Study: Conservativepolicy hurts students

The research suggests conservative policy harmed higher education.

Sara Schweid

Conservative policies might have been harmful to higher education, according to a study released this month.

University English professor Ellen Messer-Davidow conducted a study that looks at the effect conservative policymakers have had on higher education.

“I’m looking at policy initiatives that are targeting higher education and various populations and damaging them,” Messer-Davidow said.

Messer-Davidow began looking at the conservative movement in the 1980s after the election of President Ronald Reagan.

The movement had been building an extensive organizational infrastructure with think tanks, legal defense funds and interest groups since the late 1960s, Messer-Davidow said.

“I saw that they were using infrastructure to frame issues, mobilize support and win elections,” she said.

Mark Drake, director of communications for the Minnesota State Republican Party said he doesn’t see it that way.

“I think more broadly, conservatives and Republicans, in past 30 years, have really been at the forefront, encouraging rigorous accountability in higher education.”

To conduct her study, Messer-Davidow spent the past three years gathering information. Much of the research involved searching Web sites of conservative and progressive organizations, reading law review articles and monitoring news media, Messer-Davidow said.

The Republican Party’s control of the federal government and state governments has allowed conservative policymakers to enact harmful policies, she said.

She said she believes several areas are under attack, including federal student aid and free speech.

Messer-Davidow said conservatives have made it more difficult for low- and middle-income students to attend college by focusing on student loans and tax credits – which these students often aren’t eligible for – rather than increasing Pell Grants.

The maximum amount for federal Pell Grants decreased by 45 percent between 1975 and 2001 to cover only 39 percent of total tuition costs, Messer-Davidow said.

What needs to be addressed, she said, is “the government’s failure to provide realistic college aid to families that need it.”

Drake said Republicans always have been supportive of policies that make higher education available to all.

A greater problem, he said, is a lack of diversity on college campuses.

“Students need to hear all sides of the story, rather than just the left-wing view which most professors subscribe to,” Drake said.

This sentiment led to the call for the creation of an academic bill of rights to protect students from discrimination based on their religious or political beliefs.

“The academic bill of rights is vital to the health of the university system,” said Brad Shipp, national field director for Students for Academic Freedom.

“There is a liberal bent to universities,” Shipp said.

He said he sees no problem with this, as long as professors don’t use the classroom as a “personal soapbox.”

Messer-Davidow said the bill is an attack on freedom in the classroom.

“Conservatives are promoting speech expressing views they like and suppressing speech supporting views they don’t like,” she said. “They can’t have it both ways.”

Messer-Davidow’s article, “Why Democracy Will Be Hard to Do,” was published in the spring issue of “Social Text.”