Politics on the Quad: Students Report on Division and Disagreement at Five US Universities

Graham WrightShahar Hecht, Michelle Shain, Leonard Saxe and Stephanie Howland

November 2019

Politics on the Quad report cover“Politics on the Quad: Students Report on Division and Disagreement at Five US Universities” is a new report from our program of research on the identities and experiences of US college students. This report examines five institutions, Brandeis University, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the University of Florida, Gainesville. The report draws on survey data collected in the 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2018-19 academic years from representative samples of undergraduates at these schools. In this report we explore two overarching questions regarding the political climate on the college campus:

  • How divided are liberal, moderate, and conservative students at each of these five schools with respect to their political attitudes, their perceptions of the campus environment, and their place within the campus community?
  • How do these divisions differ in magnitude and nature from one campus to the next?

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Read the technical appendices

Key findings:

On campus, opposition to President Trump unites liberals and moderates but divides conservatives.

Regardless of campus, liberal and moderate students’ feelings toward national political players line up well with those of liberals and moderates nationally. However, conservatives at the schools studied were far less supportive of President Trump and less hostile to Democrats, than national conservatives, potentially placing them in an awkward position in campus debates over national politics.

Political views on “hot button issues” transcend individual campuses.

At all of the campuses we surveyed we found deep divisions between liberal, moderate, and conservative students on issues of race, immigration, climate change, sexual assault, and gun control. We also found one issue—a boycott of Israeli scholars and academic institutions—which was opposed by virtually all students, regardless of their political views.

The climate for “free expression” varies dramatically from campus to campus.

Although conservative students were the most likely to feel that unpopular views could not be expressed freely at their school, liberal and conservative students were united in seeing the climate for the expression of unpopular views as relatively hospitable at some schools and hostile at others.  

Self-censorship about politics is not necessarily linked to the climate for “free expression” on campus.

A school’s climate for the expression of unpopular views is not as closely aligned to “self-censorship” as media reports suggest. Talking about politics with strangers is uncomfortable for most students, regardless of their ideology or the school they attend.

Students of color and white liberal students agree on climate of hostility toward people of color on their campus.

With regard to perceptions of the campus climate toward people of color, the perceptions of both students of color and white liberals varied dramatically from campus to campus.  In contrast, white moderates and conservatives tended to see similarly low levels of hostility towards people of color at all five schools.

The relationship between ideology and perceptions of hostility toward Jews on campus is complicated.

Regardless of their ideology, Jewish and non- Jewish students agreed that hostility toward Jews was almost non-existent at three of the schools we studied, although a substantial minority of Jewish students at the other two schools perceived some amount of hostility on their campus. There does not seem to be a single, uniform relationship between political ideology and sensitivity to hostility toward Jews on campus.

Political disagreements do not always lead to a fractured campus community—but sometimes they do.

At three of the schools we studied, students with different political views did not differ substantively in how much they felt like they “belonged” on campus. At some schools, however, there were differences between liberal, moderate, and conservative students in their sense of belonging on campus. At one campus, conservative students were less likely to say they belonged compared to their liberal peers, while at another campus, it was liberal students who were the least likely to feel that they belong.

Conclusion

The results presented in this report suggest that broad generalizations regarding the political climate on US college campuses are inaccurate and unhelpful. The role that politics plays in campus life differs from one campus to the next. Discussions of this topic should acknowledge the variation across particular institutions.