Conservative comfort at the ‘Conservative Ivy’
During this past September’s discussion, recent alumni dished out pointers to Princeton conservatives on how to conquer the hurdles posed as a minority on campus: how to challenge an unfair, politically influenced grade by a liberal professor, when to step away from a political debate with a roommate and whether to list conservative activities on applications to graduate schools.
The free-wheeling conversation centered on a single assumption: Despite the vibrant campus conservative community, conservative students at Princeton still must overcome major difficulties as a political minority.
Yet nearly two dozen interviews with conservative leaders on campus have contradicted — or at least complicated — this allegation of conservative oppression at Princeton. Conservative students voiced comfort both in the classroom and beyond it, noting that though some wish for a more politically diverse faculty, the University is still largely a friendly environment for politically conservative students. Not a single conservative student interviewed for this article reported ever having experienced any perceived bias in grading or any significant social unease on account of their political views.
Conservative community members said though they thought faculty members are still overwhelmingly liberal and conservative faculty members are sometimes reluctant to reveal their contrarian political leanings, many conservative faculty members are outspoken, which creates a relatively balanced faculty voice. Nearly every campus conservative leader pointed to George in particular as the epicenter of campus conservative life, noting that he has created a safe and comfortable environment for conservative students on campus.
This conservative comfort on a college campus is unusual. Colleges and universities have consistently been called out by conservative organizations and students for failing to give right-wing students a fair shot in the classroom. Last month, a report from the privately funded conservative California Association of Scholars argued that the University of California system gave students an education biased toward liberalism.
In 2010, Brown hired renowned conservative law scholar Stephen Calabresi to teach courses on constitutional law. An editorial in The Brown Daily Herald praised the hiring of the conservative faculty member, noting that “Brown could undoubtedly benefit from greater intellectual diversity on campus.”
Earlier this year, College Republicans at San Diego State University in California composed a list of faculty that inserted their political beliefs into their syllabi and publicized it widely. In early February, the school hosted a “Conservative Coming Out Day,” noting on its website, “There’s no reason to be ashamed of who you are.”
Yet at Princeton, conservative students and faculty alike said that the great deal of political diversity was what separated Princeton from more liberal schools like the University of California, Brown or SDSU. It is unclear whether Princeton is truly “the most conservative Ivy,” but members of the conservative community signaled repeatedly that they feel comfortable on campus.
In the classroom, civil discourse
Princeton college Libertarians president Andrew Stella ’13 said he spoke with someone who said they were graded down because their preceptor didn’t agree with them. Former publisher of the Tory Sam Norton ’12 said he had heard secondhand of conservative students experiencing “unfair grades” on account of their political orientation.
Nevertheless, no conservative campus leader with whom The Daily Princetonian spoke could recall any firsthand instances of receiving an unfair grade or being singled out in the classroom due to their political views. Instead, most students found that professors and preceptors tended to be very welcoming of challenges when they discovered conservative students’ views.
Some conservative students said they felt they had to defend their views more because they were in the minority, but most students affirmed that this only encouraged them to strengthen their arguments.
“You might get challenged more than someone else who agrees with the generic assumptions of the professors and of the course and of the general orthodoxy — and sometimes that’s frustrating — but as a general rule that helps you refine what you think,” Brandon McGinley ’10, former head of the conservative Anscombe Society and a former columnist for the ‘Prince,’ said. “And that’s one of the reasons that conservatism at Princeton is much more thoughtful than it is at other places.”
Toni Alimi ’13, the former vice president of College Republicans and now the publisher of the Tory, said that being a conservative in a class full of liberals may make right-wing students more “cautious,” though he noted that, in general, Princeton students respected opposing views.
George called this caution “self-censorship,” explaining that Princeton students worry about opposing liberal majorities in the classroom. Yet because conservative students are more comfortable at Princeton, he said this self-censorship is less common than at other schools.
At more liberal peer institutions, students noted that colleagues and professors were less accepting of their contrarian beliefs in the classroom. Terrence George, president of the Brown University Republicans, said that he only knew two professors who publicly identified as conservative, leading to a perception that everyone approached the classroom with the same basic assumptions. Terrence George described the pervasiveness of leftist assumptions, including some people who were openly hostile to conservative beliefs.
