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Among their battles against ideas like critical race theory and identity politics, conservatives have made not just K-12 schools but higher education a focal point of their critique.
A study done by Pew Research Center in 2021 found that 64% of Republicans believed that colleges have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country. Only 22% of Democrats felt the same way.
Many conservatives feel universities have become a training ground for the next generation of left-wing ideologues and believe the prominence of liberal and socialist professors, especially in the humanities, to be a problem. Colleges have become hotbeds for issues surrounding free speech, political correctness, cancel culture and social justice. Conservatives have accused their own colleges of silencing their speakers, instituting "free speech zones" and just carrying a liberal bias in general.
How conservative are college students in Alabama?
Alabama is beyond a doubt a conservative state. In another survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 52% of adults in Alabama identify as Republican or Republican-leaning. Only 35% identify as Democrats or lean Democrat.
But are our students conservative too?
Auburn University junior and Dothan native Jonathon Stuckey is the chairman of his school's College Republicans chapter. He is working on a double major in political science and public relations. He is also minoring in business.
Stuckey said he primarily had conservative friends in high school but has friends from all over the political spectrum now that he's in college.
"I probably have just as many liberal friends as I do conservative," Stuckey said. "And most of my friends aren't really political."
Another Auburn student, Stephen Morris, shared what side of the aisle he thought most Auburn students stand.
"There's a good amount of diversity, but I do think Auburn is one of the most conservative public universities out there," Morris said.
Morris is a former chairman for Young America's Foundation (YAF) and currently serves as an associate justice for the Student Government Association (SGA).
Niche.com ranks Auburn as the 41st most conservative college in the United States. Niche uses student reviews about the political leanings of the campus to calculate rankings.
At the University of Alabama, Paten Kidd is a marketing major with a minor in criminal justice. He is a member of the conservative organization Turning Point USA (TPUSA), the Free Thinker Project and president of his fraternity. Kidd estimates that almost all of his friends are conservatives and feels that most students at Alabama are also "very conservative."
Kidd said he fears that most people only get to see the "left side" of the University of Alabama.
"That's definitely not the case when you're there in person," Kidd said.
Brian Szczotka, chairman of the University of Alabama's College Republicans chapter, seems to share a similar perspective to Kidd.
"Most of the people I've interacted with here at the University of Alabama are conservative in nature or right of center, but not all of them are vocally Republican or identify as Republican," Szczotka said.
Szczotka is an international security major from San Diego, California. He is also a member of YAF and said that most of his friends were "conservative Republicans."
For University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) student Roshan Dahale, things are different. Dahale is chairman of his College Republicans chapter and is double majoring in philosophy and political science. He describes himself as a Christian who is both fiscally and socially conservative.
Dahale believes that most people at his school don't share his values and are "liberal-leaning or irreligious." However, he said that most of his friends still maintain what he calls a "conservative work ethic."
"I think a lot of the way that they live reflects conservative values, yet they don't identify as a conservative or want to get involved in politics," Dahale said.
Conflict with liberal students and organizations
Even at the institutions with apparently more conservative students, conservatives in Alabama have experienced conflict with liberals and on-campus organizations due to their political beliefs.
University of Alabama SGA presidential candidate Sarah Shield is currently facing controversy over a picture she posted to her Instagram page in 2020, which featured her attending a YAF event. On March 8, the University of Alabama student newspaper, the Crimson White, brought Shield's involvement with YAF to light, stating, "We can not endorse a candidate who aligns themselves with YAF's values."
In the article, the Crimson White labeled YAF "an institution of bigotry and extremism" and said it "has been consistently linked to racism, Islamophobia, transphobia, and other harmful ideologies."
The same day, multiple campus groups withdrew their endorsement of Shield. This included organizations such as the Queer Student Association and the International Relations Club.
According to the Crimson White, Shield released a statement, which read, "I believe that Black Lives Matter, trans rights are human rights, and that hate shouldn't have any place here at the Capstone. I am not a member of YAF, and was simply at the conference for the purposes of networking and civic development."
Shield's opponent, Madeline Martin, was named the unofficial SGA president-elect. The election results are pending on an outstanding appeal against Martin involving campaign expenditures, which will be ruled on by the SGA's Judicial Board on March 23.
We reached out to Shield about the conflict, and she declined to comment.
"Everything they bashed her for just really wasn't true," said Kidd about the controversy.
