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At college decision time, conservatives face tough choices

Amid a growing feeling on the right that academia is shutting out conservative perspectives, new institutions are cropping up around the country to provide alternatives. But some students find that engaging with liberal ideas hones their own viewpoints.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Potential student Bryant Miller (c.) tours classrooms at the first open house at Sattler College, a Christian college in Boston, April 12. The college is starting its inaugural year with 25 students, and its founder, Finny Kuruvilla, is hoping to expand enrollment to about 300 students in the coming years.

As high school students across the US receive college acceptance letters, many are wrestling with the same kinds of questions: How much financial aid will I get? How far from home should I go? Are the course offerings what I want? 

But for conservative students, there’s often an additional, even more important factor to consider: Will the institution welcome, or at least tolerate, our viewpoints?

To hear many conservatives tell it, the answer on many campuses is increasingly, “No.” One student, a standout from a Christian academy, came to MIT last fall to pursue his passion, computer science. But during the freshman diversity training, though there was a theme of encouraging discussion between people of different backgrounds – including different political backgrounds – he came away with a feeling that it favored a liberal point of view, especially on issues like sexuality and marriage. So he rarely discusses his perspective with fellow students.

Another, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, put a Trump-Pence sticker on his dorm room window, only to find it shattered. And a mother in Texas became afraid for her daughter’s safety after members of an organization she belonged to swore in a chat group they would ban or even kill anyone who voted for President Trump.

It’s a problem that's been growing for decades – with many interrelated causes. Young people typically tend to be more liberal than the rest of the population. Academia itself has also grown to be overwhelmingly liberal, with the number of self-described conservative or far right professors having dropped to less than 15 percent as of 2014, according to data from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles. This in turn has shaped the course offerings and overall tone on campuses. 

The gap between liberal and conservative views on campus has become even more pronounced since President Trump’s election, with college campuses hitting record levels of polarization, which has sparked passionate and sometimes violent protests over conservative speakers from Vermont to California.

“When I hear about Middlebury, I think, ‘That’s a great school, but I don’t want my daughter there.’ Same thing about Berkeley,” says Lisa Rosendale, a Texas mom whose daughter is a junior.

“What I’m hoping is that she’ll have an experience like I did at grad school at the University of Michigan,” adds Ms. Rosendale, who says she was one of only a few students in her program there who opposed abortion rights. “I suspect that most of my professors were pretty liberal in their personal beliefs, but they didn’t really let that color our conversations in the classroom…. I never had professors shut me down, or give me a bad grade.”

Steven Senne/AP
Students Anwar Omeish, of Fairfax, Va., (c.), and Salma Abdelrahman, of Miami, (r.), chant slogans as they protest a scheduled speaking appearance of author Charles Murray at Harvard University, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, in Cambridge, Mass. Mr. Murray, who co-wrote a book discussing racial differences in intelligence, touched off a boisterous protest earlier in 2017 at Vermont's Middlebury College.

For many, it’s not only a question of whether their views will be accepted – by peers as well as professors – but also what they will be taught. Because in many ways, the college experience imparts not only knowledge, but also a worldview. With a growing feeling among conservatives that academia is increasingly opposed to ideas they see as crucial – to government, society, and for some, even individual salvation – new institutions are cropping up around the country to provide alternatives.

This fall, a Harvard graduate will open Sattler College in Boston, which will require proficiency in Hebrew and Greek, the original language of the Bible – as well as rigorous training in hard sciences, such as biology. Arizona has recently established intellectually conservative schools and centers within the state university system, backed – controversially – by funding from the Koch brothers and the Republican-controlled legislature. And a private classical Christian school in Houston is piloting a K-16 model.

The conservative rethinking of higher education is being driven in part by a nationwide surge in the K-12 classical Christian movement, which offers a grounding in Western civilization as well as a Christian worldview that can range from evangelical to Eastern Orthodox. The Association of Classical Christian Schools has seen a 25 percent jump in the number of member schools in the past three years alone.

“There’s a wave building out there,” says Lee Wishing, vice president for student recruitment at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, an evangelical school that has seen a nearly 20 percent increase in applications since 2015. “When kids come out of that [classical Christian environment], parents and students may think, ‘I want to continue in a like-minded track.’ ” 

But it’s not just religion that’s driving this; it’s politics, too.

Searching for a familiar space

Independent education consultant Leigh Moore in Louisville, Ky., who guides families through the college application process, says none of the parents she works with – conservative or liberal – seek an echo chamber for their children.

But in a realm where conservatives are an increasingly small minority, academia presents a particular challenge for families on the right. 

Professors who self-identity as far left or liberal have increased from 41.7 percent to roughly 60 percent since 1990 according to HERI, while there was an opposite trend among those who identify as conservative. (The remainder reported themselves to be moderate.)

Jake Lubenow, who heads up one of the largest College Republicans chapters in the country, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says he regularly hears from prospective students and their parents who are worried about liberal indoctrination. He tells them that he and other Republicans on campus find  being immersed in a liberal environment has taught them to better articulate their views.

Still, Bailey La Sage, a senior at the university, says she felt shut down last year when the professor in her gender and women’s studies course refused to discuss the views of those opposed to abortion rights in her conversations about abortion. 

“I firmly believe that in university you should be challenged,” says Ms. La Sage, the only Republican in her family. “But I want to be challenged intellectually, not because I have a moral compass.”

The gap between professors’ politics and the general population has nearly tripled since the 1990s and now stands at 30 percentage points, according to the Heterodox Academy (HxA), a new professor-driven initiative promoting ideological diversity. HxA also found that conservatives today are more underrepresented in college and university faculties than African-Americans.

