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More Republicans think negatively about higher ed

Posted: July 12, 2017 | Tags: education

Earlier this year, protesters at the University of California, Berkeley transformed the school’s lively campus hub, Sproul Plaza, into a battleground — seriously, some actually called the fallout the “Battle of Berkeley.”

This fight had national consequences and, for a time, made UC Berkeley the front lines of something Washington Post columnist Daniel Drezner dubbed “The War on College:” an increasingly hostile opinion of higher education. Even President Trump, then newly-inaugurated, weighed in.

“The Battle of Berkeley” and subsequent campus strife at Middlebury College and Evergreen State College were harbingers of what Drezner called the “widening partisan split in attitudes about universities.” Earlier this week, Pew Research Center published a report that illustrates this divide in stark terms: For the first time since Pew began tracking it, a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58 percent) now say these institutions “have a negative effect on the country.” That’s compared to 72 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners who say colleges and universities have a positive impact.

The Pew study noted that, for the public at-large, a majority of people (55 percent) still think positively of higher education, yet the sharp increase in negativity on the right is still startling. 

“The survey finds that Republicans’ attitudes about the effect of colleges and universities have changed dramatically over a relatively short period of time,” the report stated. 

Conservative commentators have long identified reasons why Republicans are souring on higher education. Writing shortly after the 2016 election, Washington Post columnist George Will pointed to academia’s elitism as a force that may have galvanized Trump voters. Will underlines his point in his last two, withering sentences: 

Institutions of supposedly higher education are awash with hysteria, authoritarianism, obscurantism, philistinism and charlatanry. Which must have something to do with the tone and substance of the presidential election, which took the nation’s temperature.

After the Pew report was released, Jason Willick echoed Will’s sentiments in the conservative magazine, The American Interest.

“The reason for the collapse is clear,” Willick wrote. “Over the past few years, left-wing activism on college campuses has reached a level of intensity not seen since at least the “canon wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and possibly not since the countercultural movements of the 1960s.”

These negative feelings, according to Pew, hold true across demographic and ideological groups in the Republican Party. From 2015 to 2017, the number of Republicans and Republican leaners with positive views of colleges and universities declined, regardless of age, level of education and degree of conservatism. Republicans aged 50 and younger saw the largest decline in positivity, at 21 points — even though the youngest Republicans polled, those 18 to 29 years old, have generally more positive views of higher education than their peers.

In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Alison Kadlec, a vice president for the nonpartisan advocacy group Public Agenda, said this report and these numbers raised several questions. Perhaps this perceived “liberal bias” is the reason for the decline, she said, but there could also be other explanations: 

“Are these attitudes more an expression of backlash against rising cost of college and student debt load, and the accompanying belief that colleges are businesses that care more about their bottom line than students (as we’ve found in our research),” she wrote. “Or is this about the rise of an emboldened anti-intellectualism in the wake of the last presidential election?”

Whatever the cause, colleges and universities now share in a dubious distinction: as some of the most divisive national institutions. The only other institution that, according to Pew, divides Americans more? The national news media. 

In the last year, the partisan gap in approval of the media has also widened. But, here, it’s the left that accounts for the change, as 44 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners now think the national news media has a positive effect on the way things are going in the country. This is an 11-point increase over last year’s 33 percent of Democrats. The increase in positivity is particularly profound among those on the left who are more than 50 years old. 

As the Pew report pointed out, these numbers simply add more weight to what Americans have all felt in recent years: The left and the right are moving further apart. 

“Republicans and Democrats offer starkly different assessments of the impact of several of the nation’s leading institutions,” the report noted. ”And in some cases, the gap in these views is significantly wider today than it was just a year ago.”

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