Are “University Bubbles” a Problem?

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article focusing on Lawrence, Kansas, where the University of Kansas (where I earned my PhD in American Studies) is located. Calling the town a “blue bubble in a red state,” it presented the relative liberalism of the town as a barrier between the university and the people of the state. Two of the KU speakers–a conservative white undergraduate man and a progressive white undergrad man–presented this as somewhat of a problem, echoing concerns already voiced in The New York Times and elsewhere about a disconnect between universities and conservative taxpayers. The claim is relatively well-established by data, if the measure of “liberalism” is the percent of people who vote Democrat.

But, as professor of African and African American Studies (and American Studies affiliate faculty) Clarence Lang notes in the article, a higher percent of Democrat voters doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist in the town. In fact, being self-assured about one’s own lack of racism is a tool of white supremacy. “That doesn’t happen here” protects Lawrence’s white population, as does inordinate pride in the town’s abolitionist roots. And “less racist than Topeka”–which, after all, chose to segregate schools though it didn’t have to under state law–is a pretty low standard.


Above, a newspaper article about the burning of the Kansas Union in 1970burning of the Kansas Union in 1970. The year was a time of unrest across the town, including anger about racial inequality. 

But the fact is, Lawrence is more progressive than other parts of the state, though it remains far from perfect. It is certainly progressive enough to make some Kansans think of it as a liberal a “a bubble or an oasis, depending on your view,” as the article says. And this is where I have a major gripe about critics who want (relatively) liberal universities to be more “welcoming” to conservative students. (The article asks, “Would the universities be better, would our nation be better, if the bubble were more porous?”)


Above, KU’s World War II Memorial, a campanile, above Potter Lake.

It is very tempting to think of conservative students (and faculty) as a minority, because, numerically, they often are, though there is significant variation in these numbers across institution type (with more elite universities having more liberal faculty) and discipline (with the nursing, education, and social work having more conservative professors than, say, sociology or psychology). But in terms of power, they certainly are not. Though KU may be a “liberal” university (led by an African American Chancellor who nixed an effort for a multicultural student government), it is controlled by a socially conservative, fiscally austerian state government. The university budget always attends to the concerns of social conservatives. Trump’s attempt to appoint Betsy DeVos, an enemy of public education (and a liar), to lead the Department of Education is further evidence of conservatives’ war on higher education.

The liberal/progressive inclination to make everyone feel safe and welcome is a good one. Celebrating a diversity of ideas, perspectives, and experiences is a good thing, too. That’s why so many of us got warm and fuzzy about a December 16 article in Inside Higher Ed in which Mike Spivey, a professor of math at the University of Puget Sound, tells of being the only conservative professor (and a Gary Johnson voter) at a campus panel on politics post-election. The article, “Dialing Back the Rhetoric,” tells of his growing up in rural Louisiana, “a world that is Southern, rural, conservative and Christian.” Then he recalls the pain of being treated with disdain by liberals:

Hillary Clinton called my people “deplorable.” She said we were “irredeemable.” … Why would I want to support someone like that? Someone who talks that way about my people is not going to do a good job representing me. I’m glad she lost. I’ve got some concerns about Trump, but I’m glad Hillary Clinton lost.

It’s tempting to want to put an arm around Spivey, to promise to try to understand his perspective better. But that is an abuse of one of our best qualities: our desire to understand, include, and engage compassionately. It is also largely unnecessary, as research by conservative scholars themselves indicates that conservative professors  generally do not face discrimination their campuses.

Clinton did not call Southerners, rural people, conservatives, or Christians deplorable or irredeemable.  She was very specific about who among Trump supporters was deplorable: racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, Islamaphobes.  Spivey likely doesn’t think of himself in those terms, and he probably, on a personal level, doesn’t hold overtly bigoted attitudes. He chooses to confuse “my people” with “bigots.” But he still chose feels happy about the ascension of Donald Trump, who is a bigot.

Spivey’s appeal to victimhood–poor rural whites, he argues, are “tired of being, in their minds, looked down on and condescended to by the people who run the country”–attempts to make political ideology equivalent to ascribed identities like race, gender, or sexuality or victims of structural inequality, like the poor. But they are not, and liberals must be on guard to negate that claim any time they see it. A political ideology that is bigoted is a choice. Race and gender maybe socially constructed, but they are not choices. Trump’s bigotry is the most coherent part of his politics, and even rural, gun-toting Christians can see it if they want.

Moreover, catering to social conservatives who “in their minds” are oppressed is not the work of a university. We have real students, staff, and faculty who are measurably oppressed to care for. Who should a university prioritize? A person who believes (without evidence) that “the white man is the low person on the totem pole“? Or the Pell Grant recipient? The single mother returning to school to complete her degree? The student whose life was in danger every day of high school because of his sexuality? The students degraded by their peers because of their immigration status or race? Any of these students could, of course, also be a conservative voter–or even a racist, sexist, homophobe who cheered for Trump, too. I won’t support them in their political ideology because that ideology is at odds with the best goals of higher education, but I can support them in their intellectual growth.

To those who worry that universities should do more to support conservatives on campus–going so far, as some have suggested, as to have a quota on hiring conservative professors to insure “political pluralism“–I ask the following questions:

If a state is predominately “red,” but a college town is predominately “blue,” how would making colleges MORE conservative serve the people of the state? Republicans already control most of Kansas. Trump won 103 of Kansas’ 105 counties. College students yearning to be part of a progressive community have just a few places in Kansas where that is possible. Let them have Lawrence.

kansas-countiesAbove, the 2016 Presidential vote at the county level in Kansas. 

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