Daniel Surman, co-chairman of the Macalaster College Republicans, characterized many classes as a sort of “echo chamber,” noting that professors’ liberal beliefs reinforced the liberal climate students were expecting. But Norton said Princeton professors were interested in the exchange of ideas instead of turning their classrooms into echo chambers.
While Princeton students could not recall any instances of active discrimination in the classroom, many students noted that there was sometimes an assumption that everyone in the class accepted the liberal viewpoint.
Chris Goodnow ’14, secretary of College Republicans and a managing editor for the Tory, recalled an instance when one of his preceptors made an offhand comment that conservative economist Milton Friedman was a fascist. Goodnow said he was the only one who challenged her on the issue.
After he made his point, the preceptor said his arguments were valid, but Goodnow said the experience motivated him to speak more during precept to support unpopular positions and encourage more intellectual curiosity.
“That’s the way the environment is, and what conservatives can’t do is bitch and moan about it,” he said. “What we have to do is try to change it or at least engage the ideas.”
These “side comments” such as the Friedman remark were the closest things to bias that conservatives said they faced in the classroom. Natalie Scholl ’13, the president of Princeton Pro-Life, said these comments are frequently “suggestive of [the instructors’] own political views” and that they tend to be primarily liberal comments from liberal professors.
Vice President of College Republicans David Will ’14 noted that there can frequently be “humorous asides” toward Republican presidential candidates, though he said those are “fair game.”
At Dartmouth, which is typically considered as conservative as Princeton, now-former College Republicans president Parker Hinman described an atmosphere on campus similar to that of Princeton. He said most students felt no need to hide their political views from fear of not being taken seriously.
At Princeton, some students said they actually saw their minority views as an advantage in the classroom because it allowed them to challenge accepted views and bring something constructive to the dialogue in precept.
Most students noted that the majority of classes were not inherently politically charged in their content and focused on a narrow range of issues or abstract ideas instead of broader political debates. Anthony Paranzino ’14, former chair of the Cliosophic party, the conservative section of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, said that it is the professor, and not the course content, that can make the biggest difference.
“A course isn’t themed just around if it is conservative or liberal but the main idea the professor holds,” he said.
Volume in place of numbers: the faculty
George explained that balance in the faculty is important because liberal professors cannot defend the conservative point of view as effectively as conservative professors can, and vice versa.
Almost every source consulted agreed that the faculty was predominantly liberal. George said he knows of only 20 to 25 politically conservative faculty members that were “out of the closet.” A 2005 report by politics lecturer Russell Nieli GS ’79 noted that the Princeton faculty had a Democrat-to-Republican ratio of eight to one.
Last March, the ‘Prince’ reported that all but one of the University administrators and faculty members that donated to a presidential campaign donated to President Barack Obama. In 2008, the faculty gave overwhelmingly to Obama as well.
Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin said in an email that factors such as political diversity were not considered in hiring decisions, with the belief that the quality of professors does not have anything to do with their political orientation.
Numerous studies have shown a liberal majority among university professors nationally, so it is unsurprising that in the absence of an active effort to recruit a politically balanced faculty, the University’s faculty also shows a liberal majority.
Bryan Bernys of Campus Reform, an organization that seeks to support conservative students to “revolutionize the struggle against leftist bias and abuse on college campuses,” said that most universities are biased to the left, though he noted that Princeton is more conservative than the other Ivy League schools.
While almost every student interviewed expressed appreciation for professors’ efforts to present both sides of an argument in teaching courses, some students said it was understandable that a professor’s political leanings might overtly guide a course’s syllabus or choices of readings.
Wilson School professor John Londregan noted that the political imbalance of the faculty might unintentionally result in more liberal material in courses and some reticence among conservative faculty members to express their views.
“If you were a Yankees fan in Boston, it’s not that you’d be afraid to cheer, but you might not bring up baseball with the same frequency as a Red Sox fan,” Londregan said.
Nonetheless, students and faculty said there are many outspoken professors on both ends of the political spectrum. Dobkin said the number of faculty asking for leave for government service during the Bush and Obama administrations was reasonably balanced, and Paranzino also noted this diversity, at least in the Wilson School.
“I think there’s more diversity simply because the school appreciates government service, and they understand Republicans and Democrats alternate in office,” Paranzino said.
