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Perspective | Magazine

The problem with liberal echo chambers on college campuses

Liberal students are silencing conservative views, rather than listening. And that won’t prepare them for the real world.

Illustration of a lone red dialog box in a sea of blue dialog boxes for column on campus echo chambers.
Globe staff illustration

When I was a freshman in college more than a decade ago, I didn’t know what the patriarchy was and didn’t think much about the chasm between the rich and the poor. I arrived on campus with conservative ideas that had been passed on to me by my parents and the people I grew up with, who don’t have college degrees, who work in nursing home kitchens and on construction sites, and who watch a lot of Fox News.

I soon met other students who didn’t have much regard for right-wing beliefs, but they were willing to engage in difficult conversations with people who disagreed. They were activists in the truest sense of the word, handing out fliers, registering voters, and organizing protests. Ultimately, they helped turn me into a full-blown progressive. Today, I identify as a Democratic socialist who has campaigned for candidates including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Ihssane Leckey, an immigrant and social justice activist who lost her primary bid for the Massachusetts Fourth Congressional District in September.

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But it seems to me that few liberal college students today are working to change the minds of their conservative or moderate classmates — many don’t even want conservative ideas on their campuses. And in their efforts to create a learning space safe from objectionable ideas, they are stifling free speech. A 2019 survey of undergraduates at the University of North Carolina found that nearly 68 percent of conservatives, almost half of moderates, and 24 percent of liberals were censoring themselves in class for fear of negative consequences to speaking up.

This fear is not overblown. Back in the 2016-2017 academic year, students at Reed College in Oregon famously protested a required first-year humanities course some 60 times, claiming that the course — and, by extension, its professors — were Eurocentric, oppressive, and worse. Student protestors went as far as to seize microphones and shut down lectures. In April 2019, Middlebury College called off a visiting lecture from Ryszard Legutko, a conservative professor of philosophy, citing security concerns over a planned student protest.

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The irony is that college students arrive on campus from a range of political backgrounds. In 2019, 43.6 percent of incoming students identified as politically middle-of-the road, according to a survey by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute — 36.7 percent identified as liberal and 19.7 percent conservative. But at many colleges, those incoming students find a culture less politically diverse than they are.

It appears that campuses have been increasingly wiped clean of conservative instructors in recent decades. Although research on the political leanings of America’s professors is limited, a 1999 Carnegie Foundation survey found that only 12 percent of professors were conservative, down from 27 percent in 1969. A recent study of 12,000 professors by the National Association of Scholars, a conservative-leaning nonprofit, put the number of registered Republicans at less than 6 percent. Meanwhile, liberal college administrators outweigh conservatives 25-to-1 in New England, a higher ratio than anywhere else in the country, according to research by Samuel Abrams, a conservative professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College.

“It appears that a fairly liberal student body is being taught by a very liberal professoriate, and socialized by an incredibly liberal group of administrators,” Abrams wrote in a 2018 New York Times essay. In response to Abrams’ argument that ideological imbalance — both inside and outside the classroom — was a problem, progressive students vandalized his office door, as well as demanded that the college review his tenure status and that they be included in the process.

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A college campus should be a place where students, liberal or conservative, refine their ability to listen and respond to people on the other side. When I was knocking on doors for the Sanders campaign in 2020, I remembered his volunteer principles to “treat everyone we encounter with care and respect, whether or not they agree with us” because “active listening allows us to find common ground that we can build upon.” In other words, changing minds entails engagement with people who have different perspectives — sometimes ones that we might even find abhorrent. To paraphrase CNN commentator Van Jones, a campus without differing viewpoints is like a weight room that doesn’t have any weights.

There are models for how to prevent the liberal echo chambers that some students want to create. At Wesleyan University in 2017, President Michael S. Roth announced the creation of a $3-million-plus endowment “for exposing students at Wesleyan to ideas outside the liberal consensus,” including courses designed to incorporate broader intellectual and political diversity. “[W]e need an affirmative-action program for the full range of conservative ideas and traditions,” he provocatively wrote in an essay published in The Wall Street Journal, “because on too many of our campuses they seldom get the sustained, scholarly attention that they deserve.”

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More political diversity will better prepare students for the real world, a place more conservative than the current campus climate suggests. After all, more than 74 million Americans just voted for President Trump.

At one point, I might have been one of them. When I arrived at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2008, for example, I believed that immigrants were storming the border and stealing American jobs. But I was persuaded otherwise because no one tried to shut me down when I expressed my viewpoints. No one tried to shut my professors down, either. Liberal students on my campus understood that you effect change by talking to people and winning them over to your side by the strength of your arguments — not by silencing dissent and vandalizing office doors.

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Adam Szetela is a writer who splits his time between Ithaca, New York, and Boston. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.