In 2015, the University of Georgia banned hoopskirts from sorority functions, foolishly conflating a style of dress with racist ideology, drawing criticism for limiting freedom of personal expression. That same year, as riots broke out at the University of Missouri, footage of a professor calling for “some muscle” to remove a student reporter circled the internet. At best, the clip signified total unprofessionalism from a faculty member. At worst, conservative pundits considered it a death toll for freedom of the press.
As conservative media outlets share horror story after horror story of “preferred pronouns,” “safe spaces,” and “violent protests” on campus, the recent increased distrust and dislike of higher education on the right comes as no surprise.
We apparently have an entire group of working-class conservatives who view colleges and college professors as bastions of smug, progressive elitism. But, as The Atlantic’s David A. Graham notes, the conservative distrust of colleges and universities dates back decades. Before we had safe spaces, we had antiwar riots and students indoctrinated into Marxist ideology.
These decade-old stereotypes of “liberal professors on liberal campuses” have not encouraged conservatives to reform academia. Rather, they’ve pushed conservatives away from graduate school and academic careers. Adults with higher education tend to be more liberal.
But the conservative side is not devoid of well-known intellectuals; think of Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Milton Friedman. Even the Bushes, despite their down-home men-of-the-people acts which appealed to conservative voters, are Ivy educated. America’s founders, almost deified by many conservatives, were well-read and educated people. Thomas Jefferson made education a priority and helped found the University of Virginia.
Somewhere between the Federalists and The Federalist, conservatives developed a populist, anti-intellectual and anti-college reputation. But the liberal stereotype that people on the left are inherently smarter doesn’t always hold true, according to Neil Gross’s 2013 book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?. The issue is far more complex.
Part of it, he explains, began in the mid-century when Republicans began trying to appeal to a different demographic and targeted the academic elite. Conflating “elite” with “elitists,” conservative pundits painted college professors as liberal and snotty at best, “the enemy” determined to corrupt America’s youth at worst. Thus began a vicious cycle that persists in 2017 – conservatives avoid academia; so academia remains liberal.
Right-wing media feeds fuel to the fire, which is why 18-year-old conservatives may express fear of their new college environments. Now, the real question is whether pundits push campus horror stories because their audiences will buy them, or if the audience buys them because the media pushes them.
This question is an age-old sociological debate. Social constructivists would say conservative values in society influence the media. Technological determinists would say media pundits like Ann Coulter turn Republicans against colleges. You can find multiple examples of right-wing media outlets pushing campus horror stories. You can find a Professor Watchlist, where right-leaning students discourage each other from taking certain classes where their worldviews might be challenged. New York Times correspondent Jackie Calmes argues conservative media pundits heavily shape conservatives’ views, stirring up populist anger with clickbait rants against the establishment and liberal society. Extensive academic literature has discussed media’s heavy influence on society and politics in general. The answer is not always clean-cut. But media pundits do something to exacerbate the anti-college sentiments on the right.
Gross also challenges the idea that conservatives are victimized in academic settings. We could argue universities should diversify who they hire. But the problem lies with young conservatives, who aren’t really pursuing doctorates. (If you’ve been told your whole life that college isn’t safe for your kind, why stay any longer than necessary? Hence, the liberal professor is a self-perpetuating stereotype).
Of course, some left-wing academics and pundits would contend whether the bias exists at all. A 2014 survey found 60 percent of professors identified as left-leaning, according to The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. But not every professor dedicates class time to pushing agendas. Determining whether a professor is actually biased in teaching is more or less impossible because it’s so subjective, according to a 2013 Academe article. College is supposed to give us skills like thinking critically, political efficacy and learning how to craft a well-researched argument, according to the article.
Furthermore, students are moving left at a less dramatic rate than professors, suggesting that the “brainwashing” is just another scare tactic used by rightwing media, according to The Washington Post. Most importantly, blanket statements about “progressive colleges/universities” ignore that every single campus has its own unique culture, Jason Blakely writes in The Atlantic. And even on liberal campuses like Berkeley, organizations like College Republicans thrive, Blakely writes.
Regardless, entire blogs are dedicated to “unearthing” the shenanigans on campuses nationwide, giving rightwing students opportunities to commiserate in their supposed persecution. The liberal campus horrors may date back to the 1960s, but social media in the 2010s has a unique tendency to make even trivial incidents look earth-shattering.
Unfortunately for conservatives, constantly bashing higher education perpetuates a stereotype of anti-intellectualism. And the current strategy of simply avoiding academia has done nothing but make liberal professors all the more prevalent. Until the cycle is broken, higher education will remain a highly partisan environment.