The 10 Most Liberal College Campuses in America

By Elena Novak on October 22, 2013

Last week we took a look at the most conservative college campuses in America. Well, College Prowler also has a ranking of the most liberal schools in America, ranging from most to least. What makes these schools liberal? According to the site, it means that their  ”political activity leans more toward the left.”

We’re not likely to find the same level of religious activity at these schools (though many are steeped in religious tradition), so what other factors can contribute to a school’s political leaning? Here’s what the students and the media have to say.

10. SUNY Purchase College, Purchase, NY

Hailing from one of the most liberal states in America, SUNY Purchase College’s motto is “think wide open,” seeming to imply that the school is open-minded – this is backed up by student ratings on College Prowler, which give SUNY Purchase a B+ in diversity.

The school was founded in 1967 by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a “progressive Republican” who envisioned a large and publicly funded university system. The college’s educational goal is to bring “two styles of education—traditional liberal arts and sciences programs and conservatory-based arts programs—into close contact on one campus.”

Students and faculty at Purchase find a place to “develop their talents, expand their minds, and prepare for a life of creative independence.” Additionally, students and faculty are described as “culture generators,” not “passive culture appreciators.”

9. Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT

Hailing from an even more liberal state, Wesleyan University is a private liberal arts university founded in 1831 by Methodist leaders and citizens of Middletown. As the name suggests, the university is predicated on the Methodist principles set forth by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.

The website states, “The Methodist movement was particularly important for its early emphasis on social service and education, and from its inception, Wesleyan offered a liberal arts program rather than theological training.” Perhaps its emphasis on liberal arts rather than religious education is what gives it a place on this list.

Wesleyan is also a leader in sustainability efforts.

Photo by Joe Mabel on Flickr

8. Brandeis University, Waltham, MA

Brandeis is housed in the second-most liberal state in America, and considers itself a private research university with a focus on the liberal arts. The university, founded in 1948, is named for the late Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Louis Dembitz Brandeis. According to his biography on the university site, he “tried to reconcile the developing powers of modern government and society with the maintenance of individual liberties and opportunities for personal development.”

An article written by a Brandeis student for the Brandeis Hoot, the university’s community newspaper, underscores the liberal pervasiveness at Brandeis. A particular running stereotype about Brandeis students, Sam Allen notes, “is that Brandeis is filled overwhelmingly with liberal students and professors. Every class I have been in has had nearly zero representation of conservative viewpoints during discussions, and the leaders of these discussions, the professors or teaching assistants, often don’t even try to seem impartial.”

The student interviewed fellow Brandeis attendees to ascertain their perspective on the school’s liberal leaning. “Another interesting find,” he wrote, “was that every interviewee mentioned that when politics is brought up in classes or just socially, there is an assumption that everyone listening is a liberal.”

In a call-to-action summation, he concludes, “Too many liberal social science and humanities students at Brandeis do not take advantage of the amazing learning opportunity available by simply having a political conservation with people who view the world differently from them. One of the conservative movement’s biggest problems is that it often is guilty of just talking to itself and declaring different points of view heresy. The liberal students of Brandeis should not make the same mistake.”

7. Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH

Oberlin College is a private liberal arts college known also for its conservatory of music. It was founded in 1833 by a Presbyterian minister and a missionary, who also founded the town of Oberlin. The goal was to “train teachers and other Christian leaders for the boundless most desolate fields in the West.”

Julia Nussenbaum, Co-chair of the Oberlin College Democrats, says Oberlin’s liberalism comes from this rich history. “Oberlin was the first college to accept women and African Americans, the first place to have co-ed dorm rooms, the list goes on. We continue to be a very progressive place, but of course that means something really different now than it did 50 or 150 years ago,” she said.

One example of liberal policy at Oberlin deals with the dorm bathrooms. “Most of the dormitory bathrooms are all-gender. I think it’s a really great thing, because splitting things up based on the gender is kind of silly, especially when some people don’t fit into that binary,” Nussenbaum said. “It felt strange for the first day or so, but I think we all adjust to it pretty fast.”

