Situated in the middle of redder-than-red Tennessee, many have always perceived Vanderbilt to be a conservative university. But according to a joint survey by the Vanderbilt Hustler and the Vanderbilt Political Review of 816 undergraduates, nowadays the average Vanderbilt student is liberal, approves of the Obama presidency and supports both abortion rights and Obamacare. As primary election season heats up across the country, here’s a look at the results and analysis of our poll of the campus political landscape.
A liberal student body
When given a 7-point scale (1 being most liberal and 7 being most conservative), 57.2 percent of Vanderbilt students self-identified as liberal, whereas less than a third identified as conservative. This is compared to the 50.4 percent of students who identified as liberal in 2012.
Political science professor Marc Hetherington was surprised at this year’s large liberal result.
“The one thing that I was surprised by was how liberal the campus scores on these items,” Hetherington said. “My experience with teaching here, although again I do think the campus has been moving slightly left over time, is that the mix of people who are conservative and liberal is pretty even. Liberals came out so much higher.”
Professor Bruce Oppenheimer, also of the political science department, agreed.
“Based on my own classes, I would think that there would be more Republicans and more conservatives, although I don’t know whether those classes are typical,” Oppenheimer said.
Students seemed somewhat split on whether they were surprised. Some, such as junior Lane Underdahl, didn’t expect that the poll results would show a student body that leans liberal.
“I guess I would have thought that Vanderbilt is probably more conservative than some other highly-ranked universities,” Underdahl said.
Several freshmen and transfers in their first semester felt that Vanderbilt was conservative-leaning. Sophomore Cole Smith, a transfer from Davidson University, felt that like Davidson, Vanderbilt is a conservative institution.
“This is my first semester. Generally, from my own experience, it’s a little conservative-leaning,” Smith said.
However, others, such as sophomore Austin Channel, thought that the survey accurately reflected Vanderbilt’s political climate.
“It’s probably about what I thought it was,” Channel said. “Especially as you get into more and more competitive universities, they tend to lean more to the left.”
Sophomore Eli Byerly-Duke was also unsurprised that the university was left-leaning, but thought the low number of moderates was notable.
“I think it’s interesting that we have such a small group of people who call themselves moderates. I think that’s more honest,” Byerly-Duke said.
Vanderbilt has historically been known as a conservative campus, but professors and students alike have noticed Vanderbilt’s political ideology slowly shifting to the left over the years.
“I’ve been here 20 years, and when I first started teaching here the student body was probably 60-40 Republican. I don’t have any data for that, but that’s a ballpark,” said John Geer, political science professor and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll, a separate survey analyzing public opinion for the state of Tennessee and the city of Nashville.
Professor Vereen Bell, who has been teaching in the English department for 40 years, reports that the changing demographics of the university have elicited this change.
“It was mainly identified as a southern, white university that people were collectively unembarrassed to think of themselves as conservative Republicans,” Bell said. “That changed over that period of time. I’m sure that Vietnam had something to do with it. I’m sure that the diversification of the student body had to do with it. What had a whole lot to do with it was that people are coming here from different parts of the country.”
Tennessee is a red state, and while Vanderbilt has historically attracted southern, conservative students it is increasingly receiving applications from students from all corners of the U.S. and the world.
Hetherington says the increased liberal presence on campus stems from Vanderbilt’s changing demographics. He said liberal students score highly in the personality characteristic “open to experience,” while conservatives score higher in conscientiousness. This openness to experience corresponds to where students have grown up. As Vanderbilt has drawn in more students from the east and west coasts and inner cities, the university has attracted a more liberal demographic.
“Those places, especially cities, where at least the parents are more likely to have high openness to experience [because] they are around the urbanness of what goes on in city life. When the school was more of a southern school with more of a regional bent to it, more students would have been high in conscientiousness, coming from communities that take the preservation of traditions and values particularly seriously,” Hetherington said.
Geer said that Vanderbilt’s political ideology could have changed because a Democratic president is in power. While the Gore-Bush and Kerry-Bush election splits were pretty even, he witnessed a large shift in campus political ideology when Obama ran for president.
“There was a big tilt. But that was a reflection of the changing demographics of the student body, but because also young people liked Obama,” Geer said.
The Vanderbilt Poll of Tennesseans, released last week, reported that 36 percent of their sample approved of Obama. In our similar survey of the student body, Vanderbilt’s approval was nearly double that of the state, ranking in at a 63.4 percent approval rate.
Hetherington said that undergraduate students have been socialized growing up to lean more to the left.
“My sense is that we’ve seen, as the profile of Vanderbilt students has changed over time to be a more national university, that has been in the thing in combination to Obama’s relative success and Bush’s lack of success, has created a set of this distribution of political orientations,” Hetherington said.
