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Both sides now
Is Skidmore a fat liberal bastion under attack by fed-up conservatives? Only if you count all the pizza shared across the debate table.
by Barbara Melville

It has been said that politics is our alternative to bashing each other over the head with clubs. Woodrow Wilson had a kinder take:
“Politics…is something we owe to each other to understand and discuss with absolute frankness.” Good thoughts to keep in mind as the country negotiates the red-state/blue-state divide and debates continue about liberal bias on college campuses.

The idea of rampantly liberal campuses has been around “at least since the congressional investigations in the late 1940s into Communist Party activities in the United States,” the journal Academe reports, “and surely since the publication of William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale in 1951.” Conservatives say left-wing academic brainwashing is stifling independent thought, moral values, and free expression. (Liberals counter that the nation’s politically dominant conservatives want not to balance academe’s traditional liberal spirit but to wipe it out.) The right contends that liberal faculty too often promote their own politics in the classroom, disparage conservative or religious students, refuse to fund their speakers and events, and punish them with unjustly low grades. Conservative watchdogs, blogs, and Web sites avidly tally offenses at elite institutions like Duke and Columbia and demand “better balanced” course offerings, reading lists, and campus speakers.

Conservatives chart data showing that 72 percent of American college faculty consider themselves liberal. To counter that influence, activist and college-circuit speaker David Horowitz advocates an Academic Bill of Rights, under consideration in some state and federal offices, that recommends a concerted effort to hire conservative faculty in greater numbers. In response, cultural-studies scholar Michael Berube warns of “a national campaign on the part of conservative activists to get state legislatures directly involved in academic oversight.”

Private colleges are also being taken to task for liberal bias. Skidmore gets a yellow “caution” rating from the conservative Web site FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) for affirmative-action– based racial and gender protections deemed too extensive and specific.

Well, is Skidmore heavily liberal?

Of course. Founded in 1903 by an idealistic and progressive church lady to educate Saratoga’s working-class girls, Skidmore is liberal both in the political sense—there are far more self-identified Democrats than Republicans on campus—and in the dictionary sense—it prides itself on an open-minded and tolerant atmosphere. “Almost everyone I know here is a liberal,” says Pat Oles, dean of student affairs. “What I don’t know is what relevance that has to teaching or the educational experience.”

Students in campus political clubs have plenty of answers for him. They run the full ideological gamut: Skidmore Democrats, the Skidmore Young Republican Assembly (SYRA), Skidmore Progressives, and Students on the Fence (whose mission is to bring all sides together in civil discourse). Given a chance to gather for “politics and pizza,” they dive into conversation that is surprising, complex, sometimes poignant, and always exhilarating.

“It’s a bunch of baloney that conservatives here are penalized for being Republican,” declares Josh Gerritsen ’06, president of the campus Democratic club. He adds, “I’ve never seen faculty impose their values in class.” But conservative students insist the campus atmosphere is permeated by the assumption that “we’re all liberals here,” which generates a low-level but steady stream of offhand comments, bumper stickers, door posters, jokes, and downright insults. “If I hear one more time that George Bush is a moron…” fumes one student.

During class discussions, “as the only conservative student, I have felt isolated and intimidated by openly liberal professors,” admits the outspoken Tom Qualtere ’08, SYRA’s co-president. When faced with liberal views assumed to be accepted classroom-wide, co-president Laura Renz ’06 says, “You finally have to raise your hand and say, ‘Actually, that’s not my view.’” Then once you do, she adds, you often become the token defender for all things Republican, which quickly wears thin. Adam Peresman ’06 contends, “Liberal students at liberal colleges aren’t getting as well educated in how to defend their positions, because they’re not getting challenged the way conservative students are.”

Sometimes it feels more like disregard than challenge. Renz says she dropped a sociology class after her dissenting views—objecting to a professor’s list of seven Republican attitudes against same-sex marriage—were dismissed with the comment “Perhaps you didn’t understand what I mean.” And several students have heard a story like the one Peresman tells. He took “a neutral stand” when students in his religion class condemned the conversion tactics of Christian missionaries who “bribed” Africans with schools and hospitals. “When I said it was just cultural change, neither good nor bad,” he reports, his professor told the class that his argument “was not cogent” and then moved on without rebutting it.

Renz and Peresman acknowledge that such incidents aren’t malicious or even intentional. Certainly “it’s not typical at Skidmore,” Peresman says, “and the professor didn’t grade me unfairly.” When Republicans air complaints like these, even sympathetic Democrats sometimes wonder if they have a “martyr complex.” As one student put it, “I wish I could tell them, ‘Hey, guys, no one’s out to get you!’”

