Every year, the popular website Inside Higher Ed adds a few new questions to its annual survey of college admissions officials. This year, those questions were inspired by Donald Trump.
Officials were asked whether their schools had intensified efforts to recruit students from rural areas. Thirty-eight percent said yes. Thirty percent said their schools were looking harder for, and at, students from poor white families. And 8 percent – a tiny group, but a contingent nonetheless – said likewise about politically conservative students.
Why would they be doing that?
For the same reason that the website wondered about it in the first place: their estrangement, made obvious by Trump’s ascent, from much of America.
“After the election, I sensed, from talking to leaders of colleges, a lot of soul searching about the fact that college presidents and students assumed that one thing was going to happen on Election Day and it did not,” Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, told me. “Some people woke up the day after the election and realized that every surrounding county voted in a different way than the college did.”
And in more than a few cases, Jaschik added, they resolved to put pinpricks in the bubble of campus life.
That determination is important and overdue. But it’s hardly universal, partly because there is and always has been disagreement about the very mission of higher education. Should it grapple with the world as it is or point the way to the world as it should be?
Even before Trump’s election, there was welling discussion about the ideological uniformity of many colleges, where the left holds bold and sometimes imperious sway.
In 2013, the University of Colorado, Boulder, welcomed its first “visiting scholar in conservative thought,” a teaching position created to bring someone from the right to the school each year. In 2015, Jonathan Haidt, a justly celebrated social psychologist at New York University, helped to found the Heterodox Academy, an organization that promotes intellectual diversity in higher education.
And a growing number of educators have been wondering aloud if there should be “affirmative action” for conservative professors, given the hugely disproportionate percentage of liberal faculty in the humanities and social sciences. They often conclude that outright preferences are a bad idea but that creating an extra position in, say, military history rather than gender studies would probably up the odds of adding a Republican to the lineup.
Trump’s election at once imperiled and emboldened this movement. To some college administrators and instructors, it was proof that the barbarians were at the gate and that students needed safe spaces more than ever. Understanding what happened on Nov. 8 was less important than fighting furiously against it.
“The idea that the only people who voted for Trump have missing front teeth is really so extraordinary, and yet I think that’s largely what people in the academy think,” said Jean Yarbrough, a conservative professor of political science at Bowdoin College who voted for him herself. These faculty members, she added, consider 2016 “an illegitimate election, so they’re not worried about their being out of touch with America.”
But others are rightly concerned, and that includes parents. Inside Higher Ed published an article recently in which college-placement advisers said that some clients wanted to steer clear of certain elite schools – Yale and Brown were singled out – that struck them as overzealously progressive.
Lynn Morton, president of Warren Wilson College, publicly expressed dissatisfaction with its reputation as a bohemian enclave and made an explicit appeal for conservative students.
Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “to create deeper intellectual and political diversity, we need an affirmative-action program for the full range of conservative ideas and traditions because on too many of our campuses they seldom get the sustained, scholarly attention that they deserve.” He said that in addition to Wesleyan’s commitment to admitting at least 10 military veterans to every freshman class, it would welcome senior military officials as instructors and would tweak its curriculum to offer, for example, a course on the philosophical underpinnings of free enterprise.
For educators open to such changes, the election was both an illustration and a consequence of how polarized our country had become and how poorly Americans in separate cultural and ideological camps communicated with one another. And they aren’t content simply to put “Hillbilly Elegy” on the summer reading list for incoming students (which many colleges have done).
Hence the Inside Higher Ed survey’s discovery of a heightened interest in applicants whose demographic and geographic profiles dovetail with those of Trump voters. If colleges are serious about the educational benefits of diversity, the thinking goes, they need to factor in those students, and they can’t promote respectful, elevated debate if the campus is one big blissful love-in of like-minded liberals. Affluent teenagers from Brooklyn Heights, Brookline and Bethesda need to hear from evangelicals, from young men and women who did tours of duty in Afghanistan, from those whose relatives thrilled to Trump.
Bowdoin’s Yarbrough stressed that college is when you have the energy for “staying up through the night to argue with people in your dorm.” But to do that, those dorm mates must have different opinions and an invitation to express them. Most colleges like hers aren’t creating that atmosphere, she said, adding, “I think it’s a dereliction of duty.”
I see scattered signs that colleges are owning up to that. Johns Hopkins University recently announced an initiative, backed by a $150 million gift, to “address the deterioration of civic engagement” and promote “inclusive discourse.” The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is nurturing a new Institute of Politics with similar goals.
Public schools like UNC have an additional incentive to accommodate a full range of viewpoints. “If colleges are seen as disconnected,” Jaschik noted, “why would Joe Taxpayer in Raleigh care about what happens in Chapel Hill?” Indeed, some state universities have already felt the sting of conservative lawmakers’ disapproval, and a Pew Research Center poll in June showed that a significant majority of Republicans and conservative-leaning independents now believe that colleges have a negative impact on America.
I don’t agree, and I’m not suggesting that colleges normalize Trump, validate everyone who backed him or make room for the viciously bigoted sentiments he often stoked. But there’s inquisitive, constructive territory short of that.
And colleges should be places where we learn to persuade people not to take paths that we consider dangerous instead of simply gaping and yelling at them. That requires putting them and their ideas into the mix. Too many schools are flunking that assignment.