Some liberal colleges are striving to create more space for debate; the Middlebury College Republicans in Vermont recently invited another controversial speaker, and while there was a counter-event, it did not turn violent. The student organization BridgeUSA, which began with “transpartisan” debates at Notre Dame, has expanded to campuses around the country.

And schools are working to include more students from the populations that elected Donald Trump. According to a 2017 survey of admission directors, about a third said they’re increasing recruitment from rural and low-income white populations. Some 8 percent said their colleges are specifically recruiting conservatives.

Conservatives are also going on the offensive. Campus Reform and The College Fix frequently highlight perceived professor biases or free-speech issues at colleges and universities. 

John Carpenter, a father of four whose youngest is set to enter college this fall, says part of what’s happened is a shift away from what he calls a foundational principle of civilization.

“Every religion has some form of the Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated – and virtually everybody would give lip service to that,” says Mr. Carpenter, who is involved with Classical Conversations, a leader in the classical Christian homeschooling movement. “The problem is in practice.”

An Arizona experiment

The desire to debate a range of political views in a constructive way is at the heart of a new school at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, says director Paul Carrese, a Middlebury alum who taught political science at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

“For goodness sakes, Plato and Aristotle don’t agree,” he says.

This past year, the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at ASU has hosted a series of lectures, Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity in Higher Education and American Society. Among the speakers were conservative professor Robert George of Princeton University and Democratic socialist professor Cornel West of Harvard University, who within two weeks of a protest at Middlebury last spring, published a joint statement urging respectful engagement on college campuses. The statement has since garnered hundreds of other signatories.

After its first full year, SCETL has nearly a dozen full-time PhD faculty and 65 students enrolled, and has just gotten its courses and major and minor programs approved after a long faculty review process. But it has come under fire for being funded by Arizona’s Republican-controlled legislature in a deal that critics say lacked transparency; for absorbing centers that were funded by the Koch brothers – high-profile conservative donors; and, according to a disgruntled professor who has since left, hiring people “more for their right-wing commitments than academic stature.” 

Dr. Carrese acknowledges that the program offers an intellectually conservative curriculum, but denies that it is partisan. “All the people in the university leadership above me are not intellectual conservatives … it doesn’t make sense that they would allow themselves to be controlled by dark-money ideological puppeteers.”  

“But we have not persuaded many skeptics,” says Carrese. “I say – come. Come watch what we do.”

Harvard alum's new school 

Finny Kuruvilla loved his seven years at Harvard, during which he earned an MD and PhD and lived in the undergraduate dorms as a premed and chemistry tutor.

But somewhere between chaperoning undergraduates lathered in soap suds at a half-naked dance party and watching them spend their expensive Harvard education on a highly eclectic mix of classes like Japanese cooking, he came to the conclusion that college is broken. He sums up the top concerns as cost, character, and curriculum.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Finny Kuruvilla, who has an MD and PhD from Harvard, stands for a portrait at Sattler College, a Christian school he is establishing, on April 21, 2018, in Boston.

That’s why he is establishing Sattler College in Boston, an epicenter of bold political, religious, and educational ideas, from the American Revolution to the civil rights movement. Sattler, which is named after a 16th -century Christian martyr who left the Roman Catholic church to join the Radical Reformation, promises a revolution of its own.

The school, which will charge $9,000 or less in annual tuition, has already heard from far more applicants than the 25 it can accommodate in its inaugural year. Among them is Bryant Miller, a homeschooler with an ACT score of 35 (out of 36) who is also applying to Ivy League schools. 

“To be honest, my first impression was – no thanks, that’s not what I’m interested in,” he says, explaining he wanted an academically rigorous education and is wary of political indoctrination from either end of the spectrum. But as he learned more, Mr. Miller – who, like most applicants, comes from a similar Christian tradition as Dr. Kuruvilla – came to see in Sattler “a community where I could actually feel at home.”

Kuruvilla is part of a cross-denominational grouping known as Kingdom Christians, which espouses nonresistance and includes individuals from Quaker, Mennonite, and Anabaptist communities. But he says he would also welcome someone like Mahatma Gandhi, the Hindu leader of India’s nonviolent resistance movement who cited the Sermon on the Mount – even as he criticized Christians for not following their own text.

The focus, however, is unapologetically Christian, and the school’s mission is based on a biblical principle of discipleship: students will become like their teachers.

“I think a lot of families are alarmed at the kinds of things they’re seeing in higher education today,” Kuruvilla says. 

The K-16 model

Perhaps the most radical new model for college education is one that includes kindergarteners. The Saint Constantine School in Houston has students as young as 4 years old and is working on gaining accreditation as a four-year college through a partnership with The King’s College in New York. (It is already accredited as a two-year college.)

John Mark Reynolds, who established the school three years ago, says there are currently four full-time college students and 50 high schoolers that are double-enrolled in college classes. The teaching is done through one-on-one tutorials. No one pays more than $12,000 for the year, and no one is turned away because they can’t pay. The school keeps costs low in part by not hiring administrators. Dr. Reynolds, the president, regularly takes out the trash and vacuums the office.

The teaching is Socratic, and Reynolds says that his students are more likely to have a robust discussion about issues like abortion or gay marriage than at a secular or liberal school where religious perspectives are excluded.

The key to his school and other similar initiatives, he says, is not closing students off from the world but rather opening academic inquiry to a broader range of views.

“We don’t want to be a Secret Garden,” says Reynolds, who says he’s graduated many an atheist student. “I view these alternative conservative Christian colleges as going wrong if we become hot houses and going right if we become Socratically oriented, engag[ing] with all ideas, but able to talk about issues that otherwise don’t come up in [mainstream] academia.”

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