusiasm about the electoral process. Wanting to capitalize on that feeling, Nugent and others at Kenyon are exploring ways to keep political dialogue going, looking for opportunities to nurture voices from within the College while also inviting outside speakers to come to campus. It is through such exchanges that intellectual diversity will continue to thrive, Nugent says.

She adds that such open exchange is especially important in close-knit communities like Kenyon's. "One of the effects of the size and character of our community is that people consciously recognize that they need to nourish their relationship with one another," Nugent says. "I think faculty, staff, and students all share in a special recognition that it's important that we try to understand one another and nurture our relationships. We recognize these are long-term and complex relationships--we're not just professional colleagues, we're neighbors."

--Kelli Whitlock has written about higher education and university research for magazines around the country, including two magazines she created for Ohio University and Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She lives in Pickerington, Ohio. This story and her others in this issue are her first for the Bulletin.

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