What role does university culture play in political development and agency in the
University culture plays a huge role in political development and agency.
At Western Public, students were socialized by the anonymity of being a Western
student. At this large state school, virtually all students live off-campus after freshman
year; few have reason for informal social contact with a diversity of classmates, and
they are subject to impersonal registration procedures for large lecture classes that
gave them few opportunities to know professors personally. Western is also a school
where fun and recreation are a draw. For conservative students, the relative anonymity
combined with a sense of being politically marginalized and a fun and recreational
social scene to create a taste for exciting gotcha politics.
In contrast, Eastern Elite students — who live in a social and academic bubble of
fellow Easterners, created from living on campus all four years and attending small
classes — are socialized to a kind of collective eminence that leads them away from
such divisive actions. Conservative students at Eastern believed that being in an
academically and socially elite environment gave them the luxury of having reasonable
conversations across the political spectrum while also obligating them to refrain from
a more confrontational style, which they understood to be overly populist.
I should add that we collected our data in 2006-2007, before the rise of the Tea
Party and the election of Donald Trump. It would be interesting to see if the divisions
between Western Public and Eastern Elite were greater today, or if college students
were converging against the provocative style that Trump now exhibits in the nation’s
Did you find any evidence of liberal indoctrination by university administration or
the professoriate? What about the deliberate marginalization of conservative students?
If not, where do you think that idea comes from?
Conservative pundits and politicians have long criticized universities for
seeking to brainwash students to liberal politics and political correctness; this
accusation is now increasing in the era of Trump. When we were writing our book,
we wanted to compare what critics had to say with what conservative students said
for themselves, a line of inquiry that remains important in this increasingly
contentious political context.
Western students described occasions when they felt subjected to a professor’s rants,
such as when faculty made fun of President George W. Bush or vice presidential
candidate Sarah Palin, or editorialized about the Iraq War. But, more commonly, they
pointed to a subtle but pervasive smugness they sensed among faculty that “of course
everyone in college is liberal — they must be liberal if they are smart.” They also
noted that syllabi rarely included conservative thinkers and, when they did, that those
ideas were presented only to be destroyed later. Interviewees also said they or their
friends suffered grade retaliation when they wrote from a conservative perspective.
Eastern students said that while liberal faculty clearly outnumbered conservative
ones, their professors generally did not politicize the classroom. While they
complained that some professors taught faddish ethnic studies, gender studies, or any
of a number of other classes covered under the “studies” umbrella, students found
We collected our
data in 2006-
2007, before the
rise of the Tea
Party and the
election of Donald
Trump. It would
be interesting to
see if the divisions
Eastern Elite were
greater today ... .”