Morris faced a similar conflict at Auburn in 2021 when he was appointed Chief Justice of the Judicial Branch of Auburn's SGA. Upon appointment, justices have to achieve a two-thirds vote in the Senate to confirm their seats.
"It's always been a formality," Morris said. "Even so much so that they put us all on the same bill to just vote us all through, but that did not happen in my case."
During the SGA Senate meeting to confirm his seat, Morris's opponents cited a series of tweets through which he expressed his opinions about Black Lives Matter (BLM), gender, free speech and poverty to cast doubt on his ability to remain impartial in the position of Chief Justice.
He and the eight whose nominations were on the same bill were voted down together.
"They inadvertently voted everyone down," Morris said. "They forgot to make amendments just to write my name off of the bill and vote everyone else through, so I felt bad because all the other appointees for the judicial branch got voted down because of me."
Morris didn't let his first loss discourage him, however.
"I was crazy, and I decided to reapply," said Morris.
He received an appointment, this time as an Associate Justice.
After the initial hearing, Morris received much media attention and support from some student organizations, such as TPUSA.
"This time, lots of people knew about it," Morris said. "It was cool to see the Auburn family come around me and just support freedom of speech."
About SGA, Morris said it is "definitely more liberal than the student body," but said that this "is usually the norm for SGA's all around the nation."
Morris said that he felt no hard feelings between him and the SGA senators who voted him down the first time and praised SGA for changing course.
"Even the person who criticized me the most heavily and reported me and all that ... he is a brilliant young man," Morris said. "He is very smart. He has a bright future and [we] cannot disagree more heavily on policy and stuff."
At UAB, Dahale said conservatives usually don't get involved on campus, including UAB's Undergraduate Student Government Association (USGA).
"It's not even worth an attempt," Dahale said.
Not all conservatives reported negative experiences with non-conservative organizations on campus. Szczotka scheduled the first discussion between the College Republicans and the College Democrats at the University of Alabama on March 10.
"That relationship's sort of been frayed by the Trump administration," Szczotka said.
When he became chairman of College Republicans, one of his goals was to repair that relationship.
Stuckey said that his chapter at Auburn maintains a good relationship with the College Democrats and the libertarian group on campus.
According to Stuckey, most of the conflict facing College Republicans at Auburn comes from other conservative organizations.
"Up until this year, it had been us and then the College Democrats and then there was like a libertarian group, so I feel like it was a pretty even spread," Stuckey said.
Stuckey noted that new conservative organizations have been springing up on campus over the past year.
"There's two other Republican-related groups that are kind of stuck on Trump 2016-nostalgic politics which, personally, I don't think is very fitting in the political environment today," said Stuckey. "So, what we've had to do as a chapter is we've had to set ourselves apart from them."
Stuckey did not name the organizations.
"I think it's telling of the political divide we're in now, especially within the Republican party," Stuckey said. "You've got those who are very focused on the future and really goal-oriented, and then you've got some who are still kind of stuck on Trump, and kind of that ideology."
Morris said some conservative organizations at Auburn, TPUSA primarily, grew frustrated with the College Republicans after they refused to support him after he was voted down initially.
"Turning Point USA - that chapter - lots of them really supported me, and that's why they hate College Republicans," Morris said. "I never held it against them. I've never said anything mean to them. I don't want to. I have a great relationship with them."
Morris said YAF maintained a good relationship with College Republicans when he was chairman.
"I hate all this infighting," said Morris. "Let's try to unite and promote the conservative cause instead of just bickering amongst each other."
Szczotka said that though he's experienced a pretty even divide in the past at UA, most of his professors this semester are left of center.
"I have a history professor who's pretty outspokenly Democrat, pretty outspokenly pro-people like Carter and Biden and very opposed to President Trump, very vocally," Szczotka said.
However, he said that his professors have never made him do anything against his values or made him feel like his ideas weren't welcome. Szczotka shared an example of an environmental policy professor who is "very staunchly anti-Trump and left-of-center." Szczotka said he can still be very outspoken about his opinion in that class.
Kidd said many of his professors voice conservative opinions, and he hasn't had any extremely left-wing professors.
"I've had three criminal justice professors so far, and they've all been pretty conservative," Kidd said.
Kidd said his professors very rarely express their opinions in class.
At Auburn, Stuckey has only had one negative experience. He said his literature professor infused politics into the classroom when covering American literature before 1865.
