Discussing politics seems like a minefield everywhere lately, and college campuses are ripe with battle.
Student protests have been in the headlines constantly lately- be it left-leaning students protesting extreme right-wing speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos or conservative students protesting safe spaces and free speech. It’s left many questioning – and accusing – whether colleges are liberal safe havens stifling conservative students and professors from expressing their opinions as openly as their liberal counterparts might.
Answers in Rochester appear mixed. I spoke with professors and students at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester. Finding sources alone was eye-opening. I had many request anonymity – something typically reserved for sources who are integral to an article but could be seriously harmed for their interview.
Others, like the Political Science Department at the University of Rochester, didn’t respond to requests for interviews on the topic at all. It’s clear many shy away from talking about politics in general lately, and it’s easy to understand why.
Two students at RIT, however, feel comfortable expressing their views in most settings. Dylan Caruso, a first-year mechanical engineering technology student and the sergeant-at-arms for the RIT College Republicans club, said he’s fairly politically active on campus and enjoys speaking with other students about his political ideologies.
“I think it’s important for young people, especially in this day in age, to be as politically active as possible because we’re the generation inheriting everything that’s happening now,” he said. “It makes sense to be informed.”
Caruso hasn’t had the chance to take classes on the social sciences yet, but said he does at times bring up more conservative ideologies in his first year writing seminar course. He believes the professor is obvious in her left-leaning ideals, but he and other members of the RIT College Republicans take pride in rationally stating their beliefs as well.
He did admit he often won’t tell new people he’s a member of the RIT College Republicans club, but instead will say he’s a member of one the political clubs on campus, and then he will explain if someone presses him.
“I’m not ashamed,” he said. “The first time I”m meeting somebody I don’t want to start talking about my political views in the first few seconds. I think that’s a part of being a part of any political organization on campus.”
He appears to be correct on that. Alessandra Santarosa, a third-year political science major and the former president of the RIT Colege Democrats said she will, at times, make her political involvement on campus seem more general unless she is comfortable in the setting.
It makes sense; everyone can get anxious when taking a political stance because it can forever change how someone views about you. Santarosa said the political clubs on campus have had difficulty bringing in speakers on politics and hosting certain events because of pushback from higher-ups who believe it may cause the general public to label the institute.
“I got a lot of push back from the higher-ups in the university because they were afraid we were going to show RIT leaned one way over another and thought it would look bad,” she said, reflecting on her time as president of the club.
It’s natural that at times students would be uncomfortable sharing their political views on campus, but Santarosa, Caruso and International Relations Professor Benjamin Banta seem to agree there isn’t an active stifling of conservative views on RIT’s campus. All also agreed conservative students seemed to be a minority on the campus, which is typical of many colleges nationwide.
“I wouldn’t call it stifling,” Banta, who teaches courses like international politics and cyber politics at RIT, said. “I think by and large it is usually a minority position and I think mostly it’s a reflection amongst the student body in the fact that they’re young people.”
Banta went on to say there are certainly specific instances nationwide of departments making bad choices when it comes to speaking with students who hold different political views from their own, but by-and-large this isn’t a systemic problem in his mind. Banta taught at Ohio University prior to RIT, and at both colleges he feels conservative viewpoints are represented both in faculty and in students.
Not all have the same experience, though, and there are students and professors at RIT who may feel very differently, including several individuals who reached out to me and offered opinions but did not want to speak for the article.
Luke Meyerson, a senior political science major at the University of Rochester, had very different college experiences from those who spoke of RIT. Within the Political Science Department at his university, Meyerson said professors are often and obviously left leaning in their beliefs, and do little to allow students with other perspectives to speak up.
“College campuses tend to be more liberal in nature, but there is a significant conservative population on campus that you don’t know about because they don’t express their opinions,” he said.
Meyerson said he’s independent but does tend to lean to conservative political ideologies. He has several Republican friends who have been asked not to wear the Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” hat on campus, and he himself has had a Title IX charge brought against him by another student who said he verbally attacked her during a debate at a Trump rally on campus. All charges were eventually dropped. Meyerson said.
Within the classroom setting, Meyerson said professors often make their left-leaning views known within the first few weeks of class, particularly during the 2016 election. He claimed these professors do little to allow conservative students to express their opinion in class, allowing other students to start shouting at them and labeling them until the discussion is out of control. During class exercises, Meyerson said there are few opportunities to express alternative viewpoints to the one being taught.
For students like Meyerson, that can make the university seem like a hostile place, and can prevent conservative students from challenging liberal viewpoints in class discussions, Meyerson said.
No one from the University of Rochester’s Political Science Department responded to requests for comment via the main phone line or email address.
When Banta is encouraging political discussion in his courses, he ensures students feel comfortable bringing opinions on all sides of the political spectrum, and he’s sure to challenge those ideals when necessary.
“You treat their viewpoint as you would any other idea,” Banta said. “You try to drill down to the assumptions that underlie it, talk about the implications if it were enacted in some way and then discuss those things.”
It’s as much on the students as well as the professors to encourage these discussions, Santarosa, Caruso and Meyerson all agree. Whenever they are in a political discussion, they are careful to separate their emotions when speaking to the other individual and backing up their positions with facts and research they’ve spent time doing.
“I personally believe in all sorts of dialogue, a dialogue where both sides can express their opinions and views,” Meyerson said. “The way the systems is set up now, it’s just a lot of bickering and parties yelling over each other. I think it all starts with opening a dialogue that’s conducive to people being able to share.”