Disconnect: Kentucky and the Political Ideology of its Public Universities

Ben Foster

Almost all universities cite diversity and inclusion among their primary goals. What they mean by diversity, however, is having the university workforce and student body demographics reflect the racial, ethnic, and gender population in the general service area of each campus. This is an impoverished view of diversity’s educational value, which should entail a robust diversity of perspectives on politics, economics, and social issues. An examination of political contributions by public university and college affiliated donors in Kentucky provides evidence of a severe lack of political and ideological diversity at public higher education institutions in the state. For this study I examined and tabulated political contributions to political parties and candidates for federal office in 2016 by donors affiliated with Kentucky public universities and colleges.

Like most states in the South, the Democratic Party historically dominated Kentucky politics. However, Kentucky currently has a Republican governor and both houses of its legislature are controlled by the Republican Party. In 2016, Republicans won five of six Kentucky U.S. House of Representatives elections. Republican Rand Paul won reelection to the U.S. Senate in 2016 with over 57 percent of the vote and Republican Donald Trump carried Kentucky with 62.5 percent of the vote. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 59.6 percent of all donations to candidates or their political party for federal races in Kentucky went to Republicans in 2016.1

OpenSecrets.org maintains a large database with information on contributions to candidates, political parties, and political action committees. From their menu, I linked to “Donor Lookup” and conducted an advanced search of the 2016 election cycle donations in Kentucky. To identify donors affiliated with public institutions of higher education, I searched by Occupation/Employer, full names, frequently used initials, and various names (of campuses, centers, research facilities etc.) used to refer to Kentucky public higher education institutions.

If Kentucky state universities and colleges prioritize representativeness, the trending Republican support in Kentucky should be somewhat reflected in political donations from public university/college affiliated individuals in Kentucky in 2016. Table 1 provides a breakdown of contributions by Kentucky public university/college-affiliated donors to the two major parties and their candidates, or to PACS generally associated with the parties.2

Donations to Candidates for Federal Offices and PACs 2016 Election Cycle

Center for Responsive Politics

Total Donations

Total Donors

University of Kentucky Donors

University of Louisville Donors

Regional, Community and Technical Colleges Donors

Democratic/Progressive*

$187,942

487

239

119

129

% of Total

74.6%

83.3%

86.9%

85.6%

75.4%

Republican/Conservative#

$63,657

98

36

20

42

% of Total

25.3%

16.8%

13.1%

14.4%

24.6%

Dem & Repub. Total

$251,599

585

275

139

171

*Includes donations to ActBlue, moveon.org, End Citizens United, Committee for Hispanic Causes

#Includes donations to the National Rifle Association

Source: Ben Foster, University of Louisville. Analysis of data at http://www.opensecrets.org

Rather than reflecting the Republican trend in Kentucky politics, over 83 percent of all the individuals affiliated with Kentucky universities and colleges who donated gave to the Democratic Party or candidates, or progressive PACS, totaling nearly 75 percent of the dollar amount donated by public university/college affiliated individuals. It is true that only a small percentage of employees at universities donated to federal candidates and/or organizations during the 2016 election cycle. For example, for 2017-2018 the University of Louisville employed 6,872 people either full or part-time, but only 139 donors in federal races in 2016 listed Louisville as their employer.3 However, these numbers reflect political activism on campus. Usually, only people with the most intense political beliefs and/or outspoken political supporters actually donate to political parties and candidates.

At the two largest Kentucky universities, located in the most urban areas of the state, even higher percentages of donors gave to Democrats: 86.9 percent at the University of Kentucky and 85.6 percent at the University of Louisville. (I conducted a similar analysis over a decade ago for University of Louisville-affiliated donors and found that around 80 percent of the donors contributed to Democrats at that time.)

Even at the regional universities and community colleges located in relatively rural areas, over 75 percent of the donors gave to Democrats. The high percentage at the University of Kentucky in Lexington is also interesting because it is the state’s flagship campus that ostensibly serves and represents the entire state, and generally receives loyalty and support from residents throughout the state. These percentages suggest a lack of political diversity at public universities and colleges in Kentucky.

Implications

Kentucky is not unique in the extent to which its deep-red Republican state is dotted by state funded college and university campuses that reflect an entirely different politics. Given that Democratic faculty outnumber Republican faculty at the nation’s top liberal arts colleges by a factor of 10 to 1, almost any jurisdiction with a Republican majority electorate would find itself at political odds with its college campuses.4 Indeed, other states that exhibit a similar political mismatch between its citizens and the campuses they fund include Kansas, Idaho, Montana, Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina, and Nebraska. As an article on the subject appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education puts it, these states are

Republican strongholds whose big university counties swing far left of the state average. On the political map, college campuses look like infected splinters of liberalism in the hides of otherwise conservative states. Or they are blooming oases of culture and reason surrounded by deserts of jingoism and superstition. It depends on whom you ask.5

It could be said that institutions of higher education should ideally be free from outside political pressure in order to pursue, as Matthew Arnold advocated, the “best that has been thought and said.” But the politicization and activism of state college campuses themselves has brought the matter to the foreground, with taxpayer funding being used for the sponsorship of programs (“white privilege” conferences), activities (free tampon giveaways), and policies (affirmative action in hiring and admissions) that have arguably little academic merit, and would likely be opposed by large swaths of the surrounding electorate. For example, the University of Louisville has a Vice Provost for Diversity and International Affairs that oversees many units whose existence is owed to the university’s staunch commitment to identity politics, including its Cultural Center, the LGBT Center, the Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace and Social Justice, and the Women’s Center.

