A July Pew Research survey of 2,504 people revealed 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning adults believe “Colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country” today. Only 36 percent said the effect is positive.
In contrast, 19 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning adults surveyed said the impact of higher education is negative, while 72 percent said it is positive.
Hannah Fingerhut, a research analyst with Pew, wrote in a July article Republicans’ views about higher education represent a “striking” change from the recent past. “Just two years ago, attitudes [among Republicans] were the reverse; a 54 percent majority of Republicans and Republican leaners said colleges were having a positive effect, while 37 percent said their effect was negative,” Fingerhut wrote.
Hotbeds of Hostility
The shift in opinion of Republicans is likely a reflection of campuses having been particularly hostile to conservatives in recent years.
Protests, sometimes violent, have made it impossible for some invited speakers to stay on stage. This year, Milo Yiannopoulos, a flamboyant right-wing provocateur, was prevented from speaking at the University of California, Berkeley; libertarian author Charles Murray was forced off the stage at Middlebury College; and Heather Mac Donald, author of books on crime and policing, was prevented from speaking at Claremont McKenna College.
Last year, a Yale University instructor resigned from teaching under fire from protests after she encouraged students not to get overwrought over “insensitive” Halloween costumes. At the University of Missouri in 2016, students forced the president to resign as they protested race-related issues, including a killing by a police officer in nearby Ferguson, Missouri. Some protests have engulfed faculty who aren’t conservative, such as Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State University. A liberal, Weinstein objected to being asked to leave campus so minorities could celebrate a “Day of Absence” without whites present.
Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says the perception colleges and universities are biased is reasonable.
“The highly publicized and sometimes violent attacks on conservative and libertarian speakers and their audiences this spring at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Claremont have likely contributed to a preexisting perception among members of those groups that their views, and perhaps their very presence on campus, are no longer welcome,” Shibley said.
“Whether or not this perception is fair, it’s simply not reasonable for academia to continue to expect broad-based political support while doing nothing to counter the message that Americans with conservative or libertarian views may be subject to official censorship, or even mob attack, should they dare to express those views on our nation’s campuses,” Shibley said.
Thomas Lindsay, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Higher Education, says Republicans have ample cause for a loss of faith in higher education.
“The dramatic uptick in Republican disapproval of higher education comes as no surprise,” Lindsay said. “As the recent fiascos at Mizzou, Yale, Berkeley, Evergreen State, and others demonstrate, too many of our universities have abandoned their truth-seeking mission and have replaced it with ideological indoctrination. This is not the purpose of education. Until our universities drop politics and ideology and return to preparing citizens, employees, and future leaders, expect the popular backlash only to grow.”
Skills Versus Personal Growth
The Pew survey also found partisan division, although less extreme, over the purpose of higher education.
Fifty-eight percent of the Republican group said colleges and universities should teach “specific skills and knowledge for the workplace,” with only 28 percent naming “personal growth” as their purpose. Democrats were more equally divided on the question: 43 percent agreed specific skills should be the goal, while 42 percent chose personal growth.
Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) is School Reform News’ higher education editor.
Pew Research Center, “Sharp Partisan Divisions in View of National Institutions,” July 10, 2017: