By Victoria Noble, Columnist
Published June 18, 2014
The University has long been known for its liberal campus. As a right-leaning political science student at the University, being on the other side of the metaphorical aisle during class discussion is something I’ve grown used to, and even come to appreciate.
Last week, college students identifying as Republicans, conservatives, libertarians and right-leaning independents flooded Twitter with tweets that bashed their liberal campuses, lamenting the bias against them on their campuses and telling stories of offensive professors and students. Perhaps evidencing a slightly different, but related, bias, the media brushed off the trend as a mechanism "to vent, find kindred spirits," as the Detroit News put it in a recent article.
While I disagree that political bias is a problem, it is something that we need to be talking about. It’s obvious that bias does and will continue to exist, on several dimensions and across most disciplines, forever. Everyone has an opinion. The problem only occurs when people are discouraged from sharing theirs, while others feel free. The bias isn’t an inherit problem, but too often becomes one when discussion is inhibited by a refusal to understand and work together.
When I was looking at colleges, I echoed many of the concerns expressed in the #MyLiberalCampus tweets. I saw the University ranked on some Internet list as one of the most liberal schools. I ran the gamut of melodramatic concerns: What if my professors don’t like me? Can I do well if I disagree? Will I even like it if there aren’t people who think like me? None of these things were ever a problem. Instead, I found professors that were willing to debate, explain and discuss during office hours, in seminar-style classes. Hearing the views of my peers informed my own. I became a more thoughtful and persuasive writer and debater. I observed as my own thoughts increased in nuance and depth — not because my professors were liberal, but because they forced me to think, and think hard. They taught that drawing a position from research leads to far more accurate papers than researching around a position. I learned more from the people who challenged my views and challenged me than from those who allowed complacency.
But some students write off professors who may disagree, instead of remaining open to the experience of challenging, and consequently strengthening, their existing thought process. I’ve watched peers search for “conservative” professors, only to be disappointed when their economics professor happens to like Obama. I’d have to argue that the candidate a person voted for in 2012 doesn’t really affect their ability to teach the basics of elasticity. Students need to be open to the views of professors as much as professors need to accept the diverse views of students.
And professors do need to remain mindful of their classroom attitudes, and how they may affect students’ ability to learn and remain open to new ideas. Descriptors like Republican, Democrat, Liberal, Independent, Libertarian and Conservative are personal identities. Just like all other identities, people view them as intimate and sometimes integral pieces of who they are. Michigan students are better than most at accepting the racial, religious, gender and sexual identities of others. Political identities belong on that list. There is no excuse to write off a Republican as bigoted or a Liberal as stupid. Not only are the stereotypes harmful, but inhibit discussion and growth as well. People with different views than you aren’t bad people, they’re just not you.
The repression of political dissidents has been one of the most common feature of oppression and abusive rule. Good government relies on the ability of all people, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, to express their views. Ensuring that all students feel comfortable discussing their opinions has benefits for everyone. At its best, higher education produces informed, capable and productive citizens. We want those people to represent their views to the best of their ability, oversee their government, and work to improve life in whatever way they know how. For that to happen, people need to care, and feel confident and supported in doing so.
In my experience, the University’s campus has supported dialogue on a plethora of issues — even when that dialogue criticized the University. That doesn’t mean faculty shouldn’t take care to ensure that it remains that way or to evaluate seriously claims of students who had negative experiences in class. More than being a liberal campus, the University is a political campus. It fosters healthy debate, interest and civic engagement. It helps and prompts students to care about the world that they live in. Here, student pursue solutions to some of the most difficult problems, utilizing skills from every discipline and borrowing views from all areas of the political spectrum, unwitting of which party traditionally champions them. Here, policy comes before platform and debate before lecture. To me, that’s the greatest feature of #myliberalcampus, The University of Michigan.
Victoria Noble can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.