In late 2015, the University of Missouri was wracked by protests demanding the resignation of the school’s president in light of his perceived failure to address racist incidents on campus. The demonstrations quickly gained national attention, and, when the school’s football team joined in, they were successful.
Since then, as the New York Times reported Monday, the school has stumbled. In the two years after those protests, enrollment has dropped by more than 35 percent. The new president of the system blames those demonstrations, which both drew attention to the school’s problems while likely making other students leery of attending a university saturated with protests.
The damage from strife on college campuses, though, may have been wider than that. Since 2015, as attention has been focused by conservative media on tensions at universities, views of higher education as an institution have plummeted among Republicans.
That’s the finding of a new survey from Pew Research released on Monday. It asked respondents if they viewed various institutions as having a net positive or net negative effect on the country. For no institution was the gulf between Democrats and Republicans wider than on the role of colleges and universities — wider even than the gap on the national news media.
This is a new development. As recently as 2015, most Republicans agreed that the effect of colleges was a positive one. Since then, that percentage has plunged, though views among Democrats have remained consistent.
Now, more than half of Republicans think that colleges and universities have a negative effect on our culture.
Only among moderate Republicans was the annual drop in views of the role of colleges not consistent. Among younger Republicans, views of the effect of higher education sank by 21 points since 2015, though among every subset of that population, views dropped by at least 10 points.
Why? Certainly in part because conservative media focused its attention on the idea of “safe spaces” on college campuses, places where students would be sheltered from controversial or upsetting information or viewpoints. This idea quickly spread into a broader critique of left-wing culture, but anecdotal examples from individual universities, such as objections to scheduled speakers and warnings in classrooms, became a focal point.
Google searches for “safe spaces” were basically nonexistent before the end of 2015; by 2016 and into 2017, they were much more common.
We can’t definitively say that it was this focus on the perceived cultural elitism of colleges and universities that so dramatically shifted Republicans’ perceptions of the institution. That decline in confidence, though, clearly overlaps with a period during which attention was drawn to college campuses by conservative media.
At the University of Missouri, the repercussions of that campus tension were tangible. Pew’s polling suggests that the short-term effects on our politics may be as well.