Examining the Political Climate at Stern

“As President-elect Trump’s surprise victory sinks in, this notion of the ‘liberal bubble’ dominates the minds of journalists, political pundits, and students.”

Photo courtesy of The Huffington Post.

Written by Aditi Shankar, Class of 2018

In mid-October of this year, NYU Liberal Studies professor Michael Rectenwald was let go from his post as an assistant clinical professor after creating a “anti-PC” Twitter account dubbed “deplorable professor”. Prior to his termination, Professor Rectenwald was interviewed by The Washington Square News and subsequently faced criticism from his colleagues for his unorthodox beliefs about safe space initiatives and campus culture. In the interview, Rectenwald contends that “Identity politics on campus have made an infirmary of the whole, damn campus.” He goes on to establish a parallel between campus culture and a hospital ward. In response to these accusations, Members of the Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group wrote in a letter to the editor of The Washington Square News: “Professor Rectenwald’s rhetoric repeatedly suggests that mental illness invalidates the ideas and feelings of those who live with it.” In a Washington Post op-ed, Professor Rectenwald critiqued his colleagues and the administration for “seeing political correctness as a means of asserting administrative control.”

As reported by Fox News, Professor Rectenwald has been re-hired by New York University to teach full-time in mid November. While the controversy surrounding both his allegations and the university’s response was relatively short-lived in the often myopic minds of millennials, his commentary does shed light onto NYU’s stereotypically left-leaning (“Social Justice Warrior,” as Rectenwald dubs it) political, and furthermore, campus culture. Rectenwald claims that the liberal-leaning “political correctness” on campus further fuels the alt-right: “every time a a speaker is booed off campus…because they might say something that bothers someone, that just feeds the notion that the left is totalitarian.”

After the 2016 Presidential Election, grief swept the blue city of New York. Many expected a resounding victory for Secretary Clinton and were shocked by the surprise upset, and fair victory by Donald Trump. While a variety of theories have floated around television and news sites, one seems to dominate the minds of most, if not all, pundits: that Donald Trump fed off the American public’s unhappiness with their own lives and the government’s inability to fix it. While both Secretary Clinton and President Obama asked, even demanded, that the left accept and support Donald Trump as President, protests have erupted across the country in cities and college campuses. Many leaders see the deepening partisan divide as a significant issue going forward.

Throughout his campaign, Trump rallied against the “political correctness” of the left. Rectenwald’s comments seem to hold true here –  in doing so, Trump galvanized alt-right support as evidenced by Steve Bannon’s (Brietbart News Executive Chairman) strong influence on the campaign. As students protested against the election of ‘#NotOurPresident,’ the NYU administration, and Stern administration, disseminated their official responses to November 8th’s results. President Hamilton asked that students “heal divisions” and emphasized the university’s dedication to upholding the values of “academic excellence, open discussion, diversity, and inclusion.” Acting Undergraduate Dean Rohit Deo provided a list of community support events, stressing “reflection” and “wellness.” By forwarding President Hamilton’s original email, Dean Deo reaffirmed NYU’s (and specifically Stern’s) “dynamic community.”

In early May of this year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance” in reference to the question of “whether universities stigmatize conservatives and undermine intellectual diversity.” Rectenwald, a self-identified “left communist” created his Deplorable twitter account to shed light onto this very issue. Kristof found that the proportion of professors in the humanities that are Republicans ranges between 6 and 11 percent, and in the social studies between 7 and 9 percent. Kristof asserts that this “bias on campuses creates liberal privilege.”

As numerous peer-reviewed studies find, this liberal bias does exist on campuses across the country. An anonymous Stern junior who identifies as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” finds that his views actually reflect those of a good portion of Stern students. However, he now feels as if this camp has “been grouped in with Trump supporters.” He also emphasized freedom of speech as one of the core facets of the American creed, and found that the norm of ‘safe spaces’ is in direct conflict with this basic liberty. On the question of NYU’s campus political culture, he did notice a difference between political culture within Stern and at other NYU schools: “I think Stern students tend to recognize the role of the economy and taxes, while NYU as a whole seems to care overwhelmingly about social issues.”

Another Stern Junior agreed with the previous interviewees sentiments about these visible differences between NYU culture and Stern-specific culture, noting that conversations in Stern often “drift back to the economy, or money,” and in result, political leanings may represent this fiscal awareness. While the previous interviewee identified as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative,” this Stern junior, who also wished for his comments to remain anonymous, commented that he has “felt shamed by NYU and Professors for voting Republican or for wearing Donald Trump apparel to class.” Rather than citing freedom of speech as an argument against safe spaces, he found that this culture “blinds us from the real world and the harsh reality of people that have for more hate than [he does] about these issues.” Furthermore, this Stern student found issue with the administration’s overall response to the election. He found the emails “biased,” as the responses “don’t recognize that [President-elect Trump] won fair and square.”

Both Stern students expressed a desire for the administration to motivate students to become more actively involved in civics, rather than to provide spaces for remorse. As President-elect Trump’s surprise victory sinks in, this notion of the ‘liberal bubble’ dominates the minds of journalists, political pundits, and students. Stern Professor Jonathan Haidt’s website, “Heterodox Academy” discusses the growing problem of the “loss of lack of ‘viewpoint diversity.” He states that “universities are unlike other institutions in that they absolutely require that people challenge each other so that the truth can emerge from limited, biased, flawed individuals.” While Rectenwald’s actions took an extreme turn, his twitter account and newspaper interview highlight these same concerns. The deepening political divide in this country could in fact start on college campuses, and therefore, deserves more attention on campus. Haidt comments, “If [universities] lose intellectual diversity, or if they develop norms of ‘safety’ that trump challenge, they die.”   

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