Students are entitled to a seat at the governance table

Rather than an environment in which assumptions are made regarding students’ political affiliations and values, universities need to be places for students to develop agency to decide on their political beliefs and enjoy the freedom to learn, grow and potentially change their minds.

It is no secret that the United States has grown increasingly partisan over the past few years as the political landscape has become more fraught. Institutions of higher education tend to mirror the broader political landscape in the country. In other words, as states (through local policy) become more categorised into ‘blue’ versus ‘red’, so too do the institutions in those states.

Historically, higher education institutions have navigated more liberal leanings within the complicated campus culture wars, and critics of higher education argue that liberal biases indoctrinate students. The effects of political interference in higher education trickle down to students, impacting their college experiences and even their decisions on where to study.

For the future of our country’s democracy, we must work to break the vicious cycle of partisan influence in higher education and encourage students to engage in healthy political discourse in the classroom and on campus.

The power of perceptions

Generally speaking, Republicans and Democrats differ in their perception of the value of higher education. For example, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, over three quarters (79%) of Republicans, compared to 17% of Democrats, say that a major reason higher education is going in the wrong direction is due to “professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom”. This is often referred to as the liberal bias in higher education.

Conservative media outlets and politicians argue that higher education is overrun by liberals who force their political agenda onto students.

However, this is not the full picture. College represents a time for students to explore their political ideology and affiliation. Out of the 47% of students who changed their political leanings during college, 17% said they became more conservative.

Therefore, it is important to note that perceptions can differ from reality, but they matter nonetheless, as public opinion influences the way government operates.

Increased polarisation?

The political divide within higher education has implications for students’ experiences and their considerations in the college admissions process. Regardless of political views, research reveals that, according to students, state politics plays a role in where they decide to go to college. Many worry this impact on the student decision-making process will further the partisan divide and polarisation in the country, which has dangerous implications.

There are ways for institutions to address these challenges by teaching students how to engage with political discourse responsibly. In order to cultivate learning environments that encourage students to openly share their views (regardless of political ideology), faculty must work to foster safety and inclusivity in the classroom.

Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

A recent poll shows 59% of students expressed fear in sharing their political beliefs in class, and 31% of students admitted to having been ridiculed for expressing different political opinions.

Even so, students are not deterred by raising challenging topics, participating in healthy debate and engaging in politics. A survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute reported that 71% of students strongly or somewhat agree that “dissent is an important part of the political process”.

Today’s college students are actually some of the most politically active individuals our country has seen in modern history. In fact, according to findings from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, 66% of college students who were registered to vote cast their ballots in the 2020 election, representing a 14% increase from the 2016 election.

Including students in policy debates

Knowing that today’s college students are engaged in politics and willing to have challenging conversations regarding differences in political ideology, why are students often overlooked as stakeholders in higher education policy? Why are students often left out of conversations related to university policies that will ultimately impact their college experiences?

In order to begin to address these issues, higher education faculty and staff should prioritise the students’ role within shared governance and encourage students to engage in political conversations and debates.

In other words, we must strive to accomplish an environment in higher education institutions in which assumptions are not made regarding students’ political affiliations and values. Rather, students need to have the agency to decide on their political beliefs and the freedom to learn, grow and potentially change their minds in a safe environment and throughout their college experiences.

There is no denying that students and university leaders are different stakeholders who often have different goals. However, we should strive for an environment in which these two stakeholders are able to come together and discuss policies and sensitive issues.

For example, this could be as simple as inviting student government representatives to board meetings when important decisions are going to be discussed. If the goal of higher education is to foster student development and scholarship, students not only deserve, but are entitled to a seat at the table.

We owe it to our country's future leaders to allow for a world in which disagreement and political discourse are not only allowed, but also encouraged on college campuses. The future of higher education depends on it.

Rachel B Gorosh is a masters student in higher education administration and policy at Northwestern University, USA.