Professors debate partisanship in the classroom

By Liam Simes and Alessandro Maglione

The controversial presidential election of Donald Trump has sparked a vigorous backlash in the country, noticeably on college campuses, and in response, conservative groups have been condemning what they see as an attack on freedom of speech. Colby College professor Aaron Halon, in his New York Times op-ed “Advice for my Conservative Students”, acknowledges that, “exercising your voice is not forbidden, but it does take courage on a liberal campus. It won’t be easy and people will not always like you for it.” Halon  also adds, “You have a voice and ideas that people need to hear, but don’t compare disagreement with your ideas to suppression.” As a former conservative student at Bucknell University, Hanlon may understand the outlying position held by some conservative students better than most, but in a post-Trump election world, many new variables have emerged. The allegations concerning First Amendment abuses on predominantly liberal college campuses have sparked debates questioning the very fundamentals of our right to free speech by both sides.

Trump’s views during his campaign and some of his early policies as President have affected many fields of study beyond government and political science stretching to areas such as environmental studies. For Orange Coast College freshman Caleb O’Neil, the overextension of classroom political discussions was palpable when he walked into a human sexuality class.

When he felt discomforted by his professor’s anti-Trump tirade that included labeling his election ‘an act of terrorism,’ he decided to record the lecture on his phone. When the video was posted and went viral, O’Neil was handed a semester suspension and a handful of other penalties which, in part due to some conservative backlash, have since been revoked.

Regardless of whether or not the professor’s privacy rights surpassed O’Neil’s level of displeasure at what he felt was his voice being silenced (and a fear that his opinions would negatively affect his academic grades), the incident highlights the importance and relevance of this topic.

While the incident in California was notably extreme, it is easy to see how the line between purely objective and opinion-based lecturing, especially in college political courses, can be blurred. This delicate situation is evident here at Colby, where Government professors face this predicament on a regular basis and have adopted  fundamental views on how they should balance their personal political opinions with their teachings. Some professors note that the freshman students may be particularly malleable to their professors’ beliefs and therefore deserve an unbiased atmosphere where they can formulate their viewpoints. At the same time, a unique aspect of a small liberal arts college is the relationships students and professors can form and the subsequent personal discussions on the subject material that arise out of them.

For William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government L. Sandy Maisel, espousing his personal political beliefs in the classroom is a vital aspect of his teaching that removes any ambiguity. More specifically, he wants to do away with students attempting to guess and question him on his partisan leanings by being upfront with them: “I don’t want students spending the entire semester guessing what my partisanship is, so I lay it out right at the beginning,” Maisel said.

This viewpoint stands in stark contrast to that of his former colleague, retired Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government Cal Mackenzie who Maisel claims, “Maintain[s] that you should never reveal your partisanship or your views on any issues.”
However, Maisel is confident that he can distinguish between his personal value-based assessments and objective political analysis. “I don’t think that my partisan views, which are based on values that I feel strongly about, affect my analytical views on how political parties work or how the American government works,” Maisel said.

Harriet S. Wiswell and George C. Wiswell Jr. Associate Professor of American Constitutional Law Joseph R. Reisert, takes an alternative approach to that of Professor Maisel, aligning himself closer to Mackenzie. When faced with the question of whether or not he thinks government professors should keep their political bias out of the classroom Reisert promptly answered: “of course I do.”

On a fundamental level, Reisert believes that political bias in classrooms is highly dependent on what class the professor is teaching. He trusts that at Colby, Government professors (including himself) structure their lectures on debates they find meaningful while acknowledging that “Where you stand politically does shape what debates you think are meaningful.” He personally structures his classes “to do justice to the normative arguments on both sides.” While also explaining “In general, I don’t want to talk about current affairs unless there is a really clear connection to what is on the syllabus. Where there is I do, and where there isn’t I don’t.”

In his Introduction to Political Theory class, he did not mention the recent election, and in Modern Conservatism, he states “We did talk for ten minutes or so about what Trump’s election means for the evolution of the conservative party.”

The nation’s current political calendar has proven to be unique in many ways, and professors have been left to figure out how to navigate their classrooms in light of this. On the uniqueness of this presidential election and his classroom values, Maisel said, “This year was much more challenging for me because not only was I a Democrat, not only did I favor Secretary Clinton, but I also felt for the first time in my entire life that the Republican party candidate for president didn’t meet the basic levels that I thought a candidate should have.”

Maisel recognizes this dilemma and is aware of times when he has personally made commanding remarks in the classroom on the nation’s politics: “What does it say when an authority figure in the front of the class says something that strongly to an introductory class, but more than that, to twenty freshmen for whom it was the first class?”

It is only through recognizing and being upfront about these predicaments that an inclusive atmosphere can be fostered where all voices are heard and none are suppressed. “It’s a fine line that all of us understand we have to walk,” Maisel said.

However, in such a charged political climate, fostering an inclusive atmosphere requires the work of both students and professors alike. When questioned on how he felt other classes encourage political open mindedness, Maisel said, “You have to work hard to do it but I don’t think it’s because of faculty in this department, I think it’s because of other students in this department.”

Government and Economics major Nick Rosenbger ’17: “I think students bring a lot of energy and passion to the classroom. In some classes, especially in the Government department, we discuss topics that connect to deep emotional and political issues. Regardless of our personal feelings, we all have to try to keep an academic and analytical perspective, and I think professors are in the position of authority to promote that idea.”

Students have also noted differences in atmosphere in different departments. Government major and Philosophy minor Patrick McCarthy ’17 noted that, “the [Government] professors handle themselves in a more professional manner than what I’ve seen in other departments, but the recent election has been a challenge since the current administration has been so critical of established political science.”

Political bias on college campuses has and will remain as long as conflicting ideology exists. On the political atmosphere of Colby, Reisert notes, “If Jeb Bush were president there still would have been mourning on the Campus.” On primarily liberal campuses, such as Colby, it is necessary for conservative students to follow the advice of Professor Hanlon, as laid out in his New York Times op-ed, to “Take the tremendous opportunity of a college education to sharpen your skills and deepen your knowledge. Read Edmund Burke, Matthew Arnold, Russell Kirk, Thomas Sowell, Michael Oakeshott and Peggy Noonan. Acknowledge arguments you disagree with on their own terms, and respond to their substance.” If students do this, regardless of their partisanship, they cannot be silenced.