The provenance of campus radicalism has been studied elsewhere.6 But in the case of some states like Kentucky, the glaring contrast between the values of a majority of state residents and campus activists might partially be explained by the theory of group polarization. This well-established theory holds that extreme decisions and policies can result from organizations that lack diversity of viewpoints and opinions.7 Research has found that groups consisting of individuals with similar opinions, values, and/or biases about a particular topic tend to make more extreme decisions than would be expected from the average of the individuals’ perceptions before the group’s interaction. The group is pulled, or polarized, toward the positions of the most extreme members. A relatively recent study found this phenomenon on corporate governing boards when setting prices paid for corporate acquisitions.8

People from left-leaning units appear to most influence Kentucky universities’ decisions. Group decisions within public universities may seem logical and completely normal to individuals who participate in the group. However, when a public university group is polarized toward the positions of the most extreme members, decisions frequently appear irrational and out of touch to outsiders (in this case, taxpayers who support the universities). Group polarization provides at least a partial explanation of the disconnect between public university administrators and a large percentage of Kentucky residents, taxpayers, and government officials.

Examples of Group Polarization

Some specific examples at the University of Louisville illustrate a disconnect between the political viewpoint of Kentucky citizens and elected officials and the viewpoint of public university policymakers.

White Privilege

Like most major universities in the United States, the University of Louisville has been ensconced in the idea of “White Privilege,” a term favored by the Left to describe the perceived social advantages conferred on whites and to explain racial disparities in everything from out-of-wedlock births and prison sentences to household income and graduation rates. The first time I heard the term was when a “White Privilege Forum” was held many years ago on campus. The national “16th White Privilege Conference” was held in Louisville in 2015 and was promoted by the university. Several courses offered by the university have integrated the concept of white privilege into their study topics. In heavily Republican and heavily white (86 percent) Kentucky, a sizable proportion of citizens probably would not agree with the proposition that white privilege, as taught by universities, is a primary cause of racial inequality.

Diversity Goals

Like most colleges and universities, University of Louisville expressly states that diversity and inclusion related to workforce and student body are important to its mission and strategy. In fact, each public university in Kentucky is required to submit a “Diversity Plan” and report on its progress to a state agency, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (KCPE). Under an administrative regulation, Kentucky’s public universities and colleges must demonstrate acceptable progress toward equal opportunity goals in their plan before they can obtain approval for new academic programs, or else they must obtain a temporary waiver.9

The Diversity Plan sets goals for workforce diversity at the University of Louisville, particularly for faculty and administrators. Evidently, many administrators have felt pressure to increase minority representation in their departments. This pressure can lead to inappropriate actions, evidenced by a 2015 position announcement for a tenure-track assistant professor position in the Department of Physics and Astronomy that stated the position would be filled by “an African-American, a Hispanic American, or a Native American Indian.”10 This blatantly discriminatory requirement was removed once public news outlets questioned university administrators about the ad. However, some Kentucky scholars believe discriminatory hiring practices continue, just not in blatantly illegal form.11

A task force of people interested and involved in diversity efforts was formed to discuss goals for the University of Louisville’s most recent Diversity Plan. Because future program approval is easier if the university meets its diversity goals, Robert Goldstein, Vice Provost for Institutional Research, Effectiveness and Analytics, suggested that the task force adopt reasonably attainable goals. However, most people on the task force were employed or involved with units directly related to university diversity efforts, such as the Vice Provost for Diversity’s Office. Consequently, the group decided that the university should substantially improve diversity metrics over time.12

The KCPE specifies that institutions of higher education set goals for the percentage of total enrollment of Hispanic and black/African-American students in their Diversity Plans.13 The baseline of 2016-2017 included 11.1 percent African-American and 4.4 percent Hispanic undergraduate enrollment of about 16,000 students. The task force set targets for undergraduate enrollment by the 2020-2021 academic year of 14 percent African-American and 6 percent Hispanic enrollment.