Despite the smaller number of conservative faculty members, most students said they trusted their peers’ abilities to analyze course material in context and think for themselves and believed that students were independent-minded enough to craft a good argument even if they knew their professors did not agree with them.
But knowing that there are outspoken conservative faculty members does make some conservative students feel more comfortable expressing their own views.
“The safety of having someone who will stand up for you on campus makes it more of a safe environment,” Scholl, the Princeton Pro-Life president, said.
The “George Factor”
Scholl noted that she admired one particular faculty member that made her feel safe as a conservative student on a liberal campus: Robert George.
When George, who received his undergraduate degree from the liberal-leaning Swarthmore College in 1977, came to Princeton eight years later after earning a doctorate from Oxford, the climate almost instantly changed, Nieli said.
“Just one or two high-profile professors can make a big difference in terms of the atmosphere on a college campus, particularly for conservative students,” Nieli explained.
Nearly every member of Princeton’s conservative community referenced the power held by George in interviews, noting that he stood at the center of — and directed — the political minority movement on campus.
Londregan, a close friend of George’s, noted that George’s presence was a “serendipitous idiosyncrasy” of Princeton conservative life. Once an outspoken conservative like George began speaking out, Londregan explained, conservative students and faculty felt more comfortable expressing their own views.
When speaking of the conservative environment, George continually speaks in terms of student safety. As a protector of attacked students, George explained that the key is not to recruit more conservative students but to make conservative students feel comfortable speaking out.
“More important than attracting [conservatives] is the fact that here at Princeton conservative students don’t feel that they have to stay in the closet,” George said.
Though George was outspoken from the onset, becoming so vocal so early in his Princeton career posed challenges for the eventual campus leader. According to a profile by the Catholic Education Resource Center, George managed to receive tenure but only after overcoming political antipathy from liberal colleagues. They appreciated his insight, but not his politics.
“It was a remarkable thing for him to get tenure when he had done nothing to disguise his views,” Amherst professor and George’s friend Hadley Arkes told the Resource Center. “After all, it was quite risky for the politics department to give tenure to a strong, attractive young conservative in a department of only 50 people,” he added.
In an email, though, George denied that he was in risk of not achieving tenure, noting that he had support from numerous University officials and tenured faculty members in many departments, despite his political views.
“Many people who disagree with me about various things have praised my work publicly — even praising arguments that they, in the end, don’t accept,” he explained. “It’s just a matter of being fair-minded,” he added.
George continued his slow ascension to the apex of the campus political scene. In 2000, George led the creation of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, a center that formally studies constitutional law but informally serves as a hub of campus conservatism.
In the essay written by Nieli in 2005 called “The State of the Academy: Enhancing Intellectual Diversity on Campus,” Nieli argued that the program had triggered a “transformation” in the “intellectual atmosphere” on campus. By hosting speakers, sponsoring visiting faculty members and organizing young campus conservatives, the Madison Program took a nascent and reticent conservative movement and sparked it with energy, Nieli wrote.
Last Wednesday, George and the Madison Program brought former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld ’54 to campus for an off-the-record event. Last week, the program took about 40 students to the Supreme Court to meet Elena Kagan ’81 and listen to oral arguments.
With the Madison Program and other conservative programming, George leads a tight group of conservatives that generally participate in similar extracurricular activities. Many of the conservative students involved in the Madison Program are also involved in groups like Princeton College Republicans, the Princeton Tory and Princeton Pro-Life. The conservative community on campus is quite mixed, and George leads their charge.
With George at the helm, his conservative student fans serve as support for one another. The yearly talk in September, “Princeton: Most Conservative Ivy?” is just one of the many events sponsored by conservative student organizations that George speaks at frequently. That particular conversation is a lesson in defense, but other events, like those hosted by the Madison Program, are more supportive in nature.
George said the reason conservative students practice less self-censorship in the classroom than is seen at other institutions is because of the community that conservative students have formed.
“That’s attributable to the conservative students who have created an atmosphere where they refused to be intimidated,” George said, adding that the liberal faculty have also treated these students — wary of self-censorship — very fairly.
Norton, the former publisher of the Tory, said that the notion of community arises from the relatively small number of conservative students.
