By Lucas Partridge
Denison University is known for its left-leaning leanings, which begs the question – does this create an atmosphere where political minorities feel the need to keep their beliefs to themselves? It’s a question that has been on many people’s minds, especially those who believe that conservative voices are silenced on campuses across America. With Denison’s President, Adam Weinberg, frequently encouraging people to engage with those who hold differing opinions, it’s important to examine whether this is being reflected in the university’s political climate. Are students and faculty taking advantage of this opportunity to broaden their perspectives and challenge their beliefs, or are they sticking within their own ideological echo chambers? In this blog post, I’ll dive into the data to see if there’s any truth to this claim: Are college campuses as politically one-sided as many believe?
In October of 2022, 127 conducted a survey among Denison University students gathering demographic data, political beliefs, and actions. All answers were self-reported, with 507 students participating, representing around 22% of the student population.This analysis is limited to Denison University, a small liberal arts college with a financially well-off, exclusively undergraduate student population. While the findings may not be representative of larger research universities or technical colleges, it provides insight into a significant group of similar schools in the US. Keep in mind, not all liberal arts colleges are identical and specific findings about Denison may not apply elsewhere.
At Denison University, the majority of students identify as Democrats, with around 30% identifying as independent lean Democrat, 25% as Democrat, and 13% as Strong Democrat. Republicans make up a smaller percentage, with around 11% identifying as pure independents, 8% as independent Republicans, 4% as Republicans and just 2% as Strong Republicans. This data supports the idea of a liberal campus, with a large population of Democrats and few Republicans. However, it’s important to remember that believing something and acting on that belief are different. Just because most students at Denison identify as Democrats doesn’t necessarily mean that the campus culture reflects that.
To understand the political culture at Denison University, it’s important to look at how students participate in politics. Participating in political actions, such as posting a stance on social media, attending a protest, and displaying a political sign, is an indicator of how much students are expressing their beliefs and contributing to the campus culture. The data in the figure below shows that Denison students are most likely to post a stance on social media (44%), attend a protest (32%), and display a political sign (25%). Less popular forms of participation such as contributing money to a candidate (18%) and working for a political candidate (9%) also indicate that students who do them are politically passionate and probably discuss politics more than non-participators. The most popular ways to politically participate are also the most public ones and surely contribute to the campus political culture the most, while the least popular forms of participation are less visible and have higher barriers to entry. These findings indicate that Denison does have a strong political culture on campus – do students from all partisan identities participate in equivalent amounts?
Democrats are the most politically active group on campus (see Figure 3 below). They are more likely to participate in political actions such as posting on social media, attending protests, and displaying political signs. Strong Democrats and Democrats are the only groups that participate more than not, indicating that they are especially passionate about their beliefs. But they also surely get a boost from the left-leaning political culture at Denison, which may encourage Democrats to participate while discouraging students with Republican beliefs to express themselves. This could mean that political culture on campus is not inclusive of all perspectives.
However, Republicans at Denison may be hesitant to express their beliefs publicly, while Democrats are more likely to participate in visible forms of political expression such as posting on social media or attending protests. This discrepancy may indicate that the campus culture is not inclusive of Republican beliefs, and that Republicans feel discouraged from participating in the public political discourse. Additionally, it is possible that Democrats are more likely to participate in ways that are more visible and publicly rewarded, while Republicans turn to private forms of participation. Overall, these findings suggest that the political culture at Denison may be exclusionary towards Republicans.
The data suggests (see Figure 5 below) that Republicans at Denison are not necessarily scared to voice their opinions, as the majority of them (50%) said they would like to have more political discussions outside of class. Strong Republicans were the most likely to want more political discussions, which contradicts the idea that Republican students feel unwelcome to share their beliefs on campus.
Is Denison’s political culture as Democratic as liberal arts schools are portrayed as? Yes, almost certainly. Democrats make up most of the student body and they participate politically more than Republican students do. Republicans at Denison aren’t nearly as visible as Democrats are. In that sense, the popular narrative that colleges are liberal strongholds is right. However, that argument is often used to claim that Republicans are silenced or oppressed at colleges. Some of the data does suggest that this is possible. Republicans participate less than Democrats do and Republicans are more likely to participate privately than they are publicly. Still, when asked if they wanted to voice their opinions publicly, Republicans and Democrats gave surprisingly similar answers. Maybe Republican students at liberal arts colleges aren’t quite as oppressed as news anchors around the country seem to think they are.
Lucas Partridge is a senior political science major and German minor. He plans on going to law school after a gap year in Southeast Asia.