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On a campus that is so politically left-leaning, conservatives at Penn struggle to find a stable community.

Credit: Alex Graves

For conservative-identifying students at Penn, being in the minority is something they are familiar with.

American universities, especially the Ivies, have a history of being generally more left-leaning political environments. For students who lean more to the right at Penn, this liberal political environment has various implications on their lives as college students, especially for those who are heavily involved in the conservative dialogue on campus.

"You need a spark. You need something. This campus needs a spark to make the conservatives be a part of it" — Samantha Shea

“Penn as a whole I feel is very liberal, at least at the undergrad level ... but I also think that’s across all Ivy Leagues,” Wharton sophomore and former treasurer of the College Republicans Samantha Shea said. Shea, who is looking to join the Statesman, which is “the only conservative or right-leaning publication at the University of Pennsylvania,” according to its website, believes that the conservative community at Penn is a very small group that needs to be mobilized.

Searching for a place in the classroom

For such a small population on campus, mobilization is an even bigger problem for conservatives who feel that their views are not fairly or accurately represented in the classroom. With a faculty reflective of the liberal majority at Penn, some conservative students feel that their political views have been challenged in classroom settings by students and faculty alike.

After sitting in a class for the semester, although she cannot say for certain whether a professor is a Democrat or a Republican, Shea believes that students can oftentimes infer which way a professor leans.

“It happened to me last year in my writing seminar class. I was one of three Republicans in the class, and you could definitely tell when the professor would argue your arguments a little more ... just because you were conservative.” While Shea emphasized that her grades were not affected by this gap, she said she was instead forced to “think deeper.”

“You could definitely tell the professor was more left-leaning than right-leaning,” Shea said.

College senior and former president of the College Republicans Will Cassidy feels that as a mathematical economics major, his classes generally “have not a general political overtone,” but that he has had negative experiences with several classes outside of his major.

“I had this anthropology class last semester with a TA who I liked personally, but he was just so far to the left that it was kind of funny,” Cassidy said. “If they are so overtly political, where you just feel like on the first day that they’re trying to shove a political viewpoint down your throat, I typically just drop the class.”

While Cassidy ultimately decided to remain in the class for the rest of the semester, he noted that the TA’s commentary in class was often biased to the point of making Cassidy uncomfortable.

“I think that people seem to forget that a university is a place where the change of ideas is at the very heart of what we do" — Varun Menon (Photo by Julia Pan)

As a history major, College senior Varun Menon believes that although there are members of the department who identify strongly either left or right, he has had “really good experience with professors facilitating good dialogue,” Menon said.

Though conservative students have mixed reviews of certain classes, for political science professor Marc Meredith, facilitating good discussion in his Introduction to American Politics class is very important in making sure that students of all political affiliations feel welcome.

“We have a discussion on the first day of class to respect others’ views,” Meredith said.

Meredith acknowledged that at Penn, conservative students are in the minority, and as a result are less likely to speak their views in class. Because of this, he instructs his TAs in recitation sections to encourage students to acknowledge opposing viewpoints and argue the merits of these arguments.

“One of my goals is to do the best that I can to acknowledge my own biases to the class, but I also try to present things as neutral as possible,” Meredith said.

Spectrums across schools

Although within the entire undergraduate community conservative students are the minority, the disparity is not the same within the various undergraduate schools.

According to a 2012 Daily Pennsylvanian poll, “of the four undergraduate schools, Wharton had the highest portion of likely Republican voters at 30.1 percent. The College had the highest percent of likely Democratic voters at 56.8 percent. Four hundred forty-three students likely to vote answered this question.”

“Wharton, they are more conservative than the College in my opinion ... to me, I would just rationalize it by its business, and a lot of people who are Republican, at least why I am Republican, is for the business stance,” Shea said.

However, while students believe that as a whole Wharton is stereotypically more conservative than the College, they notice a spectrum of different political beliefs in the more liberal College, potentially correlated with a student’s course of study.

“I think the programs of study reveal a lot about the orientation of the students or the person who is involved. Obviously, Wharton being the business school has more affinity to conservative ideas that revolve around the free market,” Menon said.

“I think you can also look at what people study in the College as well ... You can look at the major and tell what the orientation of the individual may be based off of what they study,” he added.

Menon cited majors such as sociology as having quite a liberal basis, meanwhile he, with his experience as a history major, believes that those who study history are more receptive to ideas of conservatism.

Liberal students in Wharton are faced with another interesting dynamic.

“A lot of the conservatives I have spoken to on campus are intelligent conservatives,” Wharton senior Matthew Caulfield, who identifies as a “die-hard liberal,” said, discussing the interactions he deals with each day as part of his Wharton education as a liberal.

“I think its so cool to be liberal but be confronted with conservative ideas that are different than the mainstream media as part of my Wharton education,” Caulfield said.

Although Caulfield agrees that Wharton is more conservative than the College as a group, he feels that his school is also apolitical in a sense, noting that not many “Whartonites are involved with political groups on campus.”

Lacking a spark

Discussions of inclusion on campus for conservatives extend well beyond the classroom.

In 2012, Menon co-created the Government and Politics Association because he felt that “the political environment at Penn was not active enough in terms of promoting civic and political action, but also because we didn’t believe it was balanced enough and didn’t allow people to represent all of the views of people on campus.”

Menon now feels optimistic about how the political environment at Penn has changed since he founded the GPA and how it might change in the future.

“I think that people seem to forget that a university is a place where the change of ideas is at the very heart of what we do,” Menon said, “I’m very optimistic about the direction we are headed in at this university.”

But other conservatives feel that while these changes have facilitated greater dialogue, the conservative community on campus remains disorganized and divided.

During her involvement with the College Republicans, Shea secured $20,000 for the College Republicans through the Young America’s Foundation. Also known as YAF, the foundation is “the principal outreach organization of the Conservative movement,” according to its website. However, her work with YAF prompted Shea to ask the question, “Why don’t we have these things at this campus?”

Unlike other college campuses, where YAF and other strong conservative organizations are more present, Shea was frustrated by the lengths she had to go to in order to find funding and support for conservatism at Penn.

“I feel that we do not have these things at this university because there are not enough students to take part, and when there is, no one wants to do anything,” Shea said, expressing dissatisfaction with the lack of unity in the conservative movement at Penn.

“There’s not enough things to do on this campus. There’s not enough spark in the conservatives here. You need a spark. You need something. This campus needs a spark to make the conservatives be a part of it,” Shea said.

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