“The sense of being a minority amongst the student body sort of draws students together,” Norton explained. “Liberal students might not feel the need to access that support network because the University as a whole is a support network for them because of the predominance of liberal opinion.”
The traditions, the institutions
The predominance of liberalism on campus belies the institutional and historical forces that would seem to make Princeton a bastion of conservatism.
Some students pointed to the lower level of political activism on campus, attributing this apathy to the isolation of the Orange Bubble from outside issues, a shortage of time and a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting from Princeton’s reputation as a politically inactive campus.
The University’s location and structure also provide organized means to engage in political issues other than activism. Several students pointed to the Wilson School and independent work as opportunities for students to engage in politics in a way other than activism.
Former College Democrats co-president Chloe Bordewich ’12 said that since the activist culture tends to be more liberal, its absence at Princeton makes the entire campus feel more conservative.
Princeton’s history as the “Southern Ivy” — as described in a Princeton alumni review of its Confederate history — also contributes to the campus’s general friendliness toward conservative ideas.
“They have maintained that residual mannerliness that institutions possessed when it was WASP-dominated, and that makes it easier to get along if you hold political views that are different than the majority,” Nieli said, explaining that Princeton through the 1950s was essentially an upper-class, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant institution.
Other students noted Princeton’s reputation as being an old boys’ club, a perception reinforced by the existence of the eating clubs and other vestiges of traditional life. For some students, conservatism also manifests itself in the University’s willingness to maintain traditional policies and its reluctance to change.
Politics professor emeritus Paul Sigmund, who taught a course on conservatism from 1980 to 2006, credited the precept system with encouraging critical thinking and providing liberal professors with an opportunity to elicit conservative critiques, preventing a single viewpoint from becoming oppressive.
Some students also noted the University’s care to not blatantly support a political position, setting an example of taking a cautious stance on controversial issues.
When Nieli was a graduate student during the 1970s, Nieli said the debate within the politics department and the Wilson School was between radical Marxists and New Deal Democrats slightly to their right. There was hardly any political diversity in the faculty, he explained, noting that professor Robert Gilpin was the only outwardly conservative member of the faculty in either the politics department or the Wilson School.
Conservative views in general, Nieli said, were seen as ignorant and stupid by the campus, which was still very much enwrapped in the “craziness” of the 1960s.
“You might well imagine that the people who had right-of-center views would keep quiet of it; they felt that the whole institution was against their views,” Nieli said.
George noted that the 1998 ‘Prince’ editorial in favor of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was a reflection of a larger change in the profile of Princeton political life.
“This was a sign that this was not your father’s Princeton University,” he said.
Conflict on campus
Ever since George’s arrival on campus, conservatives have in the recent past sent signals that they were treated unfairly by their peers, professors and the administration. Over the past five years, two flashpoints have illustrated that the Princeton conservative experience has not been perfect: the campaign and passage of a Student Bill of Rights in 2006 and the Anscombe Society’s unsuccessful push to establish a chastity center in 2010.
Eight years ago, Clarke Smith ’07 sat in a Frist Campus Center classroom watching a presidential debate during the 2004 election season. The event, co-hosted by College Democrats, College Republicans and USG was well-attended by conservative students, Smith said. But according to Smith, whenever Republican President George W. Bush spoke, the crowd loudly booed. When Democratic candidate John Kerry opened his mouth, the crowd cheered and clapped loudly.
“It wasn’t a very productive environment or a bipartisan room for debate,” Smith explained.
Though Smith noted that Princeton was a “pretty decent environment for conservative students” when he was a student there, Smith said that conservatives had a hard time in the classroom expressing their opinion. While he said students were not graded down for sharing conservative viewpoints, there was a silent bias against their opinions.
“Sitting in certain precepts, especially in political science classes, if you express a view that was on the conservative side of things, you would kind of get a bit ostracized or shot down,” he noted.
By the time Smith rose to become the vice president of College Republicans in 2006, Smith and the organization leadership set out to reverse course in the classroom. The College Republicans sponsored a USG referendum called the Student Bill of Rights, a one-page bill that called for “academic freedom and intellectual diversity within the University community.”
The referendum instantaneously became a partisan debate; College Democrats actively opposed the referendum and College Republicans actively supported it. That April, much to the surprise of the campus — including the leadership of College Republicans — the referendum passed with 51.8 percent of the vote.
