As a senior in high school, I envisioned myself attending a college with a discernible liberal climate because I thought that it would ease my transition. I decided on Yale in large part because it was a school that promised to be a safe haven for all kinds of diversity. “We want every kind of student represented here,” the brochure assures. And if having a token openly conservative student in each residential college counts as ideological diversity, then I guess you could say that Yale keeps its promise. How many externally conservative professors have I, or any of my friends, had since I’ve been here? Zero. A recent New York Times article noted “four studies found that the proportion of professors in the humanities who are Republicans ranges between six and 11 percent, and in the social sciences between seven and nine percent.” Despite the convenience born of a mostly ideologically homogeneous campus, both liberal and conservative students suffer from the lack of right-leaning voices in the faculty. Liberal students are left unprepared for conversations with people with different ideas, and conservative students are unfairly silenced.
In a way, this tendency benefits Yale. Because it is understood that there are generally very few large ideological disconnects between faculty and students, each can go to class knowing they have common ground with one another, and can, therefore, assume certain truths when commenting in class. This relationship allows for both students and professors to validate each other’s opinions while establishing trust. Though it might seem as though this level of comfort enriches classroom discussion, beneath this assumed comfort lurk some potential areas of concern.
I had never considered the downsides of this kind of relationship until I got a random call from my mom, who was distressed by an article she read. The author had surveyed students at Yale and found that of the students who identified as conservative, 95 percent said their views were not welcomed on campus. While at first I imagined it would be easy to tell them to suck it up, I began to wonder how I would feel if subjected to the same kind of self-censorship. Of course, as a liberal on a mostly liberal campus, I’m used to having my opinions validated. And so when I consider the alternative, I realize how scared I would be to voice my opinion if I knew that everyone in class, including my professor, thought my beliefs were wrong.
After this conversation with my mother, I began to understand that although having a politically homogeneous campus discourse provides a kind of comfort to those who subscribe to the accepted ideology, this comfort comes at a cost. One such cost is that when liberal students eschew the opportunity to debate people of an opposing view, they rob themselves of the valuable chance to sharpen their understanding of their own opinions. Ideological diversity is such an important facet of a college because it allows for students to challenge their own opinions by comparing them to different ones. By excluding conservatives from this dialogue, students’ preconceived notions about politics are never challenged by the other side of the political spectrum. Beyond opening students’ eyes to opposing viewpoints, a goal of discussion should be to convince the other side why a certain view is better than its own, regardless of whether this view is conservative or liberal.
The recent election season put this issue into even starker contrast. During the campaigns, a great deal of my family supported Trump on Facebook. I’m not one to comment on posts unprovoked, but there were times when I could hardly contain my desire to speak out. Yet upon attempting to type my thoughts, I realized I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t defend my own position because I didn’t comprehend theirs. Although this may seem like an event of little consequence, if all students approached dialogues with this lack of concrete knowledge, our conversations would be ineffective.
By not including right-slanted voices in the faculty, we have created a campus culture in which it is nearly impossible for conservative students to feel that their opinions are valuable. When conservatives don’t speak up, we, liberals, can neither learn from their opinions, nor practice identifying their weaknesses. How can we fix this? Affirmative action for conservative professors seems far-fetched and alienating, especially if a professor knows they were hired only because of their different political views. Instead, we need to start by decriminalizing conservative ideology—if not because we might find it unacceptable at times, then because we all lose by not even attempting to understand it. We need to cultivate a campus culture that does more than simply claim it encourages diversity of thought. Until this starts happening, we will be left to continue debating without compromise, echoing those with whom we agree while failing to effect change.