“It’s not easy being a conservative on campus.”
“I think if I were to be really upfront and honest about who I am and what I believe in, I think I would be met with a lot of resistance.”
“People are just shocked, like it's huge, a big conspiracy to not be on the left.”
Against the backdrop of an increasingly polarized political spectrum in North America and Europe, university campuses are positioned to be spaces that promote dialogue and political debate on a variety of issues just as many of their students are becoming politically active and voting for the first time. Many students across the spectrum might assume there is a somewhat ubiquitous liberal consensus on campuses and at UBC – but is this really the case?
The Ubyssey interviewed seven self-identified conservative UBC students in an effort to understand what conservatism looks like at UBC.
More than meets the eye
Of the seven students interviewed, some indicated that the “conservative label” evokes certain misconceptions about their beliefs or values — whether they be economic, social or both, and how far from centre they veer.
“I definitely don’t think that I am the sort of person that people think of when they think of conservatives, because I’m a pretty nice person,” joked John Connell, a fourth-year English major.
“But I can tell that the ideas that a lot of people have are that conservatives are hateful and have bigoted opinions,” he added.
This was also highlighted by Mohammad Kiani, a fourth-year computer engineering student. Stating his opinion as a conservative, he mentioned, results in people automatically associating him with the caricature of an “evil, backwards, table-thumping” conservative.
“I see this stereotype that all conservatives are white, straight men on campus,” said Elisha Francis, who has completed five years at UBC studying political science. “That’s not true at all. For me, I’m brown, I’m a woman and I’m conservative.”
And the broader label of ‘conservative’, applied to those who lie just at or right of centre, can result in generalisations about the views and political stances of this very diverse group of people.
According to Francis and Shakiba Fadare, a third-year arts student, being a visible minority causes people to automatically assume they identify with the political left.
“It’s funny because people think immigrant, not from this country, and you’re a woman — you should be on that side,” said Francis.
Francis also brought up her experience identifying as a conservative and as a feminist in the face of these misconceptions, mentioning that she was accused of being against women’s rights from people after learning that she was conservative.
“I was like, that’s crazy ridiculous! I can be a feminist and I can be conservative as well,” she said.
Fadare, too, considers herself as someone who is very passionate about social justice issues. “I 100 per cent am so passionate about [women’s rights],” she said. “ So I find it almost offensive that people say ‘Oh you can’t be on the right and still be pro-woman and pro-all of these choices,’ because I can be and I am.”
However, Fadare hesitates to self-identify as a feminist alongside those in modern Western society, citing her Iranian background and the incomparable severity of the struggles faced by women back home, where their safety and rights are not a guaranteed freedom. “It’s very hard for me to label myself a feminist with all these other people...I feel like our innate idea of what freedom is is so different.”
“I feel like there are bigger fish to fry when it comes to our world,” she said, while noting the significance of all feminist issues.
Conservatism doesn’t have one single definition, and the people who self-identify as conservative one way or another can be as diverse as the UBC student population itself. According to Dr. Richard Johnston, professor of political science at UBC and the Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections and Representation, a potential reason for the mischaracterisation and potential generalisation of Canadian conservatives arises from the fact that people often confuse Canadian conservatives with the American Republican Party.
Emmet Mark, a first year arts student and leader of the Young Conservatives chapter at UBC agrees — given that many Canadians turn to international media outlets for news and information, this can cause people to project the political stances of the Republican party onto Canada’s own conservatives.
“It’s difficult to compare Canadian political movements to American political movements because the States tend to be...quite a bit more conservative actually on a lot of issues,” Mark believes.
“I don’t think there’s really a proper analogy for the Republican Party in Canada. And there’s definitely no analogy for Donald Trump in this country.”
Conservatives at UBC are clearly a diverse group, but how large of a group they belong to is unknown. Unlike federal and provincial elections, there are no formal demonstrations of federal partisan alignment at UBC. An online poll conducted in 2015 suggests that of youth ages 18 to 24 who voted in the 2015 federal election, 20 per cent voted for the Conservative Party of Canada, compared to 45 per cent who voted Liberal and the 25 per cent who voted for the New Democratic Party (NDP).
