“Colleges are becoming too leftist.”
It’s not uncommon that you’ll hear some variation of this refrain from a disgruntled family member at the dinner table or a desperate right-wing talk show host. In some groups, especially those of aging conservatives, there does seem to be a popular consensus that college students, as well as faculty and the institutions themselves, are waging a steady march to the left. Much like a game of “telephone,” however, reality has a way of distorting when it gets passed around an in-group.
What’s unclear about these accusations of colleges as bastions of leftism is exactly what the critics mean by “left-wing” or “leftist.” Like most political positions, leftism is easier to identify than it is to define. For the sake of brevity, I’ll be operating under a working definition of leftism as a category of political tendencies with key critiques of capitalism, imperialism, racial supremacy, patriarchy and other socially-constructed hierarchies. This can include less radical tendencies such as social democracy, which seeks to implement greater economic democracy through the existing political structures (elections, legislation and so forth), to revolutionary tendencies like anarchism or communism, which opt to overthrow the existing political economic order to build a new, more equitable one.
To put it all together, if your critique of the imperialist invasion of Iraq is that it violently pitted the racism, Islamophobia and jingoism of Americans against a sovereign nation to secure natural resources for the ruling class, this constitutes a structural, full-bodied leftist critique. If your concern about this war is that there weren’t enough soldiers from marginalized backgrounds, this is not left-wing, as it does not tie together the many threads of oppression at play in this catastrophic event. Leftism looks at phenomena as a whole as opposed to in isolation.
That being said, colleges have historically been the sites of left-leaning movements, from the wave of anti-war protests during the Vietnam War to the fight against climate change. They provide a nominally-welcoming environment for students to embrace their gender and sexual identity, culture and political alignment, which may otherwise be erased by polite (see: bourgeois, white supremacist, heteropatriarchal society). Instructors — typically those in the social sciences — are often outspoken supporters of liberatory, vaguely left-wing movements. At the least, they’re vocally opposed to bald-faced oppression from people in power. (Is the fact this is a red flag for some students a cause for concern?). Institutional authorities like the office for diversity and Inclusion are now commonplace at institutions of higher learning. But these do not indicate colleges are moving to the left by any means.
American universities have been leaning into a neoliberal financial model that bleeds huge sums of money from all students, but disproportionately from students of marginalized backgrounds — namely Black and Brown students and students from poor, working class families. The cost of attending college is now higher than ever, increasing at nearly five times the rate of inflation. Furthermore, the steepening student debt crisis is rendering students and their families unable to pay back the massive student loans required to fund higher education. A report by the Brookings Institution projects by 2023, 40 percent of families will default on their student loans. The prioritization of profit (though not in name) over students’ ability to receive a quality education without jeopardizing their financial security has an adverse effect on the attendance of students of color, as fewer than ever are willing to risk financial stability. No serious person can claim that this model remotely reflects what the left wants.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion programs paint a thin veneer of social justice over institutions whose entire financial edifice prevents marginalized peoples from reaping the benefits of a university education. Humanities courses that pose legitimate criticisms of U.S. imperialism and militarism turn superficial in the shadow of programs like the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency — a research division of the Defense Department that enlists poorly-compensated university researchers in the development of military technologies.
Perhaps the most troubling for student activists with genuine intentions of making their universities more equitable and socially just is the sheer attitude of student apathy of. Although this is hardly the fault of individuals who are educated within a status quo that desperately tries to propagandize its own worth in front of a backdrop of climate collapse and racial and economic inequality across the globe, it is a discouraging indication that colleges are far from being institutions of egalitarianism and sustainability.
Images of protests and emotional students hardly influence this bleak reality of colleges as a reflection of the unequal class society in which we live. The factions who insist universities are moving to the far-left are concerned with aesthetics over substance, which further cleaves political divisions in America by portraying student activists as thoughtless, inhuman images.
Rifts such as that endemic to the political atmosphere in America are naturally exacerbated when the opposition is stripped of its reasoning and agency. This makes aligning with causes like lowering the cost of attending college or halting investments in the fossil fuel industry less appealing to those who are afraid to associate with the “blue hair and pronouns” boogeyperson. Sticking to your principles is doubtlessly important. However, it can put everyone at risk to “ally” with people who advocate for structural or individual violence against marginalized groups, and being intellectually incurious enough to confine huge sects of society to a caricature prevents us from finding those with whom we share a common cause (which would allow us to engage in a mutually beneficial dialogue). Colleges are not, in fact, left-wing, but it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if they were.