When a Fox News host came to interview Columbia students about the 2016 presidential election on Monday, he branded Columbia a “liberal bastion.”
Faculty interviews and online political contribution statistics suggest this criticism of Columbia is accurate in one sense: There are few conservatives on Columbia’s faculty, raising questions about how this lack of political diversity affects students’ intellectual experiences.
Though Columbia is a leader among its peers in ethnic and gender diversity, politically active Republican representation at Columbia has declined in the last two decades. After university campuses across the country were shocked by President Trump’s election victory, Columbia’s status as a heavily left-leaning campus has become especially conspicuous.
The consequences of little ideological diversity include less familiarity with conservative ideas and asymmetric discussion within the classroom, according to professors and students. Many attribute the lack of political diversity among faculty to factors outside of the University’s control, including political polarization and a small right-leaning applicant pool for academic positions. Most universities with similar locations and prestige to Columbia are also considered extremely liberal.
Sophia Cornell, CC ’20, said she believes that students might think less critically when surrounded by those who agree with them.
“I think political homogeneity lends itself to academic laziness,” Cornell said. “There’s no incentive for a professor or student to be rigorous in their opinions if everyone in a class is predisposed to agree with them.”
The University has pledged over $18 million to hiring diverse faculty and has an entire office devoted to increasing racial and gender diversity and inclusion, overseen by Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Dennis Mitchell. However, the professors that Spectator interviewed said that trying to increase ideological diversity through affirmative action would be a mistake, and Provost John Coatsworth said hiring based on political views was wrong.
“We hire talented scientists and scholars on the basis of the work they do, and to introduce an ideological test would undermine the basic mission of the University,” Coatsworth said. “In the case of ethnic diversity, we’re asking departments to make sure they haven’t missed anybody. But that’s where we’re going out to fulfill our mission; we’re not sabotaging it with an ideological test.”
Columbia’s faculty has not always had so few active conservatives. Twenty years ago, six times more Columbia professors donated to Republican presidential candidates and organizations than they do now. Columbia is not unique in this regard, and peer institutions have also begun to skew heavily liberal as political polarization has increased across the country.
While the University remains committed to not considering political ideology in the hiring process, it is clear that Columbia leans heavily left. The amount of money that Columbia faculty members donate to political candidates and groups is publicly available online, and shows that in the 2016 election cycle, only 4 percent of contributions went to Republicans.
“Our faculties are considerably left of the median of American politics,” James Applegate, a professor of astronomy, said. “I don’t think anybody would complain about that assertion.”
Professors agree that students would be better served if they were engaged with ideas from the right. However, faculty members have raised concerns that opinions too far outside the mainstream could seem hostile to Columbia’s diverse student body.
Kenneth Prewitt, a professor of public affairs, said that as a liberal, he can represent conservative arguments in his class, but it would be harder for him to provide more information about right-leaning perspectives.
“I’m actually imagining the experience of a student who is trying to make their way around their undergraduate years. They want role models who are there, part of the University,” Prewitt said. “If you came to me and you were very conservative and asked me for a book to read, I wouldn’t be very good at it. And that would be true of most of your professors who were caught up in a different set of conversations.”
David Lalo Rudman, CC ’20, said that without truly alternative voices, students sometimes imitate their professors’ views.
“There are many cases in which you can get away with echoing the expected beliefs that other people have or that you’re assumed to take on,” Lalo Rudman said. “Oftentimes you will know what your professor wants you to say about something, so having the ability to just say what you’re expected to say removes searching for what you really believe.”
Faculty’s reaction to the election result made their distaste for conservatives clear, according to Patrick Kane, GS ’19.
“I am sure many students can recall our class environments this past election,” Kane said. “Professors cried, classes were cancelled, and emails were sent reminding students how upset the faculty were. Columbia claims intellectual diversity, however, I cannot help but see the inconsistency. Our degree and society suffer as a result.”
A 2016 study found that conservatives are somewhat rare in academia, but they make up over a third of the U.S. general population. If students do not have access to conservative perspectives from their professors, some argue that students will not be properly prepared to engage in politics outside of campus.
“If all your professors are liberal Democrats, or farther to the left than that, then you hear a lot about that particular point of view,” Applegate said. “But eventually you get into the real world, and you run into some mainstream Republicans, and if you hear those views for the first time, you’ll have no idea what’s going on. I don’t think that’s a particularly good education.”
Camilo Derya Rivera-Vacirca, CC ’18, said he thought that conservative faculty might be able to open up new lines of discussion.
“If I went to a more conservative university, there would be some sense that I am getting the full picture from a politically diverse faculty,” Rivera-Vacirca said. “As a political science student, I want that full picture. Maybe a more politically diverse faculty can better promote diverse dialogue.”
Prewitt said that while more having more Republicans would be a good thing, some socially conservative attitudes, like opposition to LGBTQ rights or immigration, could be considered unacceptable in a search process.
“I think we would be discomforted by faculty who made the students discomforted,” Prewitt said. “In principle, if the students feel like they can’t be in that person's course, then we have a responsibility to try and not make that happen.”
Political science professor Jack Snyder said that conservatives might be underrepresented because of the tendency for educated people to be liberal.
“Look at who voted for Trump. They were people who were less educated,” Snyder said. “We’re more educated. We like to think that our education is one of the reasons why we think the way we do. So we think that we have the right answer more than the average Trump voter.”
In academia, this attitude could naturally dissuade non-liberals from careers in left-leaning universities. Prewitt said that the unique language of academics can make university departments seem like exclusive clubs.
“If you feel like the way you want to think and approach problems will get zero respect in an intellectual community, then why would you want to join it?” Prewitt said.