July 17, 2019

Republicans fear prejudice on campus

Conservatives at Webster feel as though their voices are drowned out by liberal perspectives. Alexandra Martin, a Republican, found herself at the end of heated actions and speech.

*Editor’s Note: An expletive is included in a quotation in this story.

Alexandra Martin caught a student about to key her car as she walked out of her night class before the 2016 presidential election. The Webster University graduate first thought the woman had the wrong car.

A Donald Trump campaign sticker on the window distinguished Martin’s car from others in the lot. Someone sharpied over Martin’s first Trump sticker, as the 2016 presidential election neared, Martin bought another.

Martin yelled for the woman to stop, exposing herself as the owner of the labeled car. Martin said the student responded by calling her homophobic and racist.

“She starts yelling at me because I have a Trump sticker on my car,” Martin said. “She doesn’t know me. She’s never met me.”

As a Republican, Martin said she feared expressing her political beliefs while attending Webster. During her freshman year, three students on her dorm floor refused to speak to her after discovering her conservative views.

Gwyneth Williams, who teaches political science at Webster, said the 2016 presidential election saw a rise in political involvement on campus, especially with the Webster University College Democrats.

Alexandra Martin wore her Trump shirt around campus for a day to see how the student body would react. She was met with distasteful looks, actions and comments. Photo by Ryan Gines.

Williams said the College Democrats tried to set up debates before the election with a Republican group. Despite their efforts, they failed to generate Republican student involvement.  

Martin, who claimed she is not afraid of confrontation, needed to fulfill a social experiment assignment for her philosophy class. She decided to wear a white Trump T-shirt around campus for a day before the election.

Martin parked her car on campus at 9 a.m. the day of her experiment. She stepped out of her car as a student walked by.

“Just so you know,” Martin recalled the woman saying as she passed, “Muslims and women will continue to exist, you disgusting piece of shit.”

Two distinctions exist in the lack of political involvement from Republican students according to John Buck, the dean of students. Either students do not have the time or want to participate, or they are afraid for their peers to know of their conservative views.

Webster senior Christian Terrill said he doubted any sort of Republican club on campus would garner enough students each year to stay afloat. Drawing from his own experiences as a Republican student, Terrill said students do not want to showcase their conservative beliefs on a liberal campus.

Terrill responded with two questions when asked to be interviewed for this story: “Who recommended me?” and “Am I able to stay anonymous?”

Terrill said he could not recall an instance in which conservatism was accepted in his time at Webster. As students organized walkouts and rallies after the election of President Trump, Terrill sat in classes deserted by his peers.

“We are all about diversity and inclusion, but I don’t feel safe talking about my politics here at Webster,” Terrill said.

Terrill quickly adjusted to keeping his beliefs quiet as a freshman. He said he spent his four years at Webster fearing prejudice from students and teachers for his political beliefs.

“I just kinda noticed on this campus that if someone really expresses beliefs that don’t follow the norm on campus, they’re really shut down and looked down upon,” Terrill said.

Around lunchtime on the day of her social experiment, Martin decided to eat outside the East Academic Building. She had received dirty looks and scoffs all morning while wearing her Trump shirt. A student walked past her and asked if Martin’s shirt was serious.

“You are so effing disgusting,” Martin recalled the student saying. “How can you support a man like that?”

While Martin chose to bring politics into her class assignment, Terrill said he never feels comfortable discussing politics in the classroom.

Numerous professors promised to keep political views out of the course, but Terrill said they always broke their vows. He said he does not trust some professors to keep their biases away from the grading scale.

To Terrill, muzzling his beliefs ensures his grade solely reflects his academic performance.

Buck said students feeling shut down and forced out of the political conversation completely counters the inclusive mission Webster strives to achieve.

“I really want to make sure that any student here does not feel like they’re shut out because of a liberal point of view,” Buck said. “If anything, I think we need to elevate the conversation because no one else is right now. It’s not happening on a national level.”

Terrill agreed the lack of healthy communication helped generate this fear of expression for Republican students.

In his four years, Terrill said hardly anyone who knew of his conservative views asked him for an explanation of his beliefs. He saw more students wanting to label him as sexist and racist before they wanted to understand his actual views.

Collin Evans is a member of the Lindenwood University College Republicans Club. Evans joined the Libertarian, Republican and Democrat clubs four years ago as a freshman at Lindenwood.

Jamie Kotthoff and Alexandra Martin engage in a political conversation. Martin doesn’t shy from confrontation and often goes head-to-head with her liberal colleagues. Photo by Ryan Gines

“Whenever I came into college I was just like ‘Well, I don’t know what exactly is true so I’m just going to try and figure it out,’” Evans said.

Being exposed to different ideologies allowed Evans to think critically about his own, he said.

Other universities near Webster include organizations that focus solely on fostering discussions from both sides of the political debate, putting Webster in the minority of the surrounding campuses.  

Saint Louis University houses both the Saint Louis University College Republicans and the SLU  College Democrats. The Republican group hosted Sarah Palin’s visit to SLU’s campus during the 2008 presidential campaign and worked on the 2010 campaigns of Sen. Roy Blunt and former State Auditor Tom Schweich.

Along with College Democrats and College Republicans, Washington University in St. Louis also accommodates the student organization BridgeWashU. This organization aims to create a space for constructive political discussions on its campus, much like the Speaking Politics at Maryville group at Maryville University.

At 3:30 p.m., Martin, still wearing her Trump shirt, needed to kill two hours before attending her night class. The comments and sneers became exhausting, but not enough to make her give up on her assignment.

She passed a group of students outside the library. Martin said one student saw her Trump shirt, walked up to her and spat on her shoes. The student walked away laughing.

If Webster is not a place conservative students can safely voice their beliefs, Buck said, then Webster is doing something wrong. He said he believes students’ civil engagement in elections is crucial and all students need to have an opportunity to voice their opinions.

“I’d rather deal with the tension of people arguing about it and a debate than I would about someone who doesn’t feel that they can say anything,” Buck said.

Evans said he believes the diversity of Lindenwood’s faculty is part of the reason he feels comfortable openly expressing his political views on his campus. He regularly engages with professors who identify with all sections of the political spectrum.

Evans said Lindenwood holds at least one debate between the Democrat and Republican clubs each year. This can be helpful for students like Evans, who use the clubs to keep up to date with political issues.

Although there is not a Republicans club for Webster students to emulate Evans’ experience, Williams said she has not recognized students’ hesitation to discuss politics in her classes. She said she works to create an environment of productive conversation.

“It’s a problem in higher education if people don’t feel that they can freely express their views,” Williams said.

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