Study examines political climate on college campuses

January 24, 2020

Liberal, moderate and conservative students surveyed on five college campuses—including Brandeis—were found to be deeply divided on the climate of “free expression” on college campuses and on issues of race, immigration, climate change, sexual assault and gun control, according to a new study published by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute. The overgeneralization by the media about politics on college campuses also does not properly showcase what is actually happening on campus, according to the study. 

The study surveyed almost 7,000 students from Brandeis University, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Florida, Gainesville and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor on their political ideologies and the perception of politics on their respective college campuses. Graham Wright, an associate research scientist in the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the lead author of the study, told The Brandeis Hoot in an interview that the schools were somewhat chosen at random. He explained that they needed to find schools that would be willing to provide them with emails to send the surveys out to students. 

The study focused on two overarching questions in regards to the political climate on college campuses: “How divided are liberal, moderate and conservative students on each of these five schools with respect to their political attitudes, their perceptions of the campus environment and their place within the campus community?” and “How do these divisions differ in magnitude and nature from one college campus to the next?” 

The study found that liberals and moderates on college campuses were united in their opposition to President Donald Trump, but this was divided among conservative students. Wright explained that this division among conservative students comes from opinions on higher education. 

“Americans’ views on the state of higher education in the United States have become sharply politicized,” writes the study. “These political divisions are unsurprising given the sensationalized picture painted by the media of the relationship between liberal and conservative students on campus.” 

“There is a lot of research in political science that one of the biggest things that relates to the support of President Trump is not having a college degree,” Wright told The Hoot. “Education is a huge divider in American politics, much more than it has been in the past.” 

Wright said extremely generally, richer people tend to be Republicans, while poorer people tend to be Democrats. 

“With [President] Trump, specifically, when he became the nominee, education started to become more important, regardless of how much money you had,” explained Wright. “People with more education were less supportive of Trump. Given that, it’s not surprising that people who are in college are less supportive of him.” 

Brandon Musto ’20 and Isaac Sites ’22, the president and vice president of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), respectively, told The Hoot that this division was also apparent within their YAL meetings. “There are members that are conservatives that support [Trump],” Musto told The Hoot. “There are slightly more that are against, that do not support his policies.” 

Sites added that most of the people he speaks with about Trump judge his actions on a case-by-case basis. “Most people say ‘I dislike him on this, but when he did this, I agree with his position,’” Sites told The Hoot. 

The study also highlights the misrepresentation in the media about politics on college campuses. “Media reports about politics are often based solely on the anecdotes relayed to reporters and pundits,” writes the study. “Isolated anecdotes and events at particular campuses are also frequently used to make sweeping generalizations about the political climate at ‘American Universities’ in general,” rather than using systematic research, it states. 

Eliza Welty ’22, the president of Brandeis Democrats, told The Hoot in an interview that the media does not properly portray college campuses because each is so different. “When I read things about how people on college campuses feel, I almost always feel like it’s an oversimplification,” Welty told The Hoot. “Whether it makes the news, it usually makes the views more extreme.”

Musto also pointed out flaws with media coverage on college campuses. “There isn’t always a riot when there is a different position on a college campus,” he told The Hoot. “They are always just taking the most extreme stories on video… And they use that to categorize everyone.” 

“The media tends to be a little over-sensationalized,” Sites added. Sites told The Hoot that he does not like to use large media sources to get information because not everything is so black and white. He chooses to use local sources to get the most objective view from people near the action. 

The study also found that political disagreements between students on college campuses have the potential to create commotion and a lack of unity on campus. At three of the schools, students with different political views did not differ in how much they felt like they “belonged” on campus, according to the study. On the other hand, students at the remaining two schools found that their differences in political views significantly impacted their sense of belonging on campus. Wright added that at one school, conservatives felt ostracized on campus, while on another campus, liberals felt more ostracized. 

Wright also told The Hoot that based on the study, the narrative of lack of “free expression” on college campuses is making self-censorship too neat. “We found that there’s a huge variation in whether students felt if unpopular opinions could be expressed on campus across all different campuses,” said Wright. “People’s level of self-censorship was basically the same regardless if they were on a campus that had a good climate for free expression or a bad climate for free expression.” 

Wright also stated that this study is part of a series that is looking into the experiences of undergraduate students in the United States. 

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