The 2016-17 enrollment of around 16,000 and baseline percentages of minority students indicate that the University of Louisville enrolled about 1,776 African-American, 704 Hispanic students, and 13,520 students with mixed race and other ethnic backgrounds. An unchanged undergraduate enrollment of 16,000 in 2020-2021 would require 2,240 African-American students (an increase of 464, or 26.1 percent) and 960 Hispanic students (an increase of 256, or 36.4 percent). If total enrollment were to stay flat by 2020, and the university still met its goals for black and Hispanic students, the student body would have to contain 720 fewer students of other ethnic/racial categories to meet the target percentages.

The diversity task force’s goals were set at a time of increasing budget constraints at the university. To address chronic budget constraints, University of Louisville administrators have embraced expanding future enrollment, even engaging a new Vice Provost for Strategic Enrollment Management and Student Success to focus on improving student recruitment and especially increasing overall enrollment through better retention of students through graduation.14 The diversity task force that developed the percentage enrollment diversity goals likely did not consider the expanding enrollment strategy when they submitted the university’s Diversity Plan to the KCPE. Nevertheless, even with the strategy of expanding enrollment, the goals of the task force, if met, would exact a painful reduction of students of unprotected racial/ethnic backgrounds.

Based on the strategy of expanding enrollment, the University of Louisville could perhaps increase undergraduate enrollment to 17,000 students by 2020-2021, compared to 2016-2017 enrollment. Target diversity percentages of 14 percent African-American and 6 percent Hispanic students would require 2,380 African-American (an increase of 604 or 34.0 percent) and 1,020 Hispanic (an increase of 316 or 44.9 percent) students. Even at an enrollment of 17,000, the university could only increase undergraduate students from non-protected ethnic/racial categories by 80 after 2016 and still meet the diversity percentage targets.

From where will the large increase in minority students come? Over 42 percent of students at Louisville list Jefferson County, the home of the university, as their residence of origin.15 Based on test scores, in 2017 only 665 African-American and 196 Hispanic college ready students graduated from Jefferson County public high schools.16 Another factor indicating the difficulty of meeting these goals is that administrators have mentioned the Colleges of Engineering and Business as areas for most growth—areas that traditionally have attracted lower percentages of minority students than other colleges. Because of these factors, the enrollment targets developed by the task force charged with devising the Diversity Plan are almost impossible to achieve even if the university successfully implements its strategy of increased enrollment.

The larger issue, of course, is how to square university enrollment policy with the largely Republican electorate in Kentucky. At the very least, it is possible to say that the political support for Republicans in the state indicates that large numbers of Kentuckians subscribe to the basic tenets of the Republican Party Platform, a platform that states clearly “Merit and hard work should determine advancement in our society, so we reject unfair preferences, quotas, and set-asides as forms of discrimination.”17

Activism

Support for activism on campus appears skewed in one ideological direction. For example, illegal immigration is a very controversial and divisive issue in the United States. Many pundits believe that President Trump’s restrictive stance on immigration was one reason he won the 2016 election, carrying Kentucky with 62.5 percent of the vote. However, most universities and colleges implement policies that decidedly favor illegal immigrants and “open borders.” For example, the University of Louisville has an Undocumented Student Resource Council (USRC) and officially supported the United We Dream National Institutions Coming Out Day for undocumented students on April 7, 2015.18

University of Louisville academic and administrative units also publicly embraced the radical activist Angela Davis and expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, with one unit displaying a Black Lives Matter banner on the exterior of its building for some time.19

While such expressions could be considered legitimate actions at a university operating as a thriving marketplace of ideas, few similar actions are taken supporting ideas from opposing viewpoints. For example, the Louisville hosted a large gathering for students and faculty shortly after the November 2016 election. The purpose of this gathering was to support people upset by Donald Trump’s election as president and allow them to vent their frustration, express their fears, and contemplate future actions. A lot of people were similarly upset, disheartened, and depressed by Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012. However, no university office announced support to help those people deal with their loss.

Conclusions

Many actions and policies initiated by University of Louisville administrators have been contentious, perhaps illegally discriminatory, and appear driven by political ideology. The aggressive diversity goals set in the most recent Diversity Plan, and approved by the KCPE, may hinder the university’s strategic goal of increasing enrollment. It is likely that many Kentucky stakeholders do not agree with state colleges and universities participating in the United We Dream National Institutions Coming Out Day for undocumented students, or with the provision of substantial resources and efforts involved in supporting undocumented students.

I believe group polarization leads to many of the decisions and policies implemented at Kentucky’s state universities and colleges. If university administrators, faculty, and staff were more diverse ideologically, more reflective of the state in which they operate, some of their goals and initiatives would be tempered by discussions within the groups that make decisions and set policies. In Kentucky, the biennial 2018-2019/2019-2020 budget passed in April 2018 included a 6.25% cut in state funding for higher education. This cut, in addition to previous budget cuts, will amount to an inflation-adjusted 35 percent cut in state funding over the last ten years.20 A perception of a more balanced ideological and political environment could lead to more support for public universities from the resident population and elected officials.

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