Debate Denied: Conservatives Stifled at Stanford

Gregory Hirshman

Gregory Hirshman is a rising senior at Stanford University and founder and editor-in-chief of The Cardinal Principle, a campus quarterly that prints articles from all political and intellectual viewpoints in order to stimulate civil discourse and promote free expression; [email protected] This summer he is working as a research assistant for Dinesh D’Souza, interning for The National University System Institute for Policy Research, training for the varsity Stanford tennis team, and volunteering at a wheelchair tennis program in San Diego.

As an elite university home to some of the country’s best and brightest young minds, Stanford is ideally positioned to foster intellectual and political discourse and encourage students to challenge one another’s views on a wide range of issues. Unfortunately, its atmosphere is often hostile to the expression of conservative views, which stifles real debate on many subjects.

Although conservatives can speak on such issues as taxation without fear of intimidation, they will often refrain from other topics, especially those dealing with race or sexual orientation. Students who are not for affirmative action risk being labeled “racists.” Students who oppose gay marriage may be called “bigots.“ Students who argue in favor of “don’t ask, don’t tell” may be branded “homophobes.” Conservative students must weigh the benefits of expressing their views against the risks of being ostracized. As a result, only a handful dares to speak out.

One reason conservative students at Stanford feel intimidated is that its faculty and administration are so overwhelmingly left of center. According to “Voter Registration of Berkeley and Stanford Faculty,” a Winter 2004–05 Academic Questions article by Daniel Klein and Andrew Western, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans among the Stanford faculty is 7.6 to 1.1 Among the faculty in the humanities and social sciences, where political leanings of the professors are particularly relevant, this ratio is 14.4 to 1. Many faculty members bring their political and social views directly into the classroom. In the environment they create, conservatism is not regarded as an ideology that proposes an alternative view of the ideal society and of the proper means to achieve it, but as an intolerant, bigoted dogma whose purpose is primarily to frustrate the goals of the enlightened.

As a freshman at Stanford, I witnessed the way the leftward tilt of the professorship distorted discussion. In one of my classes, the two professors staged a “debate” to present “opposing viewpoints” on the issue of whether gays should be allowed to marry. The first speaker presented the standard liberal defense of gay marriage, arguing that true equality requires each citizen to have the right to marry whomever he or she chooses, regardless of sexual orientation. In presenting the “alternative view,” the second speaker did not advance any conservative argument against gay marriage, but rather argued that activists should not advocate gay marriage because doing so would stimulate the conservative Republican base and impede broader social progress.

Having heard the “debate,” which purported to represent the range of acceptable views on this issue, a conservative student in the class would naturally hesitate to argue against legalizing gay marriage for religious reasons or because he believes that legalizing gay marriage would damage the traditional family. Most conservative students strongly suspected that their grades would suffer if they openly advocated such opinions. Unfortunately, my subsequent experience at Stanford has demonstrated that such classes are typical.

In a small way, I have worked to counteract this bias by founding and editing The Cardinal Principle, a newspaper that prints well-written and respectful articles from all political viewpoints in order to stimulate debate. But even outside the classroom it requires great courage to express conservative views on campus. As The Cardinal Principle’s editor, I have found that a number of conservative students want to publish their articles anonymously because they are fearful of repercussions if their views on controversial issues became widely known within the Stanford community. No liberal author has expressed similar concerns. If Stanford wishes to foster free and genuine debate, this fear of retribution must end. Stanford’s entire intellectual community would benefit.

1 Daniel Klein and Andrew Western “Voter Registration of Berkeley and Stanford Faculty,” Academic Questions 18, no. 1 (Winter 2004–05): 60.

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