In the last few years, the debate over free speech on college campuses has risen to the national scene. Protests at the University of California, Berkeley and Los Angeles; Middlebury College; Columbia University; and others have led to conservative events and speakers being shut down. Because of such occurrences, many on the right have begun to argue that the college classroom and campus has become unreceptive, and even hostile, towards not only conservative ideas, but also conservative students themselves.
“I’d rather not state my name.” ~ A University of Southern California Law Student who fears she won’t be re-elected to student government next year if she reveals her conservative beliefs.
In fact, a 2017 Gallup poll—conducted in partnership with the Knight Foundation, American Council on Education, the Charles Koch Institute, and the Stanton Foundation—found that 61% of students believe their campus climate prevents some students from expressing their views. This was a 7 point increase from 54% in 2016. Right-leaning students were perceived to be least comfortable or likely to share their views in the classroom.
For this Vox Pop, I interviewed several students who had views counter to the campus norm at the University of Southern California.
I had several questions for my interviewees. Here are a few:
- Have you ever felt uncomfortable sharing your opinions in class?
- Would you feel comfortable telling your peers that you are conservative?
- Have you ever changed something you’ve written in an essay because you think the professor will be unreceptive to your ideas?
Through asking these questions, I received more than enough content for my story. As a result, I decided to focus on whether they felt comfortable sharing their views in class. I felt this would provide me with interesting, engaging content that would still create a balanced story detailing conservatives experiences in the classroom. Specifically, I included snippets from four interviewees, whose names are not included in this post, but are in the Vox Pop.
The Silent Conservatives
One of the students, who was a self-described libertarian, told me that she often found it unproductive to contribute her conservative views to classroom debates. She described how she felt in many of her general-education classes, which she described as more liberal, by saying, “People are going to make judgements about me, so I’d rather just keep it to myself.”
Another student, the President of Young America’s Foundation on USC’s campus, told me how in one class he had “walked the middle line” so as to keep the professor from knowing how he stood on some of the issues that came up in the class. He also said he would think twice about telling anyone his party affiliation or who he voted for.
Not all of my interviewees shared these experiences. One, a self-self-prescribed Republican, said, “There’s always a few things I disagree with my professors about, but there’s never been anything major.” This student said he’d been able to freely express his opinions in class without too much pushback from any of his professors.
The final interview, with a law student who did not feel comfortable giving her name, told me that she often felt uncomfortable voicing her dissenting opinion in classroom discussions. However, she explained how this discomfort extended outside the classroom as well, saying, “I’m also in student government and I know if I came out with my conservative opinions I probably would not win reelection next year. So that’s not something I want to broadcast.”
In wrapping up this project, I would like to investigate this topic further, hopefully publishing my findings on my podcast. I feel it would be interesting hear not only from more conservative students across the country, but also with liberal students and with professors. By reporting on this, I believe I can help create a more productive classroom dialogue and reduce conservative discomfort.
Stay tuned for further reporting.