When you feel your opinion is irrelephant: Political Bias on college campuses

It wasn’t until my sociology class during my freshman year at Northeastern University that I first had to make a decision: Do I lie to blend in? Or do I tell the truth – and risk being attacked?

We had a speaker come in and talk to us about the media, and he asked which of us watched MSNBC, CNN, and Fox. In my class of more than 70 students, I was the only person to raise my hand for Fox. In retrospect, I doubt that I was really the only Republican in the room. But I can pinpoint that moment as the first time that I decided that in any class with some sort of political undertones, I would stand up for myself and my opinions, regardless of whether or not I was the only one in the room with that thought.

Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to have understanding and open-minded classmates and professors, but some have not been as lucky. Especially in today’s political climate, students and professors alike are experiencing political bias on campuses in a completely different way than I did when beginning college in 2010. 

According to a recent study by the National Association of Scholars, almost 40% of the best liberal arts colleges in the country do not have a single Republican faculty member. For students arriving at colleges from all over the country, they are bound to have different opinions from their professors, especially given this extreme lack of political diversity. When they walk into a classroom, what can they expect to happen when they express a belief or opinion that opposes that of the person meant to be teaching them?

William Mayer, a Northeastern University political science professor, and adviser to the Harvard Republican Club, says that while he has never experienced any instances of political bias against him personally, he is aware that it is a problem and has heard stories from conservative students, mainly undergraduates, who felt that their opinions were being either silenced or held against them. On one occasion, a student had to seek advice when she realized that, following an assignment in which she expressed her conservative beliefs, her grades were suddenly decreasing for no other obvious reason than an ideological bias. 

Recently, the student president of the Tulane University chapter of Young Americans for Liberty found the door to his dorm room set on fire, in an incident that the group is claiming was politically motivated. Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator and author, described his experience visiting the campus of California State University at Los Angeles back in February 2016. Despite being told by the university president that the visit was canceled in response to the anticipated protests, he disputed this decision and went anyway. Shapiro arrived on campus to several security guards and police officers, helicopters, and “rioters…assaulting students who wanted to enter,”  he wrote in a column for the New York Post. 

This is far from the first time that a college has disinvited a speaker to their campus – in fact, there are several other examples and though this issue occurs on both sides, based on the Disinvitation Database provided by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), more than 62 percent of the cases are prompted by opposition to the left of the speaker in question, with only 28 percent of the cases being caused by the right attempting to have a speaker disinvited. These cases include prominent figures such as Carly Fiorina, Laura Bush, and John McCain being disinvited from campus engagements. 

FIRE’s Adam Goldstein says that this kind of censorship “doesn’t work,” and that it comes down to the personal more than anything else. When evaluating each of the submissions with allegations of First Amendment violations, which are received through their website, ultimately, they have to ask themselves, “Is there some way we can help?” Regardless of personal beliefs, they must respect the fact that the United States offers every individual the right to his or her own opinion, and the ability to express that opinion either on their campus or otherwise. Moreover, when handling situations where a student is frustrated because of a professor’s bias, they must remind them that there is something they can do about it. 

President Donald Trump also reinforced this protection of the First Amendment, recently signing an executive order ensuring that college campuses cannot silence opposing views — which he acknowledges is in response to too many universities becoming too far left and creating a hostile environment for students and professors who might think differently.

While it isn’t a secret that colleges tend to lean left, and have for some time, there are are several theories as to why this sudden increase in political bias and attacks on the First Amendment are now occurring more often than we’re used to. Shapiro offers some explanations of his own in his article above. He details theories ranging from economic issues to race and technology, before explaining the theory that the problem is simply that humans are reverting to traditional “human nature,” and forgetting the “foundations” we were built on. 

The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby, a conservative columnist, says one issue he has noticed is that oftentimes- the media are unable to acknowledge that they have a bias, so in the media, “‘left’ is seen as ‘center,’” which makes the “right” seem significantly more extreme than it actually is. Perhaps this is what is happening on campuses, too. As he explains, there is “less diversity of opinion than ever,” especially on college campuses, making it difficult for anyone with a different point of view to find a place to fit in and feel comfortable speaking out. If people aren’t recognizing the state of their environment, it would make sense that, for some, any threat to confirmation bias is perceived as a strong one. 

I chose to attend Northeastern knowing that I would be heading into a blue state, so, I know I can’t really complain when the inevitable moment of reveal happens in any class where politics come up and I find myself standing either alone or close to it. I could have gone to school in North Carolina or Florida (both swing states and where I’ve spent most of my life), but I wanted to be challenged academically, professionally, and personally. And though I’ve learned to just roll my eyes during my father and brother’s weekly check-ins to make sure I haven’t turned into a liberal yet (they’re joking), I will always say how grateful I am to live in a country where I’m allowed to form my own beliefs, and express them how and when I see fit. 

Suppressing someone’s opinions because they don’t align with your own is not only hypocritical, it’s damaging. Growth occurs when we expose ourselves to different ideas and hear the other side of the story, and respecting a person’s right to an opposing opinion doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. 

The First Amendment is in place for a reason, and colleges have a responsibility to protect that for all students, professors, and staff.