Oberlin Collegiate Institute became Oberlin College in 1850. This shift signified a transition “from a preparatory, manual labor, and theology-based program to one that offered formal instruction and coursework in the classics, sciences, the fine arts, and music, among other disciplines.” The college became private in 1865, and the conservatory of music was founded in 1867. It’s also notable that John William Heisman was the college’s first professional football coach.

Nussenbaum’s favorite thing about attending a liberal university is the local politics. “Politically, Oberlin is somewhat unique in that we’re a very liberal campus within a big swing state,” she said. “Working toward Democratic causes here is especially rewarding because we know that our votes and political work can really make a difference. The effort that students here put into the Obama campaign last fall was really remarkable.”

She also appreciates Oberlin’s gender politics. “Another thing that I love about Oberlin’s ‘liberalness’ is its sex positivity,” she said. “I’m really glad that I go to school where people can engage in open and honest conversations about sex and sexuality, and where I can hang out on the quad in my bra on a nice day.”

Another student, who wished not to be named, has a different perspective. “In this kind of environment, it becomes easy for some students to start to take their causes – and themselves – a little bit too seriously,” the student said. “Say the cafeteria serves something called Asian-style chicken; students will get legitimately upset and spend all afternoon writing Facebook rants about cultural appropriation. When this kind of reactionary stuff is going on all of the time, it becomes really exhausting.”

Oberlin recently made news with a supposed ‘racist hoax.’ Gawker explains the incident as involving racist signs posted on campus followed by a figure wearing a Ku Klux Klan Hood walking past the African Heritage House on campus, who turned out just to be a student in a blanket. The signs featured racist slurs, allusions to Nazism, and anti-Semitic comments. In reaction to the signs, another student posted anti-Islam fliers to get a rise out of the college, feeling the initial acts caused an overreaction. The political affiliation of the students involved was unclear.

6. Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY

Ithaca College got its start as a conservatory of music founded in 1892 by William Egbert. Now, it’s a private college offering a liberal education, at least according to Noreyana Fernando, a junior at Ithaca.

“The education in itself — our professors, their backgrounds and the class conversations — fuel the liberal atmosphere on campus,” she said, noting this is a generalization. “Requirements to take a diversity course and attend diversity-related programs also add to this.”

As a Resident Assistant, Fernando is aware of liberal ideas in the residence halls as well. “Major campus leaders such as Orientation Leaders and RAs undergo intensive training designed to help them understand and appreciate different cultures, people, and beliefs,” she said.

As an international student, she appreciates how the school has made her feel welcome. “I was understandably a bit apprehensive about setting up camp in this foreign land. However, my transition was possible because of the people around me. The transition was more than just smooth, it was fantastic,” she said. “My first year, I was going to conferences at UPenn and Harvard; I was doing TV, radio and print journalism. I had my hands full just months after landing here for the first time and it was all because of the people in this ‘liberal atmosphere.’”

Photo by Unexplained Bacon on Flickr

5. American University, Washington, D.C.

Residing in the capital, the most liberal state (or district) in America, American University is defined by “a global outlook, practical idealism, and a passion for public service.”

AU is a private liberal arts school with Methodist affiliation; it was chartered by Congress in 1893, thanks to George Washington’s dream of a “national university” and John Fletcher Hurst’s drive to take action. The school opened in 1914 with a dedication given by President Woodrow Wilson.

On October 20, the university’s Kennedy Political Union honored Anderson Cooper with an award called “Wonk of the Year,” which is offered to “someone smart, passionate, focus and engaged, who uses their knowledge and influence to create meaningful change.” President Bill Clinton was first to receive the award.

4. UC-Berkeley, Berkeley, CA

The drafters of the 1849 California State Constitution dreamed of a university that “would contribute even more than California’s gold to the glory and happiness of advancing generations.” UC-Berkeley was created in 1868 when the College of California in Oakland, which had little funding but a lot of land, merged with the Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College, who had funding but no land.

