Bitter partisan divides have deepened over the past few years, and college campuses are experiencing the effects of this trend firsthand.
For one, Americans are deeply split in their opinions of higher education. Almost three-quarters of surveyed Democrats, 73%, said they believe colleges are leading America in a positive direction, compared to just 37% of Republicans, according to a 2022 poll from think tank New America.
And in the past few years, state lawmakers have increasingly proposed restrictive higher education legislation, including efforts to eliminate tenure protections, eliminate DEI offices and control the curriculum.
These types of efforts typically target public colleges. But private institutions are now grappling with similar challenges, and these concerns took center stage at The Council of Independent Colleges’ Presidents Institute, an annual gathering of institutional leaders.
During a Thursday panel, leaders from three private nonprofits suggested that their sector is facing more pressure from federal lawmakers, donors and other external constituencies than they have in the past.
“I would have said before that independent higher ed is much less influenced by politics, partisanship — all of those things,” said Colorado College President L. Song Richardson.
But colleges like hers are not immune to those trends, she said.
“We see what’s happening to our public colleagues across the nation,” Richardson said. “We are having the same issues.”
In December, for instance, dozens of largely Republican federal lawmakers called for the presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania to resign after they testified before Congress about their efforts to address antisemitism on their campuses.
Penn’s Elizabeth Magill stepped down four days after the hearing, while Harvard’s Claudine Gay resigned last week amid a right-wing campaign accusing her of plagiarism. Leaders of the effort to oust Gay have also taken aim at Harvard’s diversity and equity initiatives.
“It’s our alums, it’s our parents, it is the external constituency that we saw in the hearings in Congress,” Richardson said.
How private colleges are responding
Even though partisan divides are growing deeper, CIC panelists said they haven’t seen evidence that their enrollment is changing due to political polarization.
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, president of Augustana University, in South Dakota, noted that there have been concerns that certain students from blue states would be wary of attending a college in a red state.
“We’re not seeing evidence of that,” Herseth Sandlin said.
All three panelists stressed that their colleges have been prioritizing efforts to help students and other members of the campus community have civil discussions about difficult topics.
Richardson pointed to her institution’s Democratic Dialogue Project, which brings together students from Colorado College and cadets from the nearby U.S. Air Force Academy to discuss hot-button issues. Club members generate discussion topics, such as how involved the U.S. should be involved in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Meanwhile, at George Fox University — a Christian college in Newberg, Oregon — officials started an initiative to foster more civility after political partisanship rocked the local school board.
In 2021, conservative members of Newberg’s school board passed a policy banning staff members from displaying political or controversial symbols — an effort that was initially directed at stopping Black Lives Matter and pride flags from being displayed in classrooms.
To help repair growing divisions like these, the college launched the George Fox Civility Project during the 2020-21 academic year.
It’s meant to foster respect and kindness among those who disagree and encourage people to be curious about their opponents’ reasoning. Initiatives include a pledge to conduct respectful conversations and cross-partisan meetings where participants can share their ideas on important issues.
“It really became quite effective,” George Fox President Robin Baker said.