Wearing dress shoes instead of Birkenstocks probably doesn’t strike most students as a political statement, but political science professor Steven Smith has another theory. Smith said the growing numbers of students playing dress-up on a daily basis reflects a growing conservative movement on campuses across the country.
With the recent pro-war activism at Yale, conservatism — or at least right-of-center political views — seems to be gaining momentum. But when compared with the conservative presence in schools like Princeton and Harvard, Yale holds the middle ground.
Conservatives across the Ivies
Conservative groups at other Ivies have faced the usual scrutiny from on-campus doves and donkeys, but in general, it is in the form of healthy debates.
“Students generally appreciate and are supportive of political debate in a healthy way,” said Owen Conroy, a Princeton sophomore and president of the Princeton College Democrats.
Princeton is known as one of the most conservative schools in the Ivy League, and according to a Daily Princetonian poll 60 percent of Princeton students support the war “to some degree.” Conroy said the Princeton administration is trying to break free of the perception that the school is largely conservative.
The move to “make up for lost time,” has created somewhat of a stigma around the tradition of conservatism at Princeton, said sophomore Evan Baehr, president of the Princeton College Republicans and editor in chief of The Princeton Tory.
Compared to Princeton and Yale, there may be fewer Dubyas-in-training roaming Harvard Yard. According to a Crimson survey of 400 undergrads nearly 56 percent of students are “strongly” or “somewhat strongly” opposed to the war. But there still exists a “hospitable environment” for conservatives in Cambridge said Daniel Dunay, a Harvard freshman and self-professed conservative.
The right at Yale
Whether or not such an accepting environment exists at Yale is currently being put to the test as campus political activism is on the rise. The stigma surrounding conservatism at Yale has, in some instances, made students afraid to express their accord with conservative viewpoints.
“Being right of center on campus is a demonstration of dissent and dissent is always difficult,” said Matthew Louchheim ’04, president of the Yale College Students for Democracy, a group he says is not aligned with a particular political ideology.
While conservatives at Yale end up defending their views more than the average liberal student, Smith said he sees this as an advantage.
“Most conservative students will say they do feel like a minority group struggling upstream,” Smith said. “It’s only by struggling upstream that people sharpen their ideas. People really learn their points of view by putting them in opposition with other views.”
Not only do conservatives strengthen their own views, but some believe they also promote open-minded discussions among students of all political leanings.
Matthew Craig ’05 from the Party of the Right, an organization which debates political philosophies, said the presence of right-leaning groups helps to balance the more vocal liberal sentiment on campus.
“Ultimately we keep the rest of the Yale community intellectually honest by forcing people to consider their ideas more,” Craig said.
While many students began to re-evaluate their political views after Sept. 11, others had already begun the process, history professor John Gaddis said, pointing to students’ tendency to react against their parents’ liberal views.
Smith agreed that part of the conservative trend is a repudiation of 1960s-era liberalism.
“For many college-aged people today, the experience of Reagan was what the experience of JFK was for my day,” Smith said.
The legacy of conservatism
Despite counter-opposition to the “dissent” of the conservative minority on Ivy campuses, Smith said he finds the movement to be “refreshing.”
“In some ways I’m more optimistic about this generation of students than my generation. They confront their situation with a kind of moral seriousness that I find — hopeful for the future,” he said. “Students, in a different way from the ’60s and ’70s, are challenging the dogmas of their teachers’ and parents’ generations, and I think that’s good.”
Whatever the legacy of the conservatism on campus may be, Gaddis said he is certain that younger generations will continue to challenge the views of authority.
“The only thing I can say with confidence is that as you guys leave here — and ultimately wind up running the country and ultimately wind up having kids — your kids, when they reach the age of attending Yale, will be questioning your values,” Gaddis said. “It’s one of the very few reliable laws of history.”