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The Pomona Student Union seeks to bring a greater diversity of political opinion to the Pomona campus.
“I’m glad that you said ‘I think.’ I’m glad that you prefaced that long, garbled, factually-inaccurate quasi-question with ‘I think,’ because, frankly, you think wrong.”
Then Danielle Pletka, a scholar from the American Enterprise Institute, told the student to stand back up so that she could look at him while she blasted his interpretation of the war in Iraq.
“That’s what people will talk about tomorrow,” said Ben Waterman ’04, a founding member of the Pomona Student Union (PSU), the organization that sponsored the event. “Liberal students will remember that condescending comment tomorrow because it plays on all the conservative stereotypes; AM talk-radio, kids at CMC, President Bush. Students expected more comments like that; but I think that the rest of the talk surprised them.”
While Pletka’s views on the reconstruction in Iraq—including the suggestion that U.S. soldiers should shoot first and ask questions later—were, indeed, conservative, Waterman speculates that what amazed liberal students in attendance was her style of presentation. “I think that when students reflect on this event in a few weeks, they’ll remember her even-handed tone, how she addressed complex counterarguments and weighed all sides carefully. It was like a lecture that a professor would give, except it espoused conservative viewpoints. And that has to make you re-examine your classroom experience. Everyone has a position, even professors. That’s one of the things that the PSU is trying to get students to realize.”
The PSU is a new organization started by students who want to reanimate dialogue on campus by inviting speakers of all political persuasions. According to their Website, the PSU is not trying to alter the ideological orientation of the student body but rather to “ground student opinions in more intelligent and well thought-out assumptions.”
Attendance at the seven events the PSU has sponsored this semester has averaged more than 150 students. Deans Matt Taylor and Ann Quinley both advise the organization, and President Oxtoby, convinced of the PSU’s importance, recently pledged to provide continued funding. The PSU has widely publicized its mission statement and, nearly every week, editorials in Pomona’s student-run newspaper react to PSU events, both positively and negatively.
The organization reflects growing concerns across the nation about the diversity of discourse in academic institutions, recently articulated in a study conducted by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture (CSPC) titled “Political Bias in the Administrations and Faculties of 32 Elite Colleges and Universities.” Researchers found that the overall ratio of Democrats to Republicans at 32 top schools was more than 10 to 1, concluding that “while nearly all university administrations devote extraordinary resources to defend the principle of diversity in regard to race and gender, none can be said to have shown interest in the diversity of ideas.”
Reacting to the study, Renee Faulkner ’04, a student employee at the admissions office, said “I think Pomona does genuinely want intellectual diversity. Racial diversity was meant to stimulate diverse discourse, but by trying to reflect today’s social climate, racial diversity is now seen as an end in and of itself. We strive for a catalogue photo of a pair of Caucasian and African American best friends because a diverse political dialogue is harder to capture on film.”
Ashley Berry ’06, who describes herself as a conservative, says the Pomona atmosphere can be stifling for students who don’t have a liberal point of view.
“Whenever I open my mouth I expect to get attacked from all angles—there is little to no faculty support, and conservatives have to do their own research because there is no balance provided in the classroom. Perhaps most disconcerting is that others are usually too afraid to speak up both to teachers and friends because they don’t want to be branded or judged.”
On the opposite side of the political spectrum, according to Benjamin Heidladge ’06, liberal students need to have their beliefs challenged.
Reflecting on a discussion of Iraq in a letter to the campus newspaper, Heidladge wrote, “I came to the discussion expecting a diverse set of opinions and an in-depth dialogue. Instead, I listened to three professors, all with nearly indistinguishable opinions, talk about why they disliked the corporate media. While I myself agree with many of the statements made, I did not go the discussion to listen to my internal dialogue.”
For PSU, it’s not a matter of ideology, but a matter of sound intellectual
“We are a group of primarily liberal students who want intellectual provocation,” says David Levine ’06, another member of PSU. “And I think we’re succeeding. People are talking about ideas that they have never had challenged, and in the process, they’re understanding those ideas better.”
—Misha Chellam ’04