Conservatives seek to promote ideas through academics
Although conservatives have created new academic programs with likeminded professors on several college campuses across the country to change the way undergraduates are educated, Washington University has no plans for such initiatives.
In an effort to provide an alternative worldview to what is widely perceived to be a national liberal-leaning college atmosphere, donors and organizations with right-of-center viewpoints are opening courses that approach topics from a different angle.
At the University of Texas at Austin, conservatives exclusively financed the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions, which focuses on Western democratic visions of freedom.
Similarly, the Program for Constitutionalism and Democracy at the University of Virginia concentrates solely on exposing freshmen to classical thinkers.
After intensive lobbying by the National Association for Scholars, these projects may soon benefit from federal funding.
The new Higher Education Act, signed into law in August, will allocate grants for academic programs devoted to “traditional American history, free institutions or Western civilization.”
These movements, however, are not limited to state schools whose programs are funded mainly by the government. Brown University hosts a political theory project that features founder of Objectivism Ayn Rand.
Cornell University has finalized a $50,000 grant from the Veritas Fund for Higher Education, which funnels money to these projects. This grant will be used to create the Program on Freedom and Free Societies.
Meanwhile at Washington University, there is no indication that any such initiatives will be undertaken.
“It is antithetical to our mission as a university,” Andrew Rehfeld, professor and chair of the political science department, said.
Rehfeld said he knows of no plans to establish any explicitly conservative academic programs at the University.
“Our first commitment is to say we’re wrong about something,” Rehfeld said of the faculty.
While he does not see the need for any new conservative initiative, Rehfeld is cognizant of the inherent biases of college professors.
“Do professors in their political leanings tend toward the left or the right? My answer is they tend to the left.”
Rehfeld said that he finds this political orientation acceptable in faculty members “so long as they don’t try to proselytize or present in a non-academic way.”
Rehfeld pointed to his own classes as an example of false partisan bias. During the Clinton administration, his students considered him conservative, and conversely, during the Bush administration, he has been perceived as liberal.
“I think that [it’s] irresponsible for a teacher to not admit a bias. The best kind of teacher presents a different view if they have a bias.”
Although the faculty tries its best to keep their political beliefs latent, Rehfeld thinks the greatest discord is among students.
“I find, in general, in classes, politically conservative comments are mocked and ridiculed in discussion,” Rehfeld said.
Evan Zarider, a junior in the business school, thinks the problem of pervasive liberalism on campus originates with the students and not with the faculty.
“Young people at our school are pretty set in their ways and idealistic,” Zarider said. “I don’t think it’s the professors’ fault that most of the student body is liberal and voice liberal opinions, which then are translated into the learning process when you’re in class.”
Despite the strong liberal inclinations among students, Zarider does see an opportunity for the University to expand its curriculum.
“From an administrative standpoint, [the University] could definitely offer a wider range of classes and that would change political discussion on campus,” he said.
“I think it would be nice to have a conservative counterbalance, but I don’t think it’s necessary because I think kids here are smart enough to recognize a bias and form their own opinions,” junior Sam Lipson said.
Lipson agreed with Zarider in that some classes are skewed toward promoting liberal solutions.
“While the professors themselves lean one way or the other, I don’t think they make it difficult for a student with a different opinion to voice his opinion in class,” Lipson said.