Freedom of Expression for All: Why Stanford is Fertile Ground for Debate

By Nicole Gibbs

Stanford is unquestionably marked by a largely liberal student and professor population. However, contrary to Mr. Hirshman’s assertions, students with conservative viewpoints on campus are neither condemned nor silenced. Those conservatives who claim that their political opinions are unwelcome at Stanford are simply unprepared to foster a minority opinion and are overly sensitive to the implications of their deviations from the majority.

Although the politically conservative are clearly outnumbered, I fail to see the hostility that Mr. Hirshman claims that liberals exhibit toward conservatives on campus. Conservative students are free to express their opinions on all topics ranging from the tax system to affirmative action to gay marriage in informal debate and, when appropriate, in the classroom. Admittedly, subjects on the social end of the spectrum are often more sensitive because of their current prevalence in the media and the personal implications of these issues, and in the heat of a political debate, proponents of either end of the political spectrum are liable to over-identify with their opinion and take personal offense to opposition. At a venue like Stanford, where one party significantly surpasses the other in number, an advocate of the minority opinion will inevitably feel cornered and intimidated by his adversaries. But this is absolutely not a commentary on the prevention of freedom of speech, but rather a reflection of the demographic at Stanford.

College students in America represent a highly liberal sector of the population to begin with, and Stanford’s location, in Northern California, makes this statistic even more dramatic. Given the topic of gay marriage, the regional opinion is clearly in favor of legalization, and the student population mirrors this common liberal standpoint. A conservative student arguing, without any reasonable justification, that gay marriage is an abomination might easily be met with angry responses and perhaps the hostility that Mr. Hirshman refers to in his argument. But a student who voices this same opinion, backing it up with clear ethical justifications, void of prejudices, will rarely be subjected to this same judgment. Sadly, there will always be some narrow-minded liberals who reject any and all opposition to their views and who will likely make hasty judgments, but the same can be said of narrow-minded conservatives. Politics is invariably a difficult and emotional subject, and while I feel that students with such shallow and judgmental interpretations of the field are few and far between at Stanford, I do concede that, unfortunately, some do exist. But perhaps, then, we should be asking how can Stanford help create tolerance among the narrow-minded rather than jumping to unfounded and paranoid conclusions about the political majority’s oppression of its opposition on campus.

Mr. Hirshman goes on to complain that conservative students feel that their grades will be negatively impacted if their political views become public–an irrational and unjustified paranoia. There is no evidence to confirm that students with conservative views are graded more harshly than their liberal counterparts, regardless of the largely liberal teaching staff. What Mr. Hirshman fails to acknowledge in his argument is that the liberal-to-conservative professor ratios he cites are not radically out of the ordinary. According to one source, over three-fourths of collegiate professors in America identify with the liberal political party, and this percentage increases to eighty-one percent among professors in the humanities. He also fails to mention that perhaps the best-known and most highly acclaimed professor of political science on campus, Condoleeza Rice, is distinctly right wing. In this case, again, I fail to see any particular biases against the conservative party with respect to students or professors on the part of the university.

Moving forward, the claim that there is a lack of healthy debate forums in which conservatives and liberals alike may express political opinions is one of the most absurd assertions Mr. Hirshman makes. Stanford is an absolute breeding ground for debate, with popular topics ranging from religion to prevalent social issues to politics. Stanford is teeming with students eager to learn more about others and their differing views in order to fully establish their own opinions. Rather than citing The Cardinal Principle as the shining exception within a cruel and hostile environment, I believe the existence and success of such a newspaper to be a testament to the willingness of the student body to explore all sides of an argument and weigh the merits of each perspective. If, as Mr. Hirshman claims, liberals on campus are keen on shutting out and debasing all evidence contrary to their beliefs, such a newspaper would be the source of mockery. Instead, students value the paper because they see that certain opinions are under-represented on campus, and they wish to explore the justifications for the opposing arguments.

Finally, Mr. Hirshman takes a vast amount of liberty in his presentation of the term “liberal” in his argument. Stanford does take pride in its liberal approach to education, but this concept of contemplative and diverse learning does not inhibit one’s freedom in choosing political affiliation, nor does the existence of a political majority on campus warrant the accusation that this liberal approach is not honored. In fact, access to a liberal education explicitly provides the resources necessary to deviate from popular opinion. There is no shortage of resources on campus for students wishing to cultivate their budding perspectives on the world, however different or unpopular, spanning from clubs to student-staff mentor programs. The responsibility, then, lies with the individual student who will either take advantage of these resources or fail to do so, rather than with the university which is constantly creating opportunities for personal development.

The disparity between the sizes of the liberal and conservative parties on campus is the result of Stanford’s demographic rather than a university-wide conspiracy to cease the winds of freedom. While, understandably, conservatives often feel frustrated by the lack of support they have among their peers, whining about the alleged implications is childish and naive. Welcome to the real world: not everyone you meet will share your views and oftentimes, depending on where you are or with whom you surround yourself, your opinions may be unpopular. If perceived as a challenge, Stanford can provide an incredible resource for growth among conservatives who thoughtfully and respectfully seek to represent and expand their opinions. If regarded as an unfair and biased environment, Stanford can become a handicap to conservatives’ healthy expression of beliefs. Again, the responsibility is that of the individual, who will frame the experience either as a distinct opportunity or as an impediment to personal growth.

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This entry was posted in Articles for Volume 4, Issue 3, Spring 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

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