Victoria Noble: Protecting political expression

Monday, November 9, 2015 - 6:25pm

Despite being a historically liberal institution, the University fails to include the prohibition of political or intellectual discrimination in its anti-discrimination policy. Across campus, the lack of institutional protection for unpopular opinions — including conservative views — can have a chilling effect on class discussion and student expression.

In all academic fields, discussion is critical to understanding the nuance of claims presented about the world. In some disciplines, like public policy — which strives to educate students not only on current policies but also on how to change them — understanding multiple angles of divisive political issues and working with people who hold opposing viewpoints is essential.

Discussions in my Ford School of Public Policy classes regularly prompt dialogue on contentious political issues like minimum wage laws, detention of terror suspects and the far right’s influence in Congress. Here, disagreements are political, and discussions often reveal ideology if students participate honestly. Group discussions can become more heated than average if one or two students disagree with the rest of their peers, and students may avoid expressing views that might conflict with the opinions they believe their professors hold.

Despite the opportunity for disagreement, faculty members require students to participate in discussion, and give participation considerable weight toward final grades. Most Public Policy professors who I have come into contact with have been amenable to a diverse range of opinions. But, when students can’t be sure how accepting a professor will be, they may elect not to express their views at all.

Susan Collins, dean of the Ford School, told me in an interview that most policy schools across the country tend to have greater liberal representation, and past surveys of Ford students show that relatively few self-identify as Republicans. Despite this, Collins believes that Ford students should be exposed to a wide range of viewpoints.

“I feel very strongly, and this is a view shared widely around the building,” Collins said, “that as a policy school, it’s really essential that people hear and understand and grapple with a range of perspectives, but in particular political perspectives.”

Even still, Collins said that students have expressed to her their discomfort in expressing their views in class when they didn’t think any of their classmates shared them.

As a Republican in the Ford School, I can certainly relate to these students. One of my policy classes spends a considerable amount of time in small group discussions, where, in my experiences, the majority of group members have tended to share similar views on topics, and I’ve tended to disagree. Sharing my opinion to a group of people who believe the opposite can be intimidating, and has been met, on occasion, with sarcastic, less-than-flattering remarks.

I tend to be outgoing and outspoken, and probably more willing than average to share my thoughts with those who might disagree. If I was afraid of sharing my opinions with liberals, I probably wouldn’t have identified myself as a Republican in the Daily so many times over the past two years. But when my peers don’t take my opinions seriously or make negative comments, it makes me think twice before choosing to participate in class discussion again in the future. If I have occasionally felt too uncomfortable to share my opinion in class, I can only imagine how my Republican peers might feel.

In most classes, faculty members seem to do their best to encourage dissenting opinions and highlight multiple sides of arguments. This isn’t just inclusive; it’s good pedagogy. To the extent that the Ford School aspires to produce effective public servants, it should strive to ensure its students can effectively communicate in institutional environments with far greater intellectual diversity than the Public Policy school itself. It can’t do that if only one side of every issue is afforded serious consideration.

Despite expressed openness to ideas from all areas of the political spectrum, it’s clear that the school has a long way to go if it truly wants to become as tolerant of different ideologies as it strives to be. A solid first step toward this goal doesn’t have to be Ford-specific: Adding political and intellectual discrimination to the University-wide nondiscrimination policy could go a long way to assure students their views will be respected.

Should the University continue to neglect this issue, the Public Policy School should draft an anti-discrimination policy of its own that specifically prohibits discrimination based on political expression or ideology, and strengthens existing measures to promote an inclusive environment conducive to active, vocal participation from all students, regardless of background or identity.

But making the Ford School as diverse in political thought as the government bodies many Ford students want to work in after graduation will require much more than a one-off policy change.

The Ford School should increase representation from political conservatives and Republicans. Better outreach to right-leaning student organizations will help students who don’t already have a network of Public Policy students to tell them about the program or help them through the application process.

Even more importantly, the Public Policy School needs to become a place that can credibly claim to prospective students an acceptance of a wide range of viewpoints. This might include framing class discussions to highlight both sides of an argument, or assigning a paper in one of the required classes that asks students to argue a policy position they don’t support, prompting them to give serious consideration to an opposing point of view. It may also encourage faculty to avoid party-line generalizations that tempt students to think about Republicans and Democrats as being homogenous groups without ideological variation, pitted against each other without room for compromise.

This isn’t to say that conservative students can’t find a place at the Ford School, or benefit from the excellent classes it offers. On the contrary, I think that students holding underrepresented ideologies have a unique role to play in making the Ford School even better than it already is. By creating an environment in which students challenge each other to develop best possible policy solutions, the Ford School can more effectively produce leaders who know how to work through the gridlock that plagues government today.

I doubt that this can happen in classes where the viewpoints expressed are frequently the same, either because there are too few students who disagree, or because the ones who disagree don’t feel comfortable expressing their views. Progress on this issue will benefit not only campus conservatives but also the Public Policy School itself, by helping it provide a more comprehensive education for all of its students.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.