While political discussions about the presidential election or controversial events on campus are common, the community is still working the navigate the presence of a liberal majority on a campus with a range of views.
The average Bowdoin student identifies as liberal. On a scale of 0-100, with 0 being ‘very liberal’ and 100 being ‘very conservative,’ the average Bowdoin student places themselves at 36.28, though respondents spanned the entire spectrum.
Approximately a third of the student body does not feel safe expressing their political views on campus; 32 percent of students do not agree with the statement “I feel safe expressing my political views on Bowdoin’s campus.”
President Clayton Rose has repeatedly emphasized the importance of full-throated discourse on campus.
The 32 percent of students who say they feel unsafe expressing their views on campus are on average more conservative (they had an average self-identified political score of 47-59 on the 0-100 scale) than are people who do feel safe (they had an average self-identified political score of 24-26).
“If in fact you know students who identify as more conservative are more likely to [feel unsafe expressing their views], that’s an important thing to know. What does it mean? What should you do about it? That’s a little beyond my area of expertise,” said Professor of Government Michael Franz who, along with his Quantitative Analysis in Political Science course, administered the “Polar Poll,” which sought to gauge students’ attitudes on various campus issues.
“A lot of the time...people are afraid to put their voice out there… because they’re afraid of being labeled,” said Nick Sadler ’18, a registered independent who leans conservative and said he does not always feel safe expressing his political views on campus.
Jack Lucy ’17, president of the Bowdoin College Republicans, acknowledges that it is complicated to have a conservative viewpoint at Bowdoin.
“We know we’re in the minority on campus and I guess within our generation as well. I would also say it’s a viewpoint that can at times be harder to articulate clearly and coherently without a lot of explanation, particularly with issues of social conservatism,” said Lucy.
Despite this notion, Lucy feels safe expressing his views on campus and enjoys engaging in exchanges with people across the political spectrum. However, it does not surprise him that people with conservative views don’t all share his sense of safety.
“The word ‘safe’ might not be an adequate word to define it because I’ve never felt unsafe expressing my views here. I think there are certainly times where students of all opinions feel it’s not in their best interest necessarily to get involved on a controversial topic,” said Lucy.
Amanda Bennett ’17, president of the Bowdoin College Democrats, feels safe expressing her liberal views on campus.
“I’m very liberal. I think [Bowdoin] is a great space in order to have political discussion for the most part,” she said.
Though she feels safe expressing her views, Bennett is aware that conservatives might not, and she acknowledges that liberals at Bowdoin can be quick to shut down their conservative peers. Bennett thinks that liberals try to be very accepting of all viewpoints but they do not always accept the views of conservatives, for liberals assume that conservatives are intolerant of others.
“It seems like both sides are kind of generalizing. You have conservatives thinking that the liberals won’t accept their viewpoints and then you have the liberals grouping all viewpoints that conservatives may have and [excluding them],” she said.
Logan Jackonis ’17, who identifies as a libertarian, said he would feel comfortable discussing his viewpoints with his friends, but not in class.
“I feel like classrooms… are dominated by the most passionate viewpoints and mine is not the most intense,” Jackonis said.
When talking with other people on campus, especially about recent controversial topics, Jacknois it is sometimes easier to just say “mhm” in agreement, even though he may disagree with what someone is saying.
“It’s not an alternate opinion I’m afraid of necessarily, it’s just not particularly comfortable when people are so passionate and I’m so not. I don’t have that same fire. Even if I disagree, it’s just uncomfortable,” said Jackonis.
Alexis Espinal ’17 identifies as a liberal but, due to her Louisiana roots, has more moderate views. She has been able to comfortably engage in political dialogue at Bowdoin.
“A lot more people are liberal here than at home—I think there’s more liberal [people] here anyways. But at the same time I have some weird, more Republican views that I’ve said before and no one tried to murder me. At home if you were a liberal it was a bad word,” Espinal said.
The average Bowdoin student also perceives themselves to be rather on par with the rest of Bowdoin students; on a scale of 0-100, the average Bowdoin student assesses a typical Bowdoin student to be at 29.87.
Franz expected to see a bigger difference between how liberal Bowdoin students assess themselves to be and how liberal they perceive other Bowdoin students to be.
“The respondents assess the average Bowdoin student to be liberal, in fact more liberal than them,” said Franz. “What I thought I would find more was a bigger difference between them. I thought the average student might say, ‘yeah, I’m 36 but that the average besides me is a 10’, or something like that.”
Espinal attributes conservative discomfort to the fact that liberals outnumber conservatives.
“I think it has more to do with human nature than Bowdoin. People like to feel they have a whole bunch of people supporting them [when they speak out],” she said.
Franklin Taylor ’19, who identifies as liberal, said that liberals feel safer expressing their viewpoints because most of campus is liberal.
“Having a community around me where people have the same views as me definitely helps so that I can express how I feel,” he said.
Charlotte Hevly ’19, who identifies as fairly liberal, said “I think there’s a perception that if you’re an intellectual you’re going to be liberal.”
Lucy echoed the idea that academia is a discipline that attracts professors of a liberal persuasion.
“We’re at an institution and this is a trend present in all of academia that people of a liberal persuasion are more likely...professors,” he said.
Sadler, Lucy and Bennett want to encourage people to listen and be respectful of people’s viewpoints. Sadler would also like to see more conservative speakers brought in and for people to genuinely consider what they might have to say, so as to spur substantive discourse.
The Polar Poll, which was completed by 358 students after it was sent by email to a random sample of 475 Bowdoin students, also included a question that was designed to examine the effects of peer networks on accepting or not accepting a controversial opinion. The question asked half the sample if they would consider a critical opinion of affirmative action if it came from a Republican congressman; and asked the other half if they would consider a critical opinion of affirmative action if it came from an opinion piece in the Orient written by a student.
Fifty-four percent of respondents said they would consider the congressman’s opinion, while 66.5 percent said they would consider the Bowdoin student’s opinion. Though 12.5 percentage points is a small difference, a greater proportion of students are willing to accept the argument against affirmative action when it comes from a Bowdoin student than when it comes from a Republican congressman.
“[This] might mean that how we evaluate information is in large part determined by whether we like or dislike who’s making the argument,” said Franz.
He emphasized that everyone has people in their social networks—the ‘crazy uncle’, for example—who communicate opposing ideas.
“That might actually be good for us, to have the crazy uncle who posts those crazy stories because we like our crazy uncle and we might be more willing to listen to what our uncle says even if it’s the same exact thing that Donald Drumpf is saying,” said Franz.
Although students appear more likely to consider the opinion of a peer, Sadler said he does not believe many at Bowdoin can be unwilling to change their views.
“I think a lot of the time people here are affirmed in a lot of their views and they’re not challenged to change them and I think a lot of the times they’re not willing to change them even though changing your beliefs is a lot of how you grow up and mature,” he said.
Rachael Allen, Calder McHugh and Lucy Ryan contributed to this report.