Sharaka Berry considers himself pretty “far left” on most political issues. But as a student at Carleton College, he was taken aback when he heard what happened to the campus Republican club last fall.
It simply disbanded.
While Democrats, radicals, leftists and libertarians were signing up new recruits at orientation, the Republicans were a no-show. And no one has volunteered to run the group since, school officials say.
For years, conservatives have been a distinct minority on campuses like Carleton, a prestigious liberal arts school in Northfield. But now, some on both sides of the aisle are worrying openly that many campuses have become so politically lopsided that there’s little room for dissent or debate.
“I know students who have conservative views on abortion and gun control, but they would never say it publicly here,” said Berry, a 21-year-old senior from Chicago.
Since Donald Trump became president, conservatives say that college campuses have become less hospitable than ever to their opinions.
On some Minnesota campuses, students have been threatened or lambasted on social media for speaking out. And that, many agree, has had a chilling effect both in and out of class.
“It is, I think, a tough time to be a campus Republican right now,” says Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College in St. Paul.
Around the country, a grass-roots movement is trying to change that. More than 1,700 professors and graduate students have joined Heterodox Academy, a New York-based group that was created in 2015 to encourage “viewpoint diversity — specifically political diversity” on college campuses.
And a student group, BridgeUSA, is opening chapters on dozens of campuses to try to revive the lost art of political debate.
“A lot of the students starting chapters are liberals,” said co-founder Rogé Karma, a student at the University of Notre Dame. “Students are realizing there’s something wrong if I’ve never met a Trump supporter.”
At Carleton, Berry has teamed up with the head of the campus libertarian club, Rohan Mukherjee, to launch a series of debates on divisive topics, like gun control, in hopes of drawing students out of their political bubbles. It hasn’t always worked out — only three other people turned out for a Feb. 15 forum on “cultural appropriation,” a concept that has fueled many a battle over ethnic Halloween costumes.
But despite the lackluster turnout, the two organizers, both political science majors, say they’re trying to start a tradition where students feel free to disagree without fear of backlash.
“Generally at Carleton, there are a lot of people that want to engage, that want their horizons broadened, that want to have this debate,” said Mukherjee, a 21-year-old junior from Hoboken, N.J., who considers himself a “free-market” liberal, whose libertarian club has become a home for Carleton conservatives. “But I also think there is this loud minority which will generally try to shut down any difference of opinion.”
Berry, a liberal, doesn’t disagree.
“The first step to solving a problem,” he says philosophically, “is acknowledging that there is one.”
Even on its best days, Carleton’s Republican club had a rather modest following, supporters say. Carleton itself has been rated the second-most liberal college in the country, based on student surveys by the website Niche.
Before the Republican club folded, only about five or six people would show up at its meetings, says Patton McClelland, the former co-president, who graduated from Carleton in 2017. Still, he said, it was “an environment where anybody — conservatives, liberals, independents, anyone — could come in to speak freely.”
But after Trump’s election, even fewer students were willing to identify openly as Republicans, said Mukherjee. “I think Trump makes it harder to come out as a conservative,” he said, adding that he himself is not a fan of the president.
When Carleton’s student newspaper ran a story about campus conservatives in January 2017, five out of the six students insisted on anonymity. Said one: “The second I started seeing Trump win, I locked my door.”
Now, many Republican-leaning students simply keep their thoughts to themselves, says Mukherjee. “I know so many people who are conservatives in the closet,” he said. He blames “a huge call-out culture on campus” — where unpopular views trigger a backlash on social media.
Conservatives aren’t the only ones on the receiving end, says Berry. He recalls facing the wrath of classmates for criticizing Black Lives Matter on Facebook.
“I’m far left with probably most of my policy positions, but that’s not enough at Carleton,” said Berry, who is black. “If you stray away from those talking points, then you get labeled.”
On campus, some students say they’ve never even met a conservative at Carleton. “I’m aware of probably like one,” said Aislinn Mayfield, a 20-year-old junior from Minneapolis.
Janna Wennberg, a 21-year-old math major from Pasadena, Calif., said she couldn’t recall anyone even voicing a conservative opinion in class.
“Generally, everybody agrees or nobody says anything that’s really contrary to the group,” said Javin White, a 19-year-old sophomore from Maryland. Why not? “Because they know it won’t be accepted well.”
Across town, students at St. Olaf College say it’s much the same.
“It’s definitely not the easiest environment to speak out in,” said Kathryn Hinderaker, president of the St. Olaf College Republicans “A lot of times, discussions are just very one-sided, or in the classes I’m in, everyone against me.”
That kind of self-censorship is troubling, college officials agree.
“It’s always concerning when people have an opinion and they feel they can’t voice it,” said Carolyn Livingston, Carleton’s dean of students. Professors want students to “think outside of their comfort zone,” she said. “That’s the purpose of an education. That’s the purpose of coming to a place like Carleton.”
Rosenberg, of Macalester, admits that the political atmosphere on campus can be intimidating to young conservatives. “I’ll be lying if I said it’s an easy problem to solve,” he said. “You can’t genetically engineer the political viewpoint of your student body.”
Ultimately, he added, “you have to just try to teach students that listening is as important as speaking.”
Berry, who graduates in May, says he wishes both sides were more open to listening. But for now, he’s not optimistic.
“It is an unhealthy dynamic,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s going to change for the better anytime soon.”