Despite the politics of the referendum, its mere existence showed that conservative students were not perfectly happy with the University’s political climate.
Three and a half years later, conservatives on campus once again voiced discontent with the dominant political culture by seeking to establish a chastity center. But unlike in 2006, this conservative idea could not overcome the resistance or gain a foothold in popular opinion.
In 2009, many members of the Anscombe Society launched a public campaign to lobby the University to establish a Center for Abstinence and Chastity. Students said at the time that the Center would have been similar to the University’s LGBT Center or its Women’s Center but would instead encourage students to abstain from sexual activity.
In columns in the ‘Prince,’ McGinley, the former Anscombe head, argued for the establishment of the center, saying that it would better support “morally traditional” students. The columns and the campaign set off a fierce public debate about whether socially conservative students were marginalized on campus.
The administration, while recognizing the challenges that chaste students face, denied the students’ petition to build the Center.
In an interview, McGinley said that though the administration’s decision did not necessarily indicate anything about the University’s implicit political beliefs, it did indicate that the University did not treat conservative causes and liberal causes equally.
“I wouldn’t say it is a liberal bias, but it is a double standard,” he said. “It is a blind spot.”
Princeton at peace
Despite these tensions, students say that social relationships between liberals and vocal conservatives on campus have remained non-political.
While Terrence George, the head of the Brown Republicans, said he had lost some acquaintances because of his conservative beliefs, all the Princeton conservative students to whom the ‘Prince’ spoke could not recall specific incidents of mistreatment because of political beliefs.
Instead, students said that political ideology did not prevent friendships and that disagreements over politics at the dinner table did not interfere with good nights at parties on the weekends. Students and faculty also pointed to the political diversity in students nominated for prestigious scholarships.
Nonetheless, some students felt that their views were not always respected or taken seriously, especially on social issues such as gay marriage. Will, the College Republicans vice president, noted that the College Republicans had tried to play down social issues because students generally thought issues like debt and the economy were more important.
On the other hand, civil and environmental engineering professor Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe, who has participated in pro-life events, praised Princeton for the intellectual respect granted to different positions on important issues like abortion, which he contrasted with his experiences at other universities.
Several conservative students said the actual liberal-conservative split of the student body was not as skewed as many might guess, noting the existence of an idle or silent conservative population, perhaps due to workload or a lack of interest in active political involvement.
“When they go to the polls, they’re going to vote a certain way, but that’s not the thing that defines them,” College Republicans president Jacob Reses ’13 said.
Reses is a former columnist for the ‘Prince.’
Other students said they felt the minority status of conservative students helps foster a stronger community and a support network for the minority group.
“If there is a conservative minority, then they’ll be pretty passionate about their issues,” College Democrats president Natalie Sanchez ’14 said. “When you’re in a smaller group, that makes it easier to get together and put something out there.”
Conservative and liberal students alike noted that the greater tolerance for conservative beliefs on campus has improved the overall campus ethos by allowing a higher level of discourse and awareness of different positions on political issues.
Alimi, the former vice president of College Republicans and now the publisher of the Tory, said vocal campus conservatism “sharpens the liberal position and the liberal articulation” of those positions.
“What you get as a result is maybe a higher level of discourse than would exist if Princeton’s political orientations were more homogeneous,” Alimi added.
It’s unclear what exactly the campus partisan split is: Most sources estimated that about three-quarters of students at Princeton were liberals. But no matter the split in partisanship, even students involved with liberal organizations noted that students have options here that separate Princeton from the rest of the pack.
Just as Robert George as a young professor managed to earn the respect of people that disagreed with his politics but admired his contributions, the campus conservative movement has earned a foothold at Princeton by impressing campus liberals.
“Princeton is unlike other places,” said Logan Coleman ’15, director of advocacy for the DREAM team, which advocates for the DREAM Act in Congress. “At Princeton, people are better able to pick and choose certain ideas from both parties.”
Correction: Due to reporting errors, a previous version of this article included two inaccuracies. Chris Goodnow '14 is no longer the operations manager of the Tory; he is now a managing editor. Anthony Paranzino '14 is the former, not current, chair of the Cliosophic party. The 'Prince' regrets the errors.