Skidmore’s political students clearly love the zest and sting of debate even more than spicy pizza. They plunge into argument nimbly and nonstop, challenging weak arguments and sloppy generalizations with both passion and civility. Stem-cell research? All are for it—even the Republicans, with a few restrictions. Civil unions for same-sex couples? Again, all are for it, although Tom Qualtere defines marriage as strictly “a sacrament for a man and a woman.” Teaching intelligent design in schools provokes a split within party lines: “Absolutely we should teach it,”says Qualtere, causing Peresman to sputter, “Are you kidding me?” They all join the fray: faces redden, voices rise, everyone leans in to make points. “Wait, wait,” says Progressive Eli Turkel ’08. “Let Adam talk; he’s smart.” They all chuckle, yield, and let Adam talk. Asked if they ever fear offending each other, they laugh out loud. Student on the Fence Ken Olmstead ’06 says, “Being offended requires being detached from your reason and intelligence. That doesn’t usually happen with people at Skidmore.”

That’s not to say that it never happens. In the past three years, civility has occasionally been pushed to its limits.

Item: In fall 2003, during Saratoga’s hotly contested mayoral race, Republican poll-watchers challenged Democratic students voting in Case Center and warned of severe penalties for voting illegally. (In Saratoga Springs, a predominantly Republican city that takes its politics seriously, Skidmore’s 650 registered voters—mostly Democrats—can swing an election.) That year the Democratic incumbent mayor lost by eighty votes. Both before and after that election, the Republican city council tried to move the Skidmore district’s polling place off campus, and the controversy (which was later resolved cooperatively) garnered widespread press coverage and on-campus argument.

Item: In fall 2004, after George W. Bush was returned to the White House, crestfallen campus Dems arriving at their “Post-Election Blues” event in Gannett Auditorium found flyers reading “W is for Winner” on every chair and “Get over it, losers!” on the chalkboard. Psychology professor Sheldon Solomon, one of two invited faculty speakers, presented academic research comparing Bush administration tactics with those used by the fascist regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Pinochet. In closing, Solomon says, he jokingly thanked “the Future Fascists of America for decorating the hall this evening.”

At least Solomon thought “people understood I was joking,” but student Republicans heard the remark as outrageous. Perhaps unfamiliar with the Future Farmers of America organization, they may have missed the wordplay meant to lighten the wisecrack. In the aftermath, Solomon offered twice to meet with SYRA members and talk over issues “in the spirit of civil disagreement,” but they declined, he says. A registered Independent who has voted for both parties, Solomon says, “Intelligent dialogue can only occur when people are willing to expose themselves to ideas they do not already agree with.”

Item: In response to the “Post-Election Blues” incident, SYRA organized a spring 2005 “Conservative Challenge,” a week of discussions and guest lectures that drew large crowds and warm praise from campus politicals of every stripe and station. “The point was to challenge people to think about what it’s like to be a conservative on campus,” said SYRA president Drew Farrell ’05. The week’s highlight was a talk by David Horowitz.

Frank Towers ’94 was among the small but active National College Republicans club that arranged a Horowitz engagement at Skidmore in 1993. He recalls that after the lecture the very first question began with “Your comments are so ridiculous that I don’t know where to start”—not the best example of fair and courteous debate, Towers says ruefully. At his 2005 talk Horowitz was once again peppered with left-leaning questions, but he made a point of noting that Skidmore President Philip Glotzbach had attended both the lecture and the dinner beforehand—only the second time he’d seen that gesture of respect from a college president.

For students talking politics over pizza, the issues that so fire the national debate can be as nitty-gritty as classroom do’s and don’ts. For example, should faculty announce their own political beliefs in class or post them on their office doors? No, say the Republicans. “The second a teacher takes a side, it makes somebody in class uncomfortable,” says Qualtere.

“But little offhand remarks don’t influence you, do they?” asks Turkel. “Have you changed your mind because of them? Of course not. They’re not trying to brainwash you.” Still, Republicans protest, some students will be affected by them. “If so,” Turkel shoots back, “they’re not qualified to be studying at Skidmore!”

Jumping in equably, Peresman restates the case: “Politics has no place in most classes. How can the war in Iraq possibly relate to nineteenth-century Romantic literature? Or chemistry?” Well, replies Turkel, a professor might find the Iraq war relevant in a class on war poetry, or religion and research ethics might be raised in a science class. Telling faculty what ideas they can share, what intellectual links they can or cannot make in their teaching, strikes On the Fencer Lauren Masterson ’06 as a restriction of freedom of speech. On the other hand, she says, “Calling George Bush a moron is just rude.” Indeed all agree that gratuitous conservative-bashing “jabs,” as Turkel dubs them, are always inappropriate—and “bad teaching.”

Would students choose a course with a teacher who openly holds views that contrast with their own? “Not if I’d have to defend my opinions constantly,” says Qualtere. “Not worth the hassle.” Renz fears worse than that: “If I know a professor disagrees with my views, I worry about that next paper I write for him. Will I be graded fairly?“ At the very least she believes that one paper, because it contained conservative views, drew extra scrutiny from a liberal professor. Another Republican adds passionately, “I should not have to be made uncomfortable for my beliefs.”

