Addressing the Elephant on Campus

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Author: Lauren Taylor

While Occidental might not show up in Newsweek’s recent top 10 most liberal colleges in America, Beyoncé would no doubt say that the political culture here is definitely “to the left, to the left.”

It is a stereotype of most liberal arts schools, but from the political statements and postings on social media sites, expressed sentiments from students gathering to watch the Presidential Debates at the Cooler and the based on the results of a recent survey conducted by The Occidental Weekly, Occidental proves the label accurate. 

For those on campus who do identify as politically conservative, having a majority of students in opposition to their views can be overwhelming at times. Dylan Bordonaro (sophomore) considers himself a libertarian but has spent time campaigning for Mitt Romney. He said the political climate at Occidental does not usually bother him, but definitely leads to a lot of tough discussions when the topic of politics comes up.

“It usually doesn’t bother me, but I find myself frequently on the defensive in anything centered around politics,” Bordonaro said. “The problem with the environment here is more about the overly-committed Obama supporters who would rather praise Obama than engage in any real political discussion. I think that stems from having a general student body so heavily Democratic that they don’t have a need or reason to defend their beliefs.”

The role of the conservative voice on college campuses is undoubtedly a growing national issue. Former Senator Rick Santorum was campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination in January when he said “the indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America.” Santorum encouraged his audience not to donate to colleges and universities because of the harm they are causing the country through their liberal biases.

Associate Professor Caroline Heldman has experience in politics as an academic, analyst, congressional staffer and campaign manager. She said that in many ways the college is indeed biased toward liberal causes.

“I think it’s inherent that higher education is a liberal process,” she said. “Conservatism is about upholding tradition and college is all about upsetting traditional notions, it’s all about questioning. So the very project of higher education is a liberal project. Regardless of whatever the topic is, a person will become more liberal, meaning less tethered to tradition.”

Gabe Galbraith (sophomore), a member of the Occidental Democrats, said he understands that the discussion can shift from the actual policies and political issues to a more polarizing debate about the merits of blue versus red due to the abundance of Democrats on campus.

“Being in the club [Occidental Democrats], I talk to a lot of people about our own atmosphere on campus,” Galbraith said. “[The liberal campus] does create an environment where people aren’t really challenged to think about the aspects of politics they might believe. It creates a polarized environment where there aren’t a lot of different voices. We do have a very liberal campus, and I’m not sure what sort of outlets there are for more conservative voices.”

With few outlets for genuine political discourse, some conservatives on campus say there is little choice but to simply keep quiet.

“I definitely do keep it to myself a little more,” Adrienne Rich (sophomore) said. “Coming into Oxy I thought people would be a little more open minded. When I tell people I’m more conservative it puts them off guard. I was in a politics class and we went around and three of us raised our hands and said we were conservative. I didn’t even want to raise my hand because I realized how much of a minority I was.”     
 
Rich noted that it does not bother her that most of her friends are liberals, a theme among the students interviewed. But some instances of disrespectful outbursts over political issues certainly raise questions about Occidental’s openness as a community that welcomes all viewpoints.

A sophomore transfer student from conservative Asbury University in Kentucky, Trace Larabee said he came to the west coast and Occidental in part because he wanted to have his ideas and philosophies challenged.
       
“I knew what I was getting into,” Larabee said of bringing his conservative background to a liberal campus. “But I’ve had a couple of encounters when I’ve been on the receiving end of some undeserved profanity and disrespect.”

       
Of particular note for Larabee and other students was the atmosphere around the screenings of Presidential Debates at the Cooler. Larabee described a scene when the debate had ended and one student overheard him talking and realized he was a Romney supporter.

       
“They asked me what I thought of the debate,” Larabee said. “I guess to try and trigger something. And I said I wasn’t sure but Obama probably won the debate and they were like, ‘What are you kidding me? It was obvious! Don’t tell me, you’re a Republican, what a typical white conservative Southern male.’ Then it was like f-this, f-that. I just walked away.”

       
Ruth agreed that some students on campus can be abrasive and do not pursue discussion in favor of shouting down the minority.

       
“People want to change my beliefs rather than accept that they’re
my beliefs,” she said. “So for the most part, I try not to get into political banter with people here because it’s easier for me to accept that people want to try to change my beliefs and ‘educate’ me in the sense that my beliefs are wrong.”

Bordonaro echoed Ruth’s sentiments. “The negative comments [about Republicans or conservatives] don’t get to me if people clearly aren’t serious with what they’re saying. What bothers me more is if people are so committed to their beliefs, they don’t hear the other side. It’s appropriate to understand all sides of an issue and how it could possibly work in different ways. If someone has a stance, you can talk about the issues and discuss things, but you can’t change their mind for them.”

In Occidental’s liberal environment, that is not necessarily a popular opinion, but Heldman says if the students with conservative viewpoints can avoid having their voices drowned out in the political dialogue, they are well positioned to benefit the most from their surroundings.

“Conservative students are getting the best education of any student on campus because they’re constantly having their beliefs challenged by liberal students or by students who don’t agree with them,” Heldman said. “So they’re learning tolerance, they’re learning equanimity in the face of disagreement and they’re finding out what they believe by constantly having those beliefs challenged. I actually think that Oxy is an ideal place for for conservative students to come.”

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