Political Ideology and Expression on Campus

by Lauren Ratliff

Colleges are entrusted not only with the education of future leaders but also with the de- velopment of civically engaged citizens. Among many other things, colleges aim to shape students’ political beliefs, encourage them to explore ideas and challenge perspectives, and provide them with opportunities for honest dialogue around many of the political issues facing the world today. Public college campuses should be places that encourage political dialogue and discussion and, more importantly, where all ideologies are respected.

Thanks to the 2010 Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey,*  we now have a snapshot of student political leanings at The University of Texas at Austin and whether those students feel free to express their political beliefs on campus. It is often supposed that Texas students are more conservative than their national peers, but that a liberal bias pervades college campuses in general. Do these speculations hold up to the evidence?

According to the 2010 SERU, there is indeed a greater percentage of students that report identifying as conservative on the UT-Austin campus compared with other campuses across the country. However, at UT-Austin there are still more students identifying as liberal than conservative, and a plurality of students reported identifying with moderates.

Translated into partisanship, a plurality of UT-Austin students considered themselves Democrats – 40% – and a minority considered themselves Republican – 27%. Nationally, 51% of students considered themselves Democrats and 15% considered themselves Republicans. Nationally and at UT-Austin, 34% of students considered themselves as Independent or Other. Independents at UT-Austin lean more toward the Democratic Party than the Republican Party – 63% versus 38%, compared to 74% and 25% nationally.

The 2010 SERU asked students whether they feel free to express their political beliefs on campus. A higher percentage of UT-Austin students either strongly agreed or agreed with this statement than their na- tional peers – 69% compared to 62%. Yet, both at UT-Austin and nationally, the extent to which students feel free to express their political beliefs on campus varies according to political orientation and partisan affiliation. Also, while conservative students reported feeling more marginalized than their liberal peers, the strength of this difference varies greatly between UT-Austin and the nation. Students who identified themselves as con- servatives are less likely to agree than those students who identified themselves as liberals that they feel free to express their political beliefs on campus, but conservative students at UT-Austin are more likely than conservative students nationally to strongly agree that they feel free to express these beliefs.

In conclusion, although most students reported that their political orientation is moderate, of those remaining, more students reported being liberal than conservative. UT-Austin students identified more with con- servatives than their national peers. On average, the majority of students around the nation feel free to express their political beliefs on campus, although conservatives are less likely to agree with this than their liberal peers. UT-Austin students feel freer to express themselves politically than students at peer institutions.

*In 2010, The University of Texas at Austin participated in a pilot administration of the Student Experience in the Re- search University (SERU) survey. The SERU is a survey administered by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California-Berkeley. All undergraduate students who were enrolled at UT-Austin last spring were eligible to take the SERU, and we received an approximate 21% response rate (N=7,365). However, because only 15% of students persisted through the whole instrument, the response rate is lower for some items than for others. In all cases, UT-Austin students are compared to students’ at all nine undergraduate campuses of the University of California system, Rutgers University, University of Florida, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, University of Minnesota, University of Oregon, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Lauren Ratliff graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in May 2010 with a degree in government and English. She currently works as a Research Associate at the university and in the Fall of 2010 will begin the polticial science Ph.D. program at The Ohio State University. She plans to study political parties and look more closely at why and how party change occurs.