Provincially, a survey of ten post-secondary institutions in BC in 2017 found that about an equal number of students felt represented by both the progressive BC New Democratic Party and the BC Liberals, who tend to be more conservative. At UBC, federal political club activities paints a very different landscape.
In an emailed statement to The Ubyssey, the UBC Young Liberals Club mentioned they had “engaged with over 200 students” the past year, but the definition of such engagement was unclear. The Green Party, while inactive last year, presently has membership of up to six students. UBC Young Conservatives had approximately 24 student members last year, and the UBC NDP Party chapter refused to disclose any information regarding their club membership or event reach.
According to Jarryd Jager, also a second year arts student, the number of conservatives on campus tends to be larger than most people think, despite the common perception that the vast majority are liberal.
“Conservatism is the new counter-culture on campus.”
Taking these proportions as representative of students at UBC doesn’t account for the ways in which a university population may vary politically from the population in general.
According to Johnston, there are multiple reasons for the two populations to vary. “It could be that the climate of the university changes the people who come here,” he said. “Faculty members do tend to be pretty cosmopolitan… And so students may acquire those values after arriving.”
He also acknowledged that some tend to think that, to a great extent, students arriving on campus are already relatively cosmopolitan, most coming from urban backgrounds and already “pre-programmed” to think a certain, perhaps less-conservative, way.
“What we know is…if you live in a place that is diverse, you acquire a tolerance and indeed…a taste for diversity,” he said. He also mentioned that the recruitment process of students could favour those who express cosmopolitan views.
But this is not to say that universities are echo chambers at all. Citing recent research on the topic, Johnston mentioned that rather than radicalizing students, the experience of university tends to bring students towards the centre by challenging their views and revealing further nuance and ambiguity. At the same time, having taught at universities around the world, including the University of Toronto and Harvard, Johnston remarked that the tendency of college campuses to veer towards the left is apparent, and is shared by most universities.
“To some extent, I think that is the byproduct of what it means to engage seriously with ideas. That if you take seriously the project of the mind, this takes you away from simple, categorical generalizations,” he believes.
“The political right tends to thrive on simple, categorical generalizations and us-versus-them characterizations…The kinds of people who can put together ideas [in high-ranking universities] are for the most part, way beyond categorical reasoning,” he said. This is why, according to Johnston, as universities climb the ladder of prestige, they may display greater inclinations towards a liberal consensus.
Avoiding the Kool-Aid
In classrooms, conservatives often see themselves as challenging a perceived academic consensus.
For instance, Francis mentioned that she feels there is an “underlying assumption that the environment is way more important than the economy,” in certain settings. In her experience, people that overtly support corporations over the environment are perceived “kind of like scum."
“But why can’t you [support] both at the same time?” she asked. “So for me, I like to find a balance between the environment and the economy, and I don’t see the problem in that.”
“Sometimes it gets kind of hard to voice [different perspectives] out. Because you don’t know if you’re going to get attacked in class, and people won’t be friendly to you.”
Among the students that expressed a level of dissatisfaction with their perceived political freedom in classrooms, Kiani believes that a left-centred political frame of thought is “in the air," and results in the politicization of academic discussions. He gave the specific example of a sex, gender and philosophy class in which he believes there was “clearly no room for raising up any sort of possibility...or for [entering] into a discussion” that contradicted the more progressive approaches taken in the class.
Other conservatives have not necessarily had as unsavoury experiences. For instance, while Fadare agrees that professors do tend to be disproportionately left-leaning, she also stated that in general, they do a decent job of handling different opinions in classroom settings.
Johnston acknowledged the importance of creating a classroom setting open to different ideas. “I think that from my experience and my colleagues’, most of us actually do try to foster an open classroom situation, but it’s not easy to do. And you often wonder whether you’re going to be punished by a student for trying to do so.”