Friend groups have similar ideologies
Participants were asked to rate their friends’ ideologies. To measure the degree of shared ideology, the ratings of friends’ ideologies was subtracted from people’s self-identified ideologies. The majority of responses (and subtractions) equated to 0, indicating most participants said that they shared similar ideologies with their friends.
“We find that in real life a lot,” Oppenheimer said. “People tend to be friendly, tend to marry people with the same political values themselves. They tend to live near people who have similar political preferences. We do tend to cluster, but then again that can be partly based on associations. What else do you do? There may be other reasons for your friendship which may be related to clubs you’re on, religious groups you’re in, activities, where you are from, or it can be your political preferences directly.”
Hetherington said that these similarities in political ideologies all stem from shared personality characteristics. People tend to conglomerate with those whose personalities are similar to theirs. Those who value tradition often group together, and those who want to challenge order and predictability aggregate together.
“Back when the dominant debate in politics was how big the government ought to be, personality didn’t have a lot to do with it,” Hetherington continued. “But now that the political divide is about things like gay and transgender rights, racial attitudes, immigration, which of course has difference as far as ethnicity is concerned at its core, what has developed out of that is a politics where our personalities are so much more important to our political identities.”
Political ideology correlates with VSG presidential vote
Although VSG presidential elections are entirely nonpartisan, the survey showed that the more conservative you were, the more likely you were to vote for the current president and vice president, Lizzy Shahnasarian and Jay King. Conversely, the more liberal you were, the more likely you were to vote for the runners-up in the election, Katherine Nash and Safiah Hassan. The survey found that 3/4 of participants who identified as very conservative voted for Lizzy and Jay, and 3/4 of people who were very liberal voted for Katherine and Safiah.
Shahnasarian and Nash declined to comment, and professors weren’t familiar enough with the campaigns to offer explanations for the correlation.
“The bottom line being that even though this decision has nothing to do with national politics, it appears to have everything to do with national politics,” Hetherington said. “Which brings up — whatever divides us politically, these days, from left to right is really really powerful. It’s even structuring our decisions about student government elections.”
Vanderbilt College Democrats President Jacob Graham said that he thought the candidates’ differing emphasis on diversity influenced which demographic vote they attained.
“I think that Katherine and Safiah’s campaign was really focused on diversity as kind of the number one priority,” Graham said. “Lizzy and Jay were certainly focused on diversity as well … but it was kind of a diversity among other things. I think that sends a hidden partisan message, partisan is the wrong word, there but that’s a demographic that is going to respond to that message differently.”
Greek males most conservative
The survey revealed Greek affiliation often corresponds with conservative political ideology. Greek men are the most conservative, and non-Greek women are the most liberal.
“That makes sense. In the public, women are more Democratic. They’re more liberal. That’s true broadly, and that’s being reflected here as well,” Geer said.
Hetherington said the Greek vs. non-Greek affiliation, and its connection to political views, has to do with personality characteristics.
“A lot of divide in American politics being about tradition, and one’s orientation towards traditional affiliations and things along those lines, and I think that would be an extension of that. The Greek system is a traditional set of affiliations, and those who value those types of traditions, and those things that go along with it more, will on average tend to be a little more conservative than those who want to challenge those venerable traditions will be less likely to be Greek,” Hetherington said.
Professors’ ideologies, and their effects on students
Students were asked to rate their professors’ ideologies on the same 1-7 scale. 39.6 percent of participants placed their Vanderbilt professors as a 3, slightly left of center.
Geer shook his head when he saw these statistics.
“They think the faculty are more conservative than students,” Geer laughed. “That’s just not true!”
Hetherington agreed with that sentiment.
“I’m surprised that the placement of the average professor isn’t even further to the left than it is, because at least in the social sciences and the humanities, the professor is overwhelmingly liberal. That’s the fact,” Hetherington said.
Junior Andrea Concaildi said that she perceived many of her professors to be liberal.
“Most of my professors who have stated their beliefs have tried to try to sway towards liberalism. I tend to go towards liberalism anyway. So it’s interesting. And now I’m like, ‘Are those my beliefs?’ I never really hear (advocacy) from the other side of the story. And I’m sure both deserve equal presence,” she said.
As Concaildi suggested, Hetherington said faculty ideologies can affect students’ views.
“Is it possible? Yeah. But it’s important to keep in mind that faculty are not writing on a blank slate. Most students come to college with some ideas about politics already. It’s not like we’re providing information in a vacuum. So while I think that it’s definitely possible for faculty members to effect the opinions of the students, I think the effect is unlikely to be particularly large,” Hetherington said.
Geer agreed, and said assumptions that faculty are indoctrinating their students are untrue.
