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At Universities, a Troubling Imbalance By: Katherine Kersten
Star Tribune | Thursday, November 21, 2002


Last fall, I sat down with my husband and 18-year-old son to begin the college application process. Every school that we considered promised the same thing: a "diversity" that would expand our son's horizons. As proof, each institution offered a glossy brochure filled with pictures of smiling students of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Brochures like this mask a deeply disturbing truth. Today, American universities are the last place that young people should look for diversity. Though these institutions enroll students of different colors, they lack the sort of diversity that is critical to a free society -- a diversity of ideas, of philosophical and political perspectives. One can find a wider spectrum of thought and opinion in any bowling alley or fast-food restaurant than in the faculty lounges of a typical American university.

The political left has dominated American higher education for decades. But a new study suggests that, at many campuses, ideological conformity is reaching truly alarming levels. Recently, the California-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture combed through primary voting registration records to identify the party affiliations of faculty at a broad cross-section of colleges and universities. The overwhelming majority of those registered were Democrats, or members of other parties of the left.

Brown University, an elite campus in Providence, R.I., was typical. There, 95 percent of professors whose party affiliations could be found were Democrats, and only 5 percent were Republicans. (Brown's entire liberal arts faculty included only three Republicans.) The story was similar at less prestigious institutions. At the University of California at Santa Barbara, for example, 97 percent of faculty whose party registrations could be established were Democrats. At the University of New Mexico, 89 percent were Democrats and 4 percent were Greens.

At the University of Colorado, 94 percent of the liberal arts faculty who registered a party affiliation were Democrats, and only 4 percent were Republicans. Yet Colorado is a Republican state -- its governor and senators are Republicans, as are four of its six congressional representatives. Colorado citizens are being taxed to support a university where their own political and philosophical views are barely represented.

Why does this academic imbalance matter? Today, most college professors encourage their students to view subjects like political science, sociology, economics and history through the ideological prism of the political left. They urge students to analyze American society through the lens of race, class and gender, and to adopt a reflexive skepticism about America's role in the world. The impact of ideological imbalance extends well beyond the classroom. At many campuses, for example, young people may find it difficult to recruit a faculty adviser for a prolife student organization, or arrange a lecture by a conservative political figure.

Where can college students go to hear the other half of the story? Generally, they've got to ferret it out on their own. To help my own young friends, I've purchased a new book by political commentator Dinesh D'Souza, called "Letters to a Young Conservative." In the early 1980s, D'Souza helped found the Dartmouth Review, a conservative student newspaper at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College. His slim new volume is a useful primer for students who are eager to sample the intellectual diversity they can't find in college classrooms.

"Letters to a Young Conservative" begins by exploring the differences between the liberal and conservative worldviews. According to D'Souza, the two camps' differing assumptions and priorities spring from divergent views of human nature. Ironically, D'Souza asserts, it is conservatives -- not liberals -- who now uphold the classical "liberal" principles of the American Revolution: economic and political freedom, and freedom of speech and religion. The conservative worldview is grounded in a commitment to these freedoms, and to civic and social virtue.

"Letters to a Young Conservative" includes chapters on many of today's hot-button issues. Whether the subject is multiculturalism, environmentalism or radical feminism, D'Souza offers students a perspective that counters the reigning liberal orthodoxy.

Obviously, works like "Letters to a Young Conservative" are no substitute for ideological balance in the classroom. But such books can inform and inspire students, prompting them to challenge the stultified intellectual climate on their own campuses.

In the end, our best hope for reclaiming intellectual diversity in higher education may be young people's perennial desire to think for themselves. By nature, American students resist indoctrination. Given the necessary intellectual resources, our youth may lead the charge for diversity on their own. If they succeed, American campuses will no longer be islands of ideological conformity, but forums of free inquiry, where unrestricted critical investigation is both possible and encouraged.

Katherine Kersten is Senior Fellow for Cultural Studies at Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank in Minneapolis.



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