Conservatives Students Take a Stand at the University of Buffalo · 03 May 2003

By Stephen Watson - Buffalo News
Filed under: New York, Press Coverage

Students here and nationally speaking out against the liberal tradition on campuses

By Stephen Watson--Buffalo News--05/03/05

Republican students at the University at Buffalo recently roasted a pig for an "animal rights" barbecue, held "coming out day" for conservatives and distributed Canadian citizenship applications to liberals still bitter about the presidential election.
It was "Conservative Week," and the message wasn't subtle.

"We've got to make our voice heard on campus," said Duncan Stanley, a junior and treasurer of the UB Republicans.

Once as popular on university campuses as ants at a Sunday picnic, conservatives today are fighting to win the hearts and minds of college students.

Conservative students at the University at Buffalo and across the country are holding provocative events and starting their own right-leaning newspapers.

National conservative groups are urging state legislatures and universities to ban discrimination based on a student or faculty member's political views.

And some conservatives are pushing schools to hire more conservative professors.

"The so-called liberal establishment has abandoned professional ethics and wants to use their power in the classroom to promote their agenda," said Gerhard J. Falk, a conservative sociology professor at Buffalo State College.

But the conservative tactics have drawn criticism from some faculty, who say claims of bias on campus are overblown.

And opponents promise to fight proposals they think would infringe on academic freedom.

"The minute you begin to transform that university into a place that is fundamentally based on trying to select people based on ideological perspective, you're in deep trouble," said Henry L. Taylor Jr., director of UB's Center for Urban Studies and a self-described progressive.

The liberal perception

At the heart of this intellectual tug of war is the belief that college faculty members across the country are more liberal on average than the general public.

A study of 1,643 full-time faculty members at 193 four-year colleges found 72 percent describe themselves as liberal, while 15 percent describe themselves as conservative. The study by researchers at George Mason University, Smith College and the University of Toronto relied on 1999 data.

At UB, comparing the school payroll with voter records in Erie and Niagara counties finds Democrats dominate the faculty.

The Buffalo News analysis found Democrats make up 62 percent of the 744 faculty positions where a match could be made, 18 percent are registered Republicans, and 17 percent have no party.

"There's no way this can't affect academia or be to the detriment of academia," said James E. Campbell, a UB political scientist, who jokes that conservative scholars are an "endangered species."

Faculty members, many of whom came of age during Vietnam and Watergate, also appear more liberal than their students.

An annual UCLA poll of first-year students in 2004 found 29.5 percent of freshmen said they were liberal or far left, while 24.1 percent said they were conservative or far right.

Why are so many professors liberal? A number of faculty members say it's a matter of self-selection and liberals flock to academia just as Republicans are drawn to the military or business.

Critics say there are few conservative faculty members because conservatives have trouble getting hired and winning tenure.

Whatever the reason, conservatives say the result is left-wing faculty members spreading their political views to their students.

The faculty stance

Conservatives say the real problem is that there are so many liberals in fields where interpretation of facts plays a fundamental role, such as history or sociology.

"What you have to ask is, which departments inform the students about the world? . . . Is there ideological diversity in the departments where it matters?" said Albert L. Michaels, a longtime UB history professor and outspoken conservative.

But most faculty members say they simply try to encourage independent thinking.

"It was important for me that students form their own opinions," said Nancy E. McGlen, dean of arts and sciences at Niagara University.

Still, two UB students cited George A. Barnett, the communication department chairman, as an example of a liberal who freely expresses his views.

Barnett was one of 255 UB faculty members and staff who signed a letter opposing the war in Iraq.

Stanley, the treasurer of the UB Republicans, recalled Barnett saying, "Anyone who is a Republican needs to get their head examined."

Barnett said he doesn't recall saying that to students, although it is the kind of thing he would say outside of class.

And he acknowledged that he once wore a T-shirt that read: "Bush lied, thousands died. Impeach Bush."

"The point of it was to show political communication," he said.

Students and faculty on local campuses generally support the free exchange of ideas in the classroom, but they said professors shouldn't cross over into aggressive advocacy.

"I've had my share of conservative professors, and it's fairly clear they're conservative," said Elise A. Garvey, president of the Canisius College Democrats. "But I've never had a problem with grading."

However, the Web site for the conservative group Students for Academic Freedom has scores of complaints about professors across the country who grade unfairly, mock Republican lawmakers and assign liberal texts.

As a remedy, some conservatives say ideology should be a factor in hiring, just as gender and race can be.

"That's putting out a political litmus test. . . . I want to know if that person is a good scholar," said Bruce Jackson, a UB English professor and liberal.

Legislation sought

In addition, the national Students for Academic Freedom is pushing public universities and state lawmakers to approve an "Academic Bill of Rights" that bans discrimination based on political or religious beliefs.

Candace de Russy has introduced a version to the State University of New York board of trustees.

Roger W. Bowen, head of the American Association of University Professors, said the new laws are an unnecessary solution to an exaggerated problem.

"The (Academic) Bill of Rights sounds like a jobs bill for Republican trial lawyers," agreed Michael V. Haselswerdt, a liberal Canisius political scientist.

Still, some conservative students say they would like this added protection. The UB Republicans say they have to be provocative because they have few friends at the campus paper or in student government.

Students at UB and Canisius recently started conservative newspapers. The paper at UB, the Pillar, was published once last November, but students hope to restart it in the summer.

Many conservative student papers receive outside support, such as financing or organizational advice, from national groups. The Collegiate Network, part of the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute, has helped 94 papers, said a spokeswoman.

One feature of the UB "Conservative Week" was a bake sale held to raise money - $17.57 all told - to help the Pentagon buy new weapons systems.

One student absent-mindedly listened to the pitch, bought two sugar cookies and walked away. He didn't get far.

"Wait a minute, this is for the Republicans?" he asked, according to Republican Tom Gueli.

When Gueli and his peers said yes, the student threw a cookie at them. He spit out the cookie he had been chewing and said, "You can have that back, too."

News Researcher Andrew Bailey contributed to this report.