My personal experiences at a small New England liberal arts college confirms widely held beliefs about such schools’ political makeup: vocal liberal agitators significantly outnumber conservative activists at Williams, and the more apathetic majority (while detached from day-to-day politics) mostly subscribe to a vague but decidedly left-leaning kind of "good intentionism." And, in line with a documented reality about our nation’s college faculties, to happen upon even a politically moderate professor is to happily pull a needle from a haystack.
I have come to abandon the vain hope that higher education might pursue ideological pluralism with the same relentless dedication they apply in the endless quest for Diversity™ in myriad other forms, but it seems fair to at least ask that administrators refrain from throwing new institutional weight behind liberal hegemony. Yet this is precisely the path Williams stands poised to pursue. Last fall, an arm of the administration secured bus transportation for 100 of my classmates who wanted to march against Keystone XL in Washington. And this was not enough for our campus newspaper, which lamented that students had to (gasp!) make the rest of their arrangements on their own time, and called for across-the-board policies by which the administration could direct precious funding to similar protest efforts in future.
Williams, sadly, is not alone: Harvard recently cut the ribbon on “an interdisciplinary program” entitled “Innovation for Social Change,” and a conservative student at Texas A&M alleges the university funded an award specifically for students who advocated publicly for liberal legislation.
What, precisely, are college communities meant to collect in the way of return on this investment?
Will left-wing students return from their D.C. rallies eager to hear out their opponents and approach issues carefully? Of course not – they will be brimming with philosophical self-confidence and emerge less tolerant of apostasy than ever. The marketplace of ideas is enhanced through the in-depth discussions that occur in and out of classrooms, not through adrenaline-fueled activism. A campus-wide forum on energy policy would represent a far more salutary use of resources than financing one insular group’s off-campus jaunt to join a chanting crowd in the proverbial echo chamber. In the former situation, students’ pre-conceived opinions are challenged in a thoughtful way; in the latter, they are merely reinforced. American colleges and universities should embrace, rather than pay to erode, the critical thinking and open-mindedness that counteract the tendency of too many young Americans to march first and ask thoughtful questions never.
If paying for protest attendance doesn’t improve the intellectual climate back on campus, perhaps university bureaucrats feel the personal benefits accruing to the activists themselves are sufficient to merit backing. The misguided Williams editorial feels this way, pleased that the Keystone opponents felt “moved and reinvigorated” after their exciting excursion. But surely other students feel moved by taking in a symphony, and still others are reinvigorated by riding on terrifying roller coasters. Do students who happen to prefer sign-waving and sloganeering really merit a special subsidy that we would never dream of offering to students who derive equal satisfaction from other purely personal pursuits?
After all, most institutions rightly offer resources to students who wish to form informational groups. I have no problem with “Pro-Choice Students” or “Students for Israel” receiving college dollars if their primary purpose is to inform and educate on campus. Direct activism is another matter entirely. For given the unbalanced political demographics that characterize most schools’ activist populations, there can be no doubt where activism funding would end up. A deluge of requests from left-wing student groups is all but certain to outnumber those originating from alternative perspectives. The one-sided character of campus politics would not only be reinforced, it would be given new financial salience: even if the funds’ overseers consider each request neutrally, by sole virtue of their lopsided ideological makeups, institutions of higher education would quickly morph into major (and direct) donors to the left. It is downright inappropriate to devote educational resources to taking sides on—and, indeed, financing—controversial stances on every political issue that comes along just because a majority of wannabe rabble-rousers have already made up their minds.
School funds should not be spent on activities that only benefit the participants – let alone when the expenditure entails monetary endorsements of candidates and causes that schools have no business making. At a time when endowments have taken huge hits and core school services are often on the chopping block, it is even more absurd than usual to pour money into reinforcing the ideological monotone that plagues higher education in America.
Keep a close eye on any private almas mater to which you may donate, and watch even more closely any public universities that lay claim to your tax dollars. Should colleges like mine begin to funnel resources into liberal causes celebre under the conceit that the "right" to participate for free in unthinking activism is a core component of the academic experience, it is hard to tell what would suffer more: the already endangered intellectual debate on the campuses in question, or the country that would have failed liberal policies rammed even further down its throat as a result.