Right-wing On Campus: Conservative Student Engagement

Right-wing On Campus: Conservative Student Engagement

Brendan Dugan—The American public – and conservatives in particular – express dismay over the role of higher education institutions (Brown 2018), citing professors bringing their political views into the classroom (liberal bias) and too great an emphasis being placed on protecting students from potentially offensive views (dampening free speech). Conservative pundits often decry highly publicized events, such as the cancellation of a speech by Ann Coulter at the University of California, Berkeley, the subsequent $600,000 talk by Ben Shapiro, or the disruption and violence surrounding Charles Murray’s 2017 talk at Middlebury College as further evidence of an entrenched liberal bias among academics and many students. In early 2019, President Trump signed an executive order aimed at protecting free speech on campuses, suggesting conservative views in particular were being silenced (Haberman and Shear 2019).

If this were true, then being a conservative may hinder student engagement.  We wanted to better understand the relationship between political identity and interactional diversity (e.g., having discussions with students unlike oneself) (Gurin et al. 2002; Pike and Kuh 2006), focusing on conservative students in an effort to assess the claim that conservatives and their ideas are unwelcome at colleges and universities.

Student engagement theory posits that student success in college varies with both the time and quality of effort students put toward learning activities, in and out of the classroom, as well as the support and resources institutions provide to help students in these activities (Kuh 2009). Part of the college experience involves exposure to unfamiliar ideas, circumstances, and people, which can disrupt comfortable modes of thinking and thus spur students to critically evaluate their beliefs (Denson and Chang 2009; Gurin et al 2002; Pascarella et al 2014; Pike and Kuh 2006)

Yet, conservative students have been “primed to perceive higher education as overwhelmingly liberal,” and may experience “isolation and resentment” that can “build relationships with other conservative students” (Gowen, Hemer, and Reason 2019, p51). Due to the apparent alignment of curricula and institutional missions with (typically) liberal values, coupled with growing demands for accountability, social mobility, and gainful employment upon receiving a college degree, conservatives and the American public increasingly view colleges as liberal bastions (Woessner and Kelly-Woessner 2014). But the question remains: does being a conservative, perceiving one’s college to be “overwhelmingly liberal,” impact how students interact with others and engage on campus?

Not quite. We found conservative students were relatively similar to their peers regarding interactional diversity, only really engaging across racial and religious differences less than other students, and by a fairly limited margin (Fig. 1). 33 percent of conservative students in the sample reported “Very often” having discussions with people from different races or ethnicities, compared to 39% of all students, and 29% reported “Very often” having discussions with people of different religious backgrounds (34% overall).. Conservative students had discussions with people who held different political views at similar rates as other groups – about two-in-three did so often or very often (63% overall). While frequency of interactions does not necessarily indicate the quality or nature of these conversations, it at least suggests that most college students, including conservatives, have no problem having conversations with people different from themselves.

Figure 1.

Curious about how interactional diversity varied overall among students, we regressed the Discussions with Diverse Others Engagement Indicator (an aggregate measure of students interactions with diverse others) student political views, demographic, and institutional variables. Figure 2 shows the standardized effects (change in 1 standard deviation) of a selection of variables for first-year and senior students in the sample. Being a conservative relative to holding centrist views was associated with small, negative changes  in interactional diversity, but only for seniors (std. b = -0.12). On the other hand, claiming no political views rather than middle-of-the-road views was associated with a slightly stronger negative change in the scale, for both classes (std. b = -0.14, -0.15, respectively). Interestingly, the effect of thinking the university encourages contact among student from different backgrounds (SEdiverse) far outweighed the effect of holding any political views (std. b = .23 and .3 for first-years and seniors respectively).

Figure 2.

Being a conservative student does not appear to be strongly associated with interactional diversity, suggesting that even if these students do perceive higher education, and their institutions particularly, as “overwhelmingly liberal,” it does not appear to affect how frequently they engage across differences and relate to their fellow students, an important aspect of student engagement.


Data for this study come from the 2018 administration of the National Survey of Student Engagement, and from a small questionnaire on free speech that was electively administered at 38 eligible institutions to over 7,000 students. After removing students who did not respond to an item about political views (“Which of the following best describes your political views in general?”) or who chose “Other” (the smallest category), 6,653 students at 30 private non-profit and 8 public institutions were retained for analysis.

Six items from the NSSE were included: four capturing interactional diversity (e.g., “During the current school year, about how often have you had discussions with people from the following groups? People with political views other than your own.”), and two capturing perceptions of institutional support for diverse viewpoints (e.g., “How much does your institution emphasize the following? Attending events that address important social, economic, or political issues.”).

Adapted from a paper presented at the Association for the Study for Higher Education annual meeting in Portland, Oregon, in 2019.


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Gowen, Garrett, Kevin Hemer, and Robert Reason. 2019. “Understanding American Conservativism and Its Role in Higher Education.” In Student Activism, Politics, and Campus Climate in Higher Education, edited by Demetri L. Morgan and Charles H. F. III Davis. Routledge

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Haberman, Maggie, and Michael Shear. 2019. “Trump Signs Executive Order Protecting Free Speech on College Campuses.” The New York Times, March. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/21/us/politics/ trump-free-speech-executive-order.html.

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Pike, Gary R., and George D. Kuh. 2006. “Relationships Among Structural Diversity, Informal Peer Interactions and Perceptions of the Campus Environment.” The Review of Higher Education 29 (4): 425–50. https://doi.org/10.1353/rhe.2006.0037.

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