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The Crisis in Political Science Education

Political science professors are increasingly being forced to choose which form of inclusivity to prioritize. That decision will have a large impact on the face of higher education for decades to come.
Students walk near Royce Hall on the University of California–Los Angeles campus in Los Angeles, California.

Students walk near Royce Hall on the University of California–Los Angeles campus in Los Angeles, California.

There is a developing crisis in political science education. Professors are increasingly finding that their commitment to non-partisan education is in conflict with their commitment to inclusivity. And it's going to get worse.

Most professors, particularly those who teach American politics at American universities, work to maintain an environment of non-partisanship in the classroom. Professors fully recognize their political leanings, and they're acutely aware of the literature showing how political leanings can color our behavior and perceptions in subtle ways.

And yet, speaking from my own experience as a professor at the University of Denver, we teachers want students to feel welcome in the classrooms, to be able to air their impressions and experiences—whether those favor Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Greens, or any other party. I enjoy a wide-ranging debate, within guidelines of civility, among my students and welcome critiques and questions about the material I present from any direction. (We also help students get internships across the partisan spectrum.)

There are a number of different approaches to the political science pedagogy. I teach about institutions and patterns: how parties are organized, how campaigns tend to operate, how voters tend to respond to the economy and politicians—truths that extend across party lines.

But partisanship is not the only form of inclusivity professors seek. We are also committed to welcoming students across racial and ethnic groups, gender identities and sexual orientation, and income and backgrounds. We recognize that tolerance itself is insufficient; being neutral in the classroom just serves to permit existing hierarchies to continue. We want the classroom to be a place where oft-minimized voices can be heard.

In theory, there shouldn't be a conflict between these different forms of inclusivity. I want Democrats and Republicans to be able to share their views, just as I want white students and students of color, male and female students, straight and gay students, to be able to share theirs. And I won't tolerate attacks on a student's partisanship any more than I'd tolerate one on their race, faith, gender, or sexual orientation.

But the parties are changing, and in a way that makes a conflict in these commitments inevitable. There have been important demographic differences between the parties for a long time, of course—African Americans have been voting overwhelmingly for Democrats for roughly a half century, and women have been to the left of men for decades. Modern Democrats tend to be more welcoming of immigrants, the LGBT community, and others who bear some dissimilarities from, say, the people who signed the Declaration of Independence.

All this could be accommodated in the classroom. But the president of the United States, the functional head of the Republican Party, has broken this equilibrium, as he's broken so many others. He has not just tolerated racism but employed it repeatedly as a campaign device and governing philosophy. His recent comments that immigration into Europe was "a shame" that negatively "changed the fabric of Europe" were straightforward white nationalism. They were also entirely consistent with his earlier remarks—say, that a judge was not competent to serve because of his Mexican heritage, or that there were "some very fine people" among the neo-Nazis who marched and killed last year in Charlottesville.

It would be one thing if President Donald Trump were alone among Republicans in expressing this sentiment. If Republican leaders were quick to condemn such remarks as unbefitting the presidency and the party of Lincoln, or to threaten to undermine the president's agenda or even remove him from office should such behavior continue, one might be able to dismiss his comments as just being his own personal biases.

But that has not happened. Indeed, as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank recently noted, a host of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, and others are running for office as Republicans this year, and several have won their party's nomination. Yes, the National Republican Congressional Committee and other formal party groups, along with some party leaders, tend to pull their endorsements as soon as the affiliations become clear. But it is telling that these individuals feel welcome in the GOP, that they are winning pluralities of primary votes, and that the party hasn't worked substantially to prevent their nominations in the first place.

This becomes a conflict in the classroom. If a student says that he thinks taxes should be reduced and that anti-poverty programs tend to only worsen the problems they seek to fix, that would unquestionably be permissible partisan dialogue in the classroom, even if it provoked controversy. If that student then said that Mexican immigrants are corrupting white American culture and that "we can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies," as a Republican member of Congress said last year—is that a hateful attack or a partisan talking point? If we call it out, are we defending classroom inclusivity or are we attacking a student for his partisan beliefs? If it's both, how do we address this at a time when college professors and campuses are already seen as suspicious by so many conservatives?

Professors are increasingly being forced to choose which form of inclusivity they're more comfortable with, and that decision will have a large impact on the face of higher education for decades to come.