"I thought it did a disservice to that part of history because it was a very skewed vision of history," Stuckey said.
Nevertheless, Stuckey said that he's never felt uncomfortable confronting a teacher or administrator about an issue.
"Teachers make it known that you should feel comfortable and you should feel valued whenever you give your opinion," Stuckey said.
Morris had something similar to say about his professors.
"They do a good job of staying balanced, staying fair and not asserting their personal agenda or trying to indoctrinate us," said Morris.
Morris said he's never had a negative experience with a professor. Still, some of his friends tell him they've had to write about things they disagree with, specifically in literature classes.
"I know a bunch of my friends will just blatantly write papers lying through their teeth about certain political issues or social issues that they just completely disagree on but they're just doing it for an A," said Morris. "It's just tough. After the SGA situation, I just tried to lay low and let it blow over."
Dahale said most of his professors at UAB were on the left but said that the trend is more robust in the humanities than STEM classes. He said whether or not professors express their opinions depends heavily on the class. In political science, professors express their opinion most days. In his honors program, Dahale said, "almost every lecture somehow correlates with politics and their personal opinions, which tend to be very one-sided."
Dahale feels comfortable sharing his opinion in class but said most students are afraid to speak against the "allowed consensus" on campus.
"They might talk about it quietly with one another, who they know," said Dahale. "It's like, 'oh my gosh, you're a conservative? Wow! Me too! Did you hear that thing they said? Wow! That was bad!' That's never out in public."
Most of the students we talked to felt their school's administrators are evenhanded.
Even following his conflict with SGA, Morris said that the problem is not with Auburn's administration and that they do everything they can do to protect free speech and not place any unfair burdens on conservative students.
Morris said the administration doesn't skew the other way either, and he doesn't want them to.
"If the administration was conservative and pushing all these conservative ideas - that, of course, I agree with - I don't think that'd be very wise because, you know, we want to be neutral like the FORUM Act calls us to be," said Morris.
Szczotka said he feels the faculty as a whole at the University of Alabama remains pretty even.
"I feel [less pressure sharing opinions with faculty but more pressure when I share opinions with fellow students], just given some of their opinions about conservative values," Szczotka said.
"I wouldn't say they have any prejudice against conservatives or anything," Kidd said about his administrators. "Not to my knowledge."
Kidd agreed that most of the backlash conservative students receive comes from a small group of students who have different opinions and are very outspoken about their beliefs.
"I think the University of Alabama does a great job with allowing students [to speak freely] and being able to offer students different platforms and organizations to get involved in, to kind of find their little niche on campus," Kidd said.
Even at UAB, Dahale affirmed that his school's administrators do their best to treat students fairly.
"They don't ever play to one side," Dahale said.
However, he said that sometimes students pressure them to move further left.
What could be better?
Most of the students we spoke to promised us that their universities are doing everything they can to make their campuses fair for conservative students. Some, however, suggest something needs to be done.
"It's an Auburn thing too that while you may have your own beliefs and you may vote for your own person at the end of the day, you're an Auburn student and you're there to learn at a really good institution," said Stuckey. "Auburn has been a really good place to be challenged personally, professionally and in my own political ideology."
"I don't think Auburn is the problem," said Morris. "I think self-censorship is the problem, and that is because students are just terrified of future employers or law schools or maybe possibly to an extent SGA and honors society rejecting them because of their conservative views."
Morris said that his fellow conservatives' fears aren't uncalled for.
"I can't blame them for taking the precautions they do because we've seen countless times people get canceled, people lose their jobs, people don't get a job offer, people don't get accepted to the law school they want," said Morris.
Szczotka said that the left unfairly labels young conservatives on campus as racist or xenophobic.
"That's a struggle I've had as a student who is a member of the College Republicans. I've lost friends because I'm a member of the College Republicans," said Szczotka.
"I think students are allowed to kind of have their own vocal opinion about what they kind of stand for," said Kidd. "Sometimes, there's always backlash between two different groups on campus. But, other than that, I think the University of Alabama [encourages free speech]."
Dahale said he thought the state's leaders should be more aware of the state's political divide on college campuses.
"I think we've fought our battle trying to make sure K-12 schools aren't full of critical race theory or gender theory," Dahale said. "These people are our next generation of Alabamians, our next doctors and lawyers and leaders. I think Alabamians and the Alabama Legislature should be a little bit worried at this point."