“It underestimates the intelligence of the students. I’m suddenly going to convince you to be a liberal, when you’re conservative? And vice versa? No way! You’ve thought about this a little bit, you have your opinions. You’re among the best students in the country. You’re here. It overestimates the influence of the faculty and underestimates the ability of the students,” Geer said.
The political survey also found that the more liberal students were, the more conservative they considered their professors. Conversely, the more conservative students were, the greater liberal bias they perceived their instructors.
Religion and political ideology
The survey results showed self-identified Christians tended to be more conservative, while Jewish, Muslim and other faiths tended to lean more liberal. Mark Forrester, the University Chaplain, questioned these results, saying that it is hard to speak for an entire religion.
“Any religious group is very diverse within the definition of that religion, meaning that no particular religion is monolithic,” Forrester said.
Forrester believes that political ideologies within a group vary by the issue discussed.
“For instance, I find a lot of Christian groups as well as our Jewish groups, and our fastest growing religious minority on campus, our Muslim students, I find that there is a whole lot of social engagement that to me indicates a progressivist understanding of what they need to do in the world to make it a better place. If you talk to them about other facets of their political and ideological outlooks, they may have a fairly conservative economic [philosophy],” he said.
Self-identified liberal Vanderbilt students were more likely to say they were “very” liberal, while conservatives were more likely to call themselves “moderately” conservative.
“To say they are ‘very’ something, such as liberal or conservative, is to endorse the positive association with that label,” Hetherington said. “If you’re only willing to say you’re moderately conservative, you’re really not embracing the label in the same way as liberals seem to be embracing it when they say ‘very liberal.’ And that does make sense to me insofar as younger people, in an essentially affluent campus, tend to be more liberal, especially on the social and lifestyle issues that are more important to young people.”
Both Hetherington and Bell were surprised the extent to which students owned the label “liberal.” Bell said that historically, “liberal” has been branded with negative connotations.
“Calling your opponent a liberal is like calling them a pedophile or something. It’s not a good classification of terms attached to the political opposition,” Bell said.
Claire Deaver, president of College Republicans, said that the word “conservative” often gets a bad rap now. Because so many students claim to be liberal, others are not as quick to own a conservative identity.
“When people [ask], ‘Are you liberal?’ or, ‘Are you conservative?’ people are very proud to say, ‘I’m very liberal’ because that’s what a lot of other people are, or at least perceived to be,” Deaver said. “So if you’re going to be conservative, you have to, at least you figure, to be moderate conservative because otherwise people label you as, you know, ‘you’re a bigot, you’re a racist, you’re homophobic’ all of this stuff that’s not true.”
Deaver said she has witnessed liberal biases especially with public debates on Facebook, where her peers are overwhelmingly liberal. Deaver says the common proliferation of these liberal ideas has caused the campus to shift further left.
“I think that’s the problem with our campus, that there’s a silent majority, or at least a silent half of conservatives, who are conservatives that don’t want to say anything about their views. I see so many liberal posts on Facebook all the time… I would say everyone is liberal based on the posts. If I didn’t have political views, I’d [think that] everyone’s liberal, [and that] they must be right,” she said.
Sophomore Erin Euliano said she has observed that liberals tend to be very vocal at Vanderbilt.
“I would say that people who are most vocal are left-leaning. I only hear from the people who speak up, so I don’t know how many people don’t speak up because they disagree,” she said.
Embracing political differences
The VPR poll elucidated the overall trends in the university’s political landscape. Though students were generally regarded as liberal, there was notably lots of diversity within the tested population.
“The survey says that you tend to have friends with the same ideology, but it also shows that people have plenty of friends that aren’t the same ideology,” Graham said. “And I think that’s the beauty of the college campus. In college you get rid of that uniformity, you get rid of that homogeneity. The College Democrats always like working with the College Republicans. It’s fun.”
Forrester acknowledges that students engage in political discourse on campus, but wondered about the extent to which these discussions manifested themselves in action.
“Students are more than happy to state their beliefs, but I don’t think there is a very high level of political engagement, participating in elections for instance. I would encourage students to back up their words with their behavior,” Forrester said. He also wondered if engagement on campus will turn into engagement beyond college.
“My larger curiosity is that whether that will translate into sustained behavior of activism as citizens when students leave campus. I’m still not sure whether the activism we see here on a local level will translate into a lifestyle afterwards,” Forrester continued.
Hetherington said that students need to look past these political gaps and differences to change the nation in the future.
“Making students, empowering students to realize that no matter if students are liberal or conservative that they can make a difference, and that they need to make a difference,” he said. “Or else we will continue to have the politics we have [now] in the future. And the politics that we have right now are problematic. It’s going to take a generational change. Your generation is going to have to do better than my generation.”
— Features editor Matt Lieberson contributed to this report