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Campus politics: where do we stand?

By Lauren Ceronie
On November 3, 2011

As the nation plunges into the 2012 presidential campaigns and the first presidential primaries loom in the not so distant future, it's easy to forget about the elections that will take place Tuesday.

When it comes to politics and elections, conventional wisdom holds that the student body at Miami University is largely conservative. This conventional wisdom isn't unfounded, according to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP). The data collected by CIRP shows that nearly 31 percent of the student body considers themselves "conservative" while 25 percent of the campus considers themselves "liberal." This is in contrast to other "high selectivity" public universities where 20 percent of the student body identified themselves as "conservative" and nearly 35 percent consider themselves "liberal."

CIRP is a national survey of first-years administered annually by the Higher Education Research Institute. The survey looks at everything from political and religious beliefs to health and financial issues. The "high selectivity" public universities that CIRP compares Miami to include Ohio State University, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina and Texas A&M University. The latest data available from CIRP is from 2009.

Representatives from both College Republicans and College Democrats said they weren't surprised at the data.

"I think that there's a general consensus that Miami is conservative," said Jimmy Jordan, College Democrats president. "If you talk to students, they'll say Miami is conservative."

College Republicans Co-Chair Brie Sakach said she had expected the conservative atmosphere before she came to Miami.

"My mom and aunt both went here and so they told me before I came that Miami had a more conservative base," Sakach said.

Miami alumni would be correct in recalling Miami as a conservative university. CIRP data shows Miami has had a more conservative student body than other similar universities since 1971. Conservatism at Miami peaked in 2006 when more than 35 percent of the student body identified themselves as "conservative." That same year, about 25 percent of the student bodies at comparable universities identified as "conservative."

While the terms "liberal" and "conservative" may seem pretty straightforward, political science professor Ryan Barilleaux warns against taking them at face value.

"A lot depends on how you define ‘conservative,'" Barilleaux said. "Socially? Economically? You have to be careful in how you define those terms, ‘conservative' covers a broad category."

Traditionally, College Republicans has been a larger organization than College Democrats and Miami has fewer left-wing organizations, according to Barilleaux. The number of people on the two organizations listservs shows College Republicans as a larger organization. The College Republicans listserv hosts around 1,400 people while the College Democrats listserv has around 600 members.

While the listserv members show a difference in the size of the two organizations, Jordan said he didn't feel that was an accurate way to measure the groups.

"It's a misleading way to represent the organization," Jordan said. "We all know anyone can join a listserv, it's who actually comes to meetings that counts."

The CIRP survey also collects data on how students feel about specific issues. On most of the issues, such as, "There is too much concern in the courts for the rights of criminals," "Realistically, an individual can do little to bring about changes in our society" and "Colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers from campus," Miami was nearly identical to comparable universities.

However in issues such as abortion, 55 percent of Miami students though it should be legal while nearly 65 percent of students at similar universities thought it should be legal.

While Miami's campus may seem politically polarized, 38 percent of students consider themselves "middle-of-the-road."

Jordan said he felt Miami is less conservative than some might assume.

"Sometimes I think it's over exaggerated," Jordan said. "It's depicted that everyone is a Republican but I run into plenty of people who are liberal or Democrat."

Stacey Skotzko, former editor in chief of The Miami Student and currently a senior researcher of member information research at Congressional Quarterly, said she remembers Miami as more moderate.

"When I was there (in 2006), I think that Miami students were pretty moderate," Skotzko said. "Even if people were Democrat or liberal, they were moderate and if they were Republican or conservative, they were moderate. I think that everyone has that midwestern sensibility."

Determining what Miami students' political beliefs are is relatively straightforward. Determining why Miami students believe what they do politically is a little trickier, according to Barilleaux.

"I would be very cautions of any deterministic kind of answer," Barilleaux said. "Just because someone fits X profile doesn't mean anything. There are a lot of factors that go into someone's political ideology."

However difficult determining why someone believes what they do politically is, multiple parties interviewed thought parent's ideology was the biggest factor in student's beliefs.

"Most people tend to reflect the views of their parents," Jordan said.

Sakach agreed and said many of her fellow College Republicans look to their parents for guidance on political issues.

"Sometimes we look to our parents, they're out in the real world and they know what's really going on," Sakach said. "As college students, we don't know what it's like to pay property taxes or income taxes or anything like that."

Students do take political cues from their parents, but they also have the ability to make their own decisions politically, according to Skotzko.

"There's a lot of assumption that kids will follow their parents ideologically," Skotzko said. "I think students are smarter than that but it does matter what conversations you had around the dinner table."

Skotzko said she thought the results of the survey might be different if CIRP collected data from seniors in college instead of first-years.

"Not that freshman aren't aware politically, they develop political views as they go," Skotzko said.

Barilleaux agreed that the results of the research might be different if students were surveyed later in their college careers.

"People in your age group are still exploring their political ideas," Barilleaux said.

One facet of the reason for Miami's conservative student body may be where the university pulls students from, according to Richard Campbell, director of the journalism department.

"Maybe it has something to do with the area of Ohio we're in," Campbell said. "This is a more conservative area and we attract a lot of students from that conservative base."

Campbell also suggested that the high percentage of students who identify themselves as Roman Catholic (37 percent compared to 24 percent at comparable universities) and the number of students who come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds (20 percent of Miami student report their families make over $250,000 a year while 11 percent of students at similar universities report the same family income) may have something to do with the political atmosphere at Miami.

While a myriad of reasons are behind Miami's political atmosphere, both Sakach and Jordan said their goal with their respective political groups is to get students thinking about this very subject and developing political ideas of their own.


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