UC-Berkeley students were heavy participants in the Free Speech Movement of 1964, where they protested limitations put on their campus political activities. They used the Civil Rights movement as inspiration, and demanded use of Sproul Plaza and other campus facilities for political engagement. This led to a sit-in in Sproul Hall, where more than 800 students were arrested; faculty at Berkeley subsequently voted to drop restrictions on students’ political activity.

According to CNN, this movement “inspired campuses across the nation to follow suit with large, organized student protests and solidified Berkeley’s reputation for liberal politics and radical left-wing ideals.” But students feel the school’s liberalism is outdated.

“I think it’s definitely more conservative than it has been in the past,” said a graduate student quoted in the article. “If it is liberal, it’s hard to tell because the demonstrations [here] are pretty weak, to be honest.”

However, the university’s newspaper, The Daily Californian, reports that a conservative think tank conducted a study that claims “‘leftist’ education has resulted in a decrease in the quality of academic teaching, analysis and research at the university,” the article said.

Berkeley College Republicans President Shawn Lewis defends the report in a quote, stating, “I think the report simply raises the undeniable reality that many of our UC campuses are failing to truly encourage a marketplace of ideas from all ideological backgrounds.”

Photo by John Morgan on Flickr

3. New York University, New York, NY

Albert Gallatin, who served as secretary of the treasury under President Thomas Jefferson, founded NYU in 1831 in order to establish “in this immense and fast-growing city…a system of rational and practical education fitting for all and graciously open to all.” Openness was necessary since at that time it was mostly the privileged who were students in the American college and university system. NYU was designed to be “open to all, regardless of national origin, religious beliefs, or social background.”

NYU is a vast private university with campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi. The NYU homepage reveals the university’s dedication to research and global endeavors. University initiatives include urban science and progress, technology-enhanced education, entrepreneurship, sustainability, and diversity.

2. Smith College, Northampton, MA

Smith College is a private women’s college founded in 1871. Sophia Smith left money in her will to found the college, wanting “to furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now in our colleges to young men.”

Smith College sports teams are known as the Pioneers, which stems from the fact that the first women’s basketball game was played at Smith in 1893.

Notable graduates of Smith College include Julia Child, Gloria Steinem, and Sylvia Plath.

1. UC Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA

UC Santa Cruz opened in 1965 and prides itself on being a leader of the 21st century. The university is making a difference in cancer research, organic farming research, sustainability, and eco-friendly transportation.

According to a survey by the Higher Education Research Institute, not as many incoming students described themselves as “liberal” or “far left” in 2002 (58.1%) compared with 1972 (80.4%).

This rings true with David A. Ortiz II, senior at UCSC, who feels the university’s liberal traditions are steeped in its history. “Since its inception, UCSC has been labeled and marketed as a progressive/liberal university. Many local historians argue that this is a result of the university’s establishment smack dab in the middle of the rise of counter-culture of the 1960s,” he said. “As the vocal student body grew, the passing of the 26th Amendment allowed students to simply be more than political activists; it allowed them to be participants in the political system.”

There is much to do by way of political activism at UCSC, Ortiz feels. “As the Bay Area Regional Director for the California Young Democrats, and a UCSC student, my favorite part about attending a liberal university is the level of activism and/or action performed by my peers,” he said. “There isn’t a day that goes by where I am not stopped to be educated on local and nationwide issues. There isn’t a day where Quarry Plaza isn’t filled with student demonstrations, or students tabling and handing out information packets they printed themselves the night before. With all the student activism and the opportunities on the campus itself, it is easy to become informed and involved.”

Ortiz wishes conservatives had more of a voice on campus, however. “My least favorite part of attending a liberal university is the fact my fellow conservative peers feel the need to stifle their opinions for fear of provoking not only a few students, but the whole lecture hall,” he said. “My second least favorite part of attending a liberal university is the fact we are hardly ever presented with counter-arguments made by conservative thinkers.”

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