According to an NBC poll released in August, only 20 percent of college sophomores surveyed said they can definitely see themselves rooming with someone who voted differently than they did in the 2020 presidential election. And more than half said they probably or definitely couldn’t see themselves dating such a student. Campus culture seems to further social disconnection rather than foster friendship across the political divide.
COVID-19 lockdowns exacerbated social isolation and loneliness, but even before the pandemic, the loneliness epidemic had been well documented and surveys regularly show high levels of loneliness among younger Americans. In 2019, the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey on Community and Society found that 44 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds reported feeling completely alone at least sometimes, compared to just 19 percent of 60- to 70-year-olds. And 50 percent of younger Americans said they sometimes feel isolated from others, compared to 30 percent of those 60 years and older.
Even with the opportunity for friendship and connection all around them, loneliness on campus isn’t new. What is new are the messages students get from school officials about their peers. A burgeoning group of student-facing administrators that leans strongly to the left sets the terms of speech, deliberation, and even intimacy. It is no coincidence that compared with Republican students, a much larger share of Democrats report that they would “probably not” or “definitely not” room with someone who didn’t vote for their preferred candidate (62 percent vs. 28 percent).
Students can become balkanized around identities and perceptions of power — an “us” vs. “them” mentality that turns potential friends into “allies” or enemies and contributes to both political self-censorship and an avoidance of personal self-disclosure. When it comes to sharing their views, 80 percent of students say they self-censor, according to a joint survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and RealClearEducation. The primary reason students say they don’t express their authentic views, according to a Heterodox Academy survey, is fear of peers taking offense. Many even worry that sharing their thoughts will cause others “harm.”
Clearly this undermines viewpoint diversity on campus. But perhaps the pervasive experience of keeping their thoughts to themselves also helps explain why more than two-thirds of students in the NBC poll reported “intense, persistent, and excessive worry and fear about everyday situations.” Common campus practices may be engendering mutual fear and distrust, impeding interpersonal connection, and preventing the development of meaningful relationships — the very things that buffer against feelings of isolation and loneliness.
For example, despite a complete absence of objective criteria, some colleges train students to believe that people “perpetrate microaggressions” whenever speech or behavior is — or could even potentially be — subjectively experienced as an indignity by a person from a historically marginalized group. The seminal paper used in such trainings categorizes certain political opinions as microaggressions; for instance, “America is a melting pot,” “There is only one race, the human race,” and statements that indicate a belief in what the paper calls “the myth of meritocracy” (such as “the most qualified person should get the job”). Students get the message that demonstrating insufficient fealty to certain ideological tenets makes people “perpetrators.”
Some students fully embrace what they’ve learned. Last year, a student-created list of “suggested language” was briefly displayed on the Brandeis University website (until the administration moved it to an unofficial page, citing the school’s principles of free expression). The list offered alternatives to words considered offensive based on things like identity, such as “you guys,” cultural appropriation, such as “tribe,” and violence, such as “picnic.” (Although the etymology of the word has nothing to do with violence, students asserted that the word “can be associated with lynchings of Black people in the United States, during which white spectators were said to have watched while eating.”)
Undergraduates at Williams College, NYU, and elsewhere have even begun demanding racially segregated dorms. Some institutions, including Washington University, have relented. Others offer (and some have required) racially segregated orientations and other events. At Harvard University, the American Repertory Theater set aside one performance of “Macbeth” for “Black-identifying audience members” only. Campus groups organized around the cultures, religions, and interests of students from particular backgrounds add to the vibrancy of college life. But opportunities for affiliation are not equivalent to segregated spaces.
Slights and indignities do occur on campus, as do even blatantly racist speech and behavior — and those should be addressed. No student should ever be threatened or harassed. But orienting students toward vigilance to every potential, even minor, offense has not been demonstrated to decrease prejudice and has even been found to reinforce biases. A recent study found that rather than diminishing harm, labeling speech as harmful may worsen the perception of being harmed.
Now that most classes and campus events have resumed in person with fewer COVID precautions, student-facing administrators have a unique opportunity to reorient students of all identities around a shared sense of belonging to their college community and focus on the kinds of interpersonal behaviors, attitudes, and habits of mind that lead to meaningful relationships and psychological well-being.
Administrators can make a lasting difference by encouraging students to be patient and understanding about missteps and mistakes; to give one another the benefit of the doubt; to be slow to take offense and quick to forgive; to be curious about one another’s genuine views; courageous in sharing authentically; and compassionate even when students don’t understand one another’s pain.
When students offer and expect more than mere “allyship,” they will find that peers from different backgrounds — even those with different political opinions — can become lifelong friends.
Pamela Paresky is a visiting fellow at the Johns Hopkins SNF Agora Institute, a senior scholar at the Network Contagion Research Institute, and a psychologist who writes for PsychologyToday.com. Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.