“I’m not going to lie, I wouldn’t write a super right-wing paper […] And it’s sad because I have a GPA that I don’t want to risk,” said Francis. “I don’t want to get docked marks for having a different view, and in that case it’s just safer to cater to what the professors think.”
In an emailed statement Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President, Academic Affairs Eric Eich expressed his faith in the faculty and staff of UBC to be unbiased and to challenge arguments from across the political spectrum.
“The University of British Columbia has some of the most eminent and talented scholars in Canada who welcome and encourage a diversity of ideas and opinions. We trust them to exercise their judgment around teaching and assessment in a reasonable and instructive way,” the statement reads.
“Should a student have a concern with the conduct of an instructor affecting their academic standing, the University provides mechanisms for that standing to be reviewed.”
A staff member from the Ombudsperson for Students Office said in an emailed statement to The Ubyssey that she personally had not handled any complaints from students who felt they had been treated unfairly because they had expressed conservative views. According to the Office, if such a situation arose, the student could request a Review of Assigned Standing or even consult UBC’s Equity & Inclusion Office.
In addition, UBC’s Policy 3 on Discrimination and Harassment also specifically bars discrimination at UBC based on political belief. In its recent statement on freedom of expression, UBC reiterated that is committed to balancing academic freedom with creating an inclusive environment.
“As an institution of teaching and research, [UBC] is a workplace, a learning environment and, for many community members, a home – multiple contexts in which freedom of expression may be protected differently, as it is honoured in balance with other rights and freedoms, including the right to equality of treatment, and the right to life, liberty and security of the person,” reads the statement.
“The resolute and equitable protection of free expression, in balance with other constitutionally protected rights and freedoms, offers the best path toward an inclusive environment and a better world.”
During his time at the UBC Young Conservatives, Mark has engaged in a fair amount of collaboration with different associations, clubs and students on campus. In his experience, Mark believes that as long as people are “reasonable and willing to have discussions,” they don’t usually to run into problems.
“I’ve found UBC to be a reliable, reasonable environment to express political thought.”
Gustavo Villela, a second-year student in the faculty of arts, said that since starting UBC, he has not found anyone who agrees with his political opinions. “From what I’ve experienced, I haven’t really been with someone and I’m like, ‘oh yeah I agree,’” he said.
Despite this, Villela feels comfortable expressing himself, even in the presence of those who may hold conflicting views. “I’m sure other people might have been de-platformed or been called racist bigots, but personally it hasn’t happened to me,” he said.
Similarly, Jager has had positive experiences engaging in political dialogue in social settings. “I’ve never been excluded from a group, or pushed away just because of my conservative views,” he said. Rather, Jager indicated that people are usually interested to hear his point of view.
Some other students do not necessarily share this degree of comfort in expressing their views on campus. Fadare indicated that when she first moved to UBC, it was hard for her to come forward and voice her ideas.
“I didn’t really have an outlet to do that, where I felt safe,” she said, expressing the concern that people would change their perspective of her character, or make unfair assumptions about her beliefs.
For students like Kiani, however, feeling comfortable expressing his views is not so much about finding people who agree with him, as it is being able to have conversations with those who don’t. “What I care about it is being able to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t [agree with me], being able to make a friendship with someone who doesn’t, and people being able to get past that sort of thing,” he said.
Although he sometimes finds it “extremely uncomfortable” to express his conservative views in social and academic settings, Kiani acknowledged that he loves doing it anyway, and thrives as a voice of dissent in more liberal circles.
Perhaps conservatism at UBC is defined by its diversity of opinion, just as those on the left side of the spectrum cannot be lumped together.
“I think the biggest thing is being able to realise that so many social justice issues can’t be handled unless both sides are part of the solution, and they work together. Because at the very end of the day, we agree so much more rather than disagree,” said Fadare.
“I think as a whole people need to be aware that there’s people that share opposing views and they can still be right, and they can still be your friends.”