“My parents, before I came, said ‘keep your head down and don’t talk about politics,’” Josh Larson ’20 said about his first year at St. Olaf as a conservative student. He’s taken his parents’ advice to heart, and so have many of his conservative peers. Of the 12 students interviewed by the Manitou Messenger, several have been violently threatened because of their political beliefs, and almost all of them feel as though they can’t speak up about politics on campus – in class, online or with their friends.
According to a survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, colleges are becoming increasingly liberal. In 1990, 42 percent of professors identified as liberal, compared to 60 percent in 2014. Today, left-leaning professors outnumber conservative professors five to one. St. Olaf’s student population is no exception. In the 2016 general election, 82.18 percent of St. Olaf students who voted on campus cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, 10.33 percent voted for Donald Trump and Mike Pence and 5.03 percent voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. If these percentages reflect the ideological makeup of the student body, St. Olaf appears to mirror UCLA’s statistic: liberal students outnumber conservatives five to one.
In response to St. Olaf’s predominantly liberal campus, many conservative students choose to stay under the radar for fear of being cast out and misunderstood by their peers.
“A lot of people said the characteristics of the candidates were the characteristics of the voters,” Dawson Kremlacek ’20 said. “Conservatives didn’t want those labels. They didn’t want to be viewed differently.”
As a result, students will self-censor during class, even in discussion-based courses.
“I’m fine being political with a one-on-one discussion,” Larson said, “but when everyone else is liberal in the class … I keep my head down.”
Reagan Lundstrom Warner ’20 is a political science major who has “learned how to keep [her] mouth shut.” While faculty are encouraged to remain unbiased, she said that one of her professors used class time to expound upon personal views.
“[A professor] started every class with basically just ridiculing Trump for about 20 minutes,” Lundstrom Warner said. She plans to transfer to St. Thomas University next fall. Peter Linder ’20 had a similar experience.
“My professor is definitely liberal,” Linder said. “She makes a lot of cracks about Trump or sometimes seems outraged by his decision. So I’m not going to bring up my point of view and possibly bring down my grade.”
The 2016 general election and following inauguration brought politics to the forefront of student conversations. The St. Olaf College Republicans never endorsed Trump – the club’s window display explaining its position was torn down three times last spring – but club president Emily Schaller ’17 received pushback from both pro-Trump and anti-Trump groups. A Gustavus student on the board for Minnesota College Republicans pressured the group to canvass and phone bank for Trump throughout last summer and into fall. In late September, Schaller asked the student to stop contacting her.
Many conservative students felt that the campus became more hostile during election season, and some students received violent threats. On the night of the election, a student in the Pause threatened to beat up Schaller, calling her a “f***ing moron.” Over the next couple of days, she overheard multiple students threaten to hurt the next conservative or Republican they saw. Vice President of St. Olaf College Republicans Kathryn Hinderaker ’19 had a similar experience.
“I think one of the hardest things was, the second day, I went into Buntrock and someone yelled from the bottom, ‘if you voted for Trump, you better be f***ing scared.’ Everyone clapped and applauded,” Hinderaker said. “Obviously, it didn’t feel super safe.”
Former student Katie Ivance also felt unsafe in the days surrounding the election.
“The week around the election, right after, I could not go to class. I didn’t feel safe, I actually went home for awhile,” Ivance said. In her Spanish class, “people were like, ‘you’re awful, you’re racist, you’re this, you’re that,’” she said.
Ivance noted that the insults continued on social media.
“People were saying [things] like ‘F-you’ and ‘I wish you were dead,’” she said. Ivance isn’t the only one who has faced harassment online due to political beliefs. On Feb. 18, a student posted an unsolicited photo of a group of students that supposedly included Trump supporters and encouraged fellow students to “remember their faces.”
Ivance transferred to the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities after the fall semester, citing harassment as her primary reason for transferring.
“I didn’t want to keep myself in that situation,” she said. “I didn’t know how long it would last.”
St. Olaf’s administration has had many conversations with students about how to resolve and respect political differences.
“Listen. Don’t make assumptions. Be respectful. Put yourself in their shoes. Just as much as you want to passionately tell what you believe in, they want the same,” Associate Dean of Students for First Years and Seniors Tim Schroer said. Schroer also addressed how to handle conflict in the classroom.
“The first part of the protocol is probably the most difficult – and that is to speak to the professor,” he said. Typically, the situation improves after such discussions.
St. Olaf does not have a set protocol for handling social media disputes because the line between personal expression and harassment is unclear. Schroer calls arguments on Facebook a “no-win situation” and recommends “to be careful what you put out there.” During these online altercations, Schroer encourages students not to respond.
“The whole point of higher education is to be exposed to different things, and it doesn’t mean you change your beliefs. But if it helps strengthen your beliefs, we’ve done our job. Our job is not to tell you what you believe, but for you to know why you have the convictions that you have,” Schroer said. Adam Kaiser ’19 also encouraged campus to keep having tough political conversations.
“While many people here will treat you differently if you come out as conservative or libertarian, I really don’t want anyone to get the idea that we’re some oppressed minority group in need of special attention,” Kaiser said. “That would not only be plain incorrect, but also it engages in the same identity politics that already make it so hard to have constructive conversations about challenging issues. The solution shouldn’t be trying to protect conservatives from people and situations that would challenge them. I’d rather the college redirect any efforts that way towards promoting actual debate on issues.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Schaller filed a no contact order against a student. It has been corrected to say that Schaller informally asked the student to cease contact.