Do students have an academic right not to be uncomfortable?

Says student-affairs dean Pat Oles, “Discomfort is a very low bar, if by ‘uncomfortable’ students mean that faculty bring up ideas that challenge their worldview. Do you go to college to not question or be questioned?” No one knows of any conservative students who’ve brought grievances to the college’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Rights—possibly because most students don’t know they can, or because, as in Peresman’s case, his professor graded him fairly and the dismissive comment was “not typical of Skidmore.”

“If there is no active discrimination on the basis of political beliefs, there is no bias—it’s a matter of people exercising their First Amendment rights,” maintains Anne Levy Wexler ’51. A nationally respected Democrat with her own bipartisan lobbying firm based in Washington, D.C., Wexler says, no matter what your politics, “the most important political role is protecting the First Amendment. We hope the dialogue will be civil, but even if it isn’t, so what? If some voices are louder than others, so be it.”

“I’m not sure how much of the conservatives’ feeling comes from just being in the minority,” says Turkel. “How can we make them comfortable 100 percent of the time? I don’t know what they want to see happen.”

All they ask is a measure of courtesy and respect for their beliefs, say campus conservatives. They say they’re willing to debate but resent having their views dismissed without serious consideration, let alone mocked or belittled. Liberal-majority students “don’t realize it,” notes Frank Towers, “but the rhetoric hurts.” As SYRA’s Chris Bendann ’07 told the Skidmore News last spring, “What I want is for people to be aware of the things they say.“ And government professor Ron Seyb adds, “We do need to take our conservative students’ concerns seriously. We do need to, as John Adams said to Thomas Jefferson at the end of their lives, ‘explain ourselves to each other.’”

In fact, where conservative students seem to feel most comfortable is in their government and history classes, where “when we talk politics, it’s usually from a theoretical perspective,” explains government professor Bob Turner. Despite being known as a diehard Democrat, he was asked to be SYRA’s original faculty advisor a few years back. “I asked if they really wanted someone who had a Hillary Clinton bumper sticker on his car”—but they did, and he served. Turner routinely invites Democratic and Republican legislators into his state-politics class, “because when you meet people face to face, it’s harder to demonize them” as political opponents.

In any case, with college students, “there’s more difference among individuals within the parties than between the parties,” observes Democrat Josh Gerritsen. Several SYRA members describe themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, picking their issues across party lines, cafeteria-style: gay rights and job training from column D, limited government and a strong military from column R.

Such issue-swapping, with its safe areas of overlap, may help promote the genuine camaraderie among all four student political clubs. It helps too that many of the members are fellow government majors, friends, and practiced debate buddies. Campus liberals like Gerritsen applaud the newly energized SYRA: “They bring good speakers to campus, and they give us a loyal opposition,” he says. “Liberals love to have us on the other side,” grins Qualtere. Progressive Turkel, who once spent an hour at a party debating Republican Peresman, says, “Talking politics is so much fun. It’s entertaining—it’s sparring.”

So bring on the challenge, but ratchet up the courtesy level. And along with adversarial debate, Renz suggests, “Can we ask people on both sides of difficult issues, ‘What do we both want and how can we compromise to get it?’ I want political discourse to be more policy-oriented, more ‘Here’s what we can do.’”

Students on the Fence takes exactly that approach. Last year they attracted bipartisan audiences for a Cato Institute expert and a panel of Iraq and Afghan war veterans; this year they’re contemplating biweekly discussion meetings on topics to be named by each club in turn. And club members do show up at others’ events, from a Patriot Act discussion to a visit by a Democratic challenger for Congress to an informal panel on environmental policies.

Can students like Seyb’s and Turner’s, trained in a small-class setting to debate critically but fairly with opponents they respect, one day spearhead a swing back to more moderate political discourse in America? Qualtere thinks so. “Across the country, people are sitting at tables together and talking. Change is coming—a move to the center.” Dean Pat Oles admits, “If you look at students here, you might think that a more bipartisan and flexible government is possible.”

Of course, the zing of politics is found at its extremes. This spring SYRA hopes to arrange a talk by conservative firebrand Ann Coulter. With bestsellers like Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism and How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must) on her résumé, Coulter will pack Gannett Auditorium, promises Qualtere. But isn’t she more likely to throw flames than bridge gaps? Sure, he answers. “But people like Horowitz and Coulter create an energy and electricity on campus. After they leave, there’s still that buzz. That’s where change will happen.” And besides, he adds, “My liberal friends can’t wait for Ann Coulter’s talk.” There will be no bashing, of course. Just good clean politics.

Editor’s note: For some intriguing conservative, centrist, and liberal Web sites, check out Professor Bob Turner’s links at