Majority Love, Minority Rights

By June 15, 2005

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s June 17 issue contains an interesting article analyzing the Georgia public’s continuing high regard for the University of Georgia, which “stands out as a blue island of Democrats in a Republican-red sea.” While you should read the entire article, the critical point is summed up in the opening paragraphs:

Georgia, on the whole, is a conservative place, its state capital dominated by Republicans who ran for office promising to cut taxes, rein in government spending, and uphold what they see as traditional family values.

The University of Georgia, by contrast, has long had a reputation among many Peach State residents as a bastion of liberalism, where professors bash President Bush, doubt the Bible, and pressure young people to abandon the values instilled in them back home.

Georgia is hardly the only state in which a perceived ideological gap separates public colleges from the public. As the nation’s electorate has shifted rightward in recent years—putting the White House, Congress, and a growing number of statehouses under Republican control—many public colleges, especially flagship universities, have maintained liberal reputations, as evidenced by a 2004 Chronicle poll showing that 68 percent of the nation’s conservatives believe that colleges are liberally biased.

Conservative advocacy groups routinely criticize colleges as bent on liberal indoctrination and eager to trample students’ rights in the name of multiculturalism and diversity. Meanwhile, many academics equate political conservatism with anti-intellectualism and with declining tax-dollar support for higher education.

But at least at the state level, the relationship between public colleges and political conservatism is much more complex—and, in some respects, much friendlier—than many people in academe think.

The article presents a fascinating analysis of the relationship between a state and “its” school—where tradition, politics, culture, religion, and, yes, football (this is the University of Georgia they’re talking about) create a fascinating stew of reactions and feelings. There is one point that needs to be made, however: The existence of generally friendly relationships with the majority of a community does not mean that basic civil liberties are respected at that campus.

In the years that FIRE has been fighting against censorship, I have consistently heard administrators rebut criticisms of repressive policies or repressive actions by claims that a majority (sometimes even a vast majority) of students report having good experiences on campus. Administrators also cite supporting statistics such as the favorable opinion poll numbers reported in the Chronicle article or increased rates of alumni giving or increases in endowment as justifying the argument that “there’s no real problem here.”

Are administrators lying when they say that students generally report a good college experience? Are they faking public opinion stats or alumni giving rates? I don’t think so. Can students and faculty get along in spite of ideological differences? Of course. But none of these facts is really relevant to the question of whether “rights are being trampled” on campus. If you pay close attention to FIRE’s cases, you will note that universities rarely target mass numbers of students; instead they target either individual students or student groups that are outside the campus political, cultural, or religious mainstream. The closest FIRE has come to seeing a major state university take an action that clearly and unequivocally impacted the rights of active student groups with hundreds (even thousands) of members came when Ohio State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill directly attacked the religious liberty of dozens of Christian and other religious organizations on campus. The decisive response of these groups led both administrations to back down, but for North Carolina, the retreat was only temporary. Less than two years later, North Carolina attacked again, but this time its target was not the entire evangelical community but one small fraternity of fewer than 10 members. One of the more distressing aspects of FIRE’s case at LSU was that several large Christian organizations enjoyed university recognition despite the fact that they had the same “discriminatory” policies as the very much smaller Muslim Student Association.

In my experience, most students do not go to college to become political activists, nor do they even think about “challenging the system.” Yet those students who do go to college and question the conventional wisdom—in other words, the students who truly seek to take advantage of a marketplace of ideas—are the ones most likely to be suppressed and censored. It is this minority that serves as the “canary in the coal mine” for the state of civil liberties on campus, and right now the canaries are gasping for air.

Schools: University of Georgia