To any high school junior browsing potential college options on the internet, Kalamazoo College seems like an inclusive, politically vibrant liberal haven. In fact, the first three words on the school’s Princeton Review page for Student Body Overview are “liberal kids dominate.” Ask almost any student on campus how the majority of their peers identify politically, and they’ll tell you that the Princeton Review’s claim is true. But is it?
“There is the perception that this is a very liberal campus, in reality it’s a slightly liberal campus, on average,” explained Dr. Maksim Kokushkin, a professor of Anthropology and Sociology (AnSo) here at K. Over the past few years, both the Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods classes, which are taught in the AnSo department, have asked students about their political beliefs in a survey setting. In one of Kokushkin’s Quantitative classes, they ranked the political leanings of students at K on a scale of one to seven, with one being “extremely conservative” and seven being “extremely liberal.”
“If you’re just coming to this campus and have heard all kinds of things [about it], you would assume that [Kalamazoo College] is across the board sixes. And that’s not the case,” said Kokushkin. “With four being the middle point, where it’s neither this nor that, the results were between four and five.”
All the students interviewed agreed that attitudes on campus are perceived as more liberal than they actually are because liberals are more likely to express their political beliefs and be involved in political activity on campus. “I think the voice that’s heard is the liberal voice,” said Karly McCall ‘17, a self-identified moderate political science major from Grinnell, Iowa.
“The liberal voice is definitely the loudest, and in a way that stifles other opinions that may be there, but people are potentially afraid to voice,” added sophomore Mimi Strauss, a self-described libertarian.
This could be because the students affiliated with the College Democrats are more active than the College Republicans. “The findings about the nature of students and political expression on this campus is that Democrats are much more vocal. They’re much more engaged in doing stuff with other students, they’re much more connected to the Democratic party,” said Kokushkin. “The College Republicans are much more interested in having analytical discussion and reflections rather than organizing for specific action, so that makes them less visible to start with.” He added that here at K there’s greater overlap between liberals and the Democratic Party and conservatives and the Republican Party than you would see in a larger sample of society.
As students of the liberal arts, we’re very familiar with the word “liberal.” Merriam-Webster would have us believe that a liberal person is “one who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways.” And, of course, the dictionary includes the political definition of liberal: those who subscribe to left-leaning politics.
According to the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU), there’s an important distinction between a liberal arts college and an institution that provides a liberal education. A liberal arts college, by their standards, is a small, residential institution that “facilitates close interaction between faculty and students, and whose curriculum is grounded in the liberal arts disciplines.” A liberal education, on the other hand, is one that “empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change,” as well as teaching them “intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in a real-world setting.”
It’s obvious that Kalamazoo College fits the AACU’s definition of a liberal arts college. Based on the College’s mission statement, K strives to give its students what the AACU would call a liberal education. Two of the College’s student learning outcomes are for students to “be able to engage in various cultural contexts in informed, meaningful, responsible, and respectful ways,” and “respect personal and cultural differences.” Whether or not that’s the reality here is less clear.
“There’s this idea that there’s this liberal, very open sense of political thought [at K], but in reality it’s not as open to discussion as people would think, because everyone assumes the same position,” said McCall.
“I know two people on campus who are very conservative, but they don’t feel the need to say anything political, like ‘eh, no one’s gonna listen to us,’” said sophomore Honey Sumon, who is from New York City.
Sumon is not the only one who has noticed the difficulty surrounding conversations about conservative beliefs on this campus. “I’m just very careful about who I talk to, because I don’t want to alienate myself from people,” said Strauss, who hails from Austin, Texas. “Not everything I say means that it’s my core beliefs, so if I say something that maybe contrasts what someone else thinks, and they tell someone, it’s like ‘Oh, Mimi’s a radical Republican!’”
Even self-identified left-leaning students notice the lack of expression of non-liberal opinions on campus. “K really does silence the more conservative ideas, and I have a really hard time grappling with whether or not I think that’s a bad thing,” said Michigan native Dallas Pallone ‘17, who identifies as “pretty far left.” Pallone added, “Theoretically I think political diversity is important, but at the same time, I disagree with them.”
According to Dr. Justin Berry, professor of Political Science, liberal arts colleges tend to attract liberal students. “[It] seems to be a focus of the administration and the faculty [at K] to appeal to a broader demographic base and to push for issues of social justice, civic engagement, racial and class diversity, and all those topics are deemed to be more Democratic than Republican,” he said.
Liberal arts colleges don’t have to be politically liberal. About an hour and a half southeast of K, Hillsdale College is another small, private liberal arts institution founded in the 1800s. But there’s one distinct difference between Hillsdale and K: the faculty and student body of Hillsdale are famously conservative. In an article for the conservative publication National Review in 2014, senior editor Jay Nordlinger referred to the school as “the conservative Harvard.” The school’s mission statement promises to value “the merit of each unique individual, rather than succumbing to the dehumanizing, discriminatory trend of so called ‘social justice’ and ‘multicultural diversity,’ which judges individuals not as individuals, but as members of a group and which pits one group against other competing groups in divisive power struggles.” This is antithetical to what Kalamazoo College claims to stand for, but the school is still a liberal arts institution like K.
“I definitely think that there’s not enough open dialogue [at K] regarding conservative ideas in a not-strictly-negative light,” said Pallone.
It’s not apparent that we know how to have those dialogues here. When expressed on K’s campus, conservative ideas are often met with laughter or anxiety. “One of the scavenger hunt [challenges] is to go to the Kalamazoo College Republicans and rave about George Bush the whole time, and it was supposed to be funny,” said Strauss, referring to a student-run, non-College affiliated scavenger hunt. “There’s definitely a certain part of the student body that completely discredits the Republican Party.”
As a community, we saw the anxieties that arise when conservative viewpoints are debated on this campus late in Winter Quarter of 2015. Tensions between a student advocating for the legalization of carrying concealed weapons on K’s campus and the Student Commission came to a head in late February, leading to an alleged verbal altercation. A conservative website, CampusReform.Org, released an article on the incident that was hotly debated in the College Facebook group in a thread of almost 50 comments when it was posted there on March 3. The next day, after the article was also posted and discussed on a global online forum, violent threats were submitted to the Student Commission’s anonymous submission form. At least one of the threats specifically addressed the idea of concealed carry.
“This is a school that’s going through a transition,” said Berry. “From what I’ve heard, this is a school that was relatively homogeneous as far as geography, as far as race and ethnicity, as far as class, and it’s going through a dramatic shift now, which is trying to become more heterogeneous in all of those elements. Any sort of institution or culture that goes through that dramatic shift is going to have growing pains. And that, of course, is going to impact the political culture of an institution.”
So what would it mean for K to move from “liberal kids dominate” to the AACU’s definition of a liberal education?
“People can talk like ‘I’m so liberal,’ but if you’re not discussing it, you’re not actually liberal. You’re just following the herd. You’re not actually thinking,” said McCall. “So in my opinion, it doesn’t really matter what people say they are if they’re not exploring ideas or if they’re not considering other opinions.”
Sumon agrees. “If we’re supposed to be so-called liberal, then we should be open to both sides. That’s what I think being liberal is,” she said. “You should be able to accommodate or tolerate a person who disagrees with you.”