Students Debate Ideological Diversity in ‘What Matters’ Campus Conversation

The issue of political diversity on campus, or the lack thereof, was the subject of a student debate February 3, 2017.

Partisanship on Campus: Confronting a Culture of Caution was the latest in the What Matters series of community conversations, during which some students took part in an active poll using their smart phones. The two questions before the approximately 150 students, faculty and staff who attended: To what extent is the lack of ideological and political diversity a problem at Bowdoin, and if it is a problem, what can be done?

Paul Franco addresses students in Main Lounge, Moulton Union, Feb. 3, 2017

The discussion was moderated by Professor of Government Paul Franco. In his opening remarks Franco referred to the ongoing debate about the reported preponderance of liberal professors in northeastern colleges, and the suggestion made by some that schools consider an affirmative action-type policy to try to recruit more conservative scholars.

Many students had the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas. Among them was a senior who suggested that “perhaps the reason there are so few conservatives here is that conservative ideologies go against the mission of the College, with its acceptance of multiculturalism, diversity and evidence-based policy.” A response to these comments came from a classmate who serves as president of a student group formed last year to promote the discussion of conservative ideas. This student sees this lack of conservative-leaning scholars as a problem with no easy solution. “I don’t think it’s just a question of hiring more conservative professors…but there does need to be more of a conscious effort within the classroom to try and be a bit more inclusive of conservative ideas.”

A student republican also spoke out, saying that in political debate, neither side has the moral high ground. The student expressed frustration that the liberal mindset shuts off conversation at the outset. “I’ve heard sentiments along the lines of ‘because you think differently, you deny rather than disagree, and you need to educate yourself with these facts. Well, denial isn’t disagreement, and conversations like this are very much part of finding a solution to that problem.”

For a member of the first-year class, a self-described political independent, the main problem is not having more conservative scholars in the classroom, or fewer democrats: “It’s not even a question of keeping politics out of the classroom,” the student said, “but that the classroom challenge a student’s views, rather than reaffirm them.” Heading into last year’s election, the student’s government class felt too one-sided, too pro-democrat.

Another first-year student described himself as a liberal, “but,” he said “as a liberal, I feel there should be more diversity of views here, and more opportunity for debate.” A member of the junior class talked of the need to seek out conversations and read news sources not merely to affirm our own beliefs but to challenge them. “Read things like the National Review as well as the New York Times, and have an open mind: be prepared to change your opinion.”

There were similar sentiments from a classmate. “Do we really need a ‘safe space’ for conservatives on campus? Do you feel you’re going to be attacked for saying what you think? If you do, that’s a really big problem. I want to listen. I want the opportunity for us all to have our minds changed. I want us to have truly rigorous intellectual, engagement.” A senior philosophy major suggested that a lack of ideological diversity makes for a diminished learning environment. “When was the last time you changed your mind? Maybe the tendency and frequency with which you change your mind is a constituent part of being ‘at home in all lands?’”

In all more than twenty students got up to speak at the event, and clearly more would have if there had been more time. Franco was encouraged by the willingness of students to tackle this issue. “The comments I heard this afternoon confirmed my view of Bowdoin students as being very willing to engage with different viewpoints,” he said, “even though many of them are aware that they’re part of a majority orthodoxy.”

Partisanship on Campus: Confronting a Culture of Caution, a community conversation, was sponsored by the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good, Bowdoin Republicans, Bowdoin Democrats, Peucinians, the Eisenhower Forum, Women’s Soccer, Men’s Soccer and Ladd House.

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