A majority of polled Republicans say America's universities have a negative effect on the country, a trend driven by people without a college degree and indicative of the divide between the right and left.
A Pew Research Center poll showed nearly 60% of Republican and conservative-leaning independents view colleges as having a negative influence on America. Meanwhile, about three-quarters of Democrats and liberal independents say America's institutions of higher learning have a positive impact.
Experts say the disparity is guided by media portrayals of universities as well as the protests against conservative speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter.
It's not a surprise Republicans are weary of universities more than Democrats, explains University of Delaware professor of communication Danna Young. The real revelation is the dramatic shift Republicans' negativity has taken over the last two years. In September 2015, during the infancy of the presidential election, more than half of Republicans (54%) said our universities lend a positive effect.
"Suddenly the vast majority see them as a negative," Young said, "which is really shocking when you think about what universities are for and what they do."
Blame for the divide, Young said, lies on both sides of the political spectrum. Most college faculty, she conceded, are liberal, which can create an echo chamber of ideas. Although, she charged the "machinery" of the GOP, including conservative media, with amplifying perceived liberal tendencies in academia.
It's an effort, she said, to erode faith in liberal institutions as well as their research, which produces studies about climate change and other topics that can support a liberal agenda.
Indeed, both parties' views on the media differ greatly. The number of Democrats who view the media favorably (44%) roughly matches the number who view it negatively (46%). Last year, just a third of Democrats viewed the media positively. Today, about 85% of Republicans say the media has a negative effect on the country. Two years ago, that number was 76%.
Matthew Woessner, a Republican associate professor at Penn State University —Harrisburg, said because of politicized media, Republicans and Democrats are "living in different worlds." He blames both sides, especially when it comes to protest coverage.
Woessner said Democrats are "largely satisfied with higher education" because it promotes their values and ideas, which, in their opinion, contribute to a better country. Republicans are more skeptical, he said, especially those with less education.
The study shows Republicans without a college degree who believe universities are benefitting America dipped 20 percentage points in the last two years. It dipped 11 percentage points among those with a degree.
Woessner said the statistic is evidence that "those who've actually been to college are able to better contextualize these sensationalistic stories."
Aside from media coverage, colleges are suffering from a lack of diverse political opinion, said April Kelly-Woessner, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College. Kelly-Woessner and Woessner, wife and husband, together wrote The Still Divided Academy, which explores the politics of higher education.
She said students today are the first generation in 60 years to be less politically tolerant than their parents. Typically, it was administrators who attempt to stifle free speech, now it's the students.
The study also showed how Republicans and Democrats view other American institutions. Republicans, more than Democrats, have a favorable view of churches and religious organization as well as banks and financial institutions. Democrats over Republicans say labor unions play a positive role in America.
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