In 1996, Knox College, through the connections of Political Science professor Lane Sunderland, invited Justice Antonin Scalia to campus. Nine hundred attended, and while 30 students, upset over Scalia’s recent gay rights rulings, protested the event, Scalia was allowed to speak. A public faculty panel afterwards discussed and refuted many of Scalia’s points, with only Sunderland present to argue on the Justice’s behalf.
For Knox International Relations Professor Sue Hulett, this is hardly surprising. In a paper on spirituality on campus, Hulett found via survey that 73 percent of faculty and 65 percent of students identified as liberal or very liberal, with student liberalism often also associated with secular beliefs.
In the March 15 presidential primaries, Galesburg’s third precinct, where much of Knox housing is located, took four democratic ballots for every Republican ballot. This rate was higher than anywhere else in town.
This isn’t inherently dangerous, but for Knox’s conservative and religious faculty and students, this can sometimes mean isolation and anxiety. Still, many conservatives at Knox have managed to persevere and succeed.
Twelve years after Scalia spoke, Knox College Republicans invited former Bush Administration Attorney General John Ashcroft to speak. According to TKS archives, anti-Ashcroft messages lined the sidewalk on the way to Harbach Theater.
Ashcroft’s introduction was met with mocking laughter. Partway into Ashcroft’s speech, students with red-painted hands stood up in Harbach theater, blocking the view of the behind rows. Ashcroft, to student applause, criticized the protesters, who ignored calls to sit down.
“It’s odd to find such close-mindedness in an institution of education,” the Attorney General remarked. During the Q&A section, a student asked Ashcroft if he had a soul.
The next day, members of Knox College Republicans, who had helped organize the event, sat down with college deans and then-president Roger Taylor. According to TKS, the students detailed incidents of being shoved, verbally harassed, spit upon, threatened and ridiculed by other students for bringing Ashcroft to campus. Knox College hasn’t brought in any conservative speakers since.
Knox alum Kate James ‘16 said when people ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she says “a gentleman, [meaning] highly educated with no profession.” What James really means, and is unwilling to share, is that she wants to be a stay-at-home mom. Kate grew up in Salt Lake City, where both the Latter Day Saints and LGBTQ communities thrive. Kate believes she’s been profiled as sexist, or anti-feminist by Knox students.
In an interview last spring, James said she has had to censor herself repeatedly throughout her career at Knox. In her freshman preceptorial Gender on Film, she outspokenly defended her own beliefs. A member of the class later admitted to her that they mocked her behind her back.
Another interaction, where James said she was trying to alleviate an awkward situation interaction between a professor and a lower income student, left her with another name: classist. Withdrawing from a class on African American Literature, where she felt her attempts to add constructively to class discourse were ignored, earned her a third moniker: racist.
Knox alum Alex Uzarowicz ‘13 knew the damage labels could cause. Coming from an immigrant family from Argentina, Alex’s conservatism throughout his life has been shaped his strong Catholic faith, and the financial ruin of his family’s home country in the early 2000s.
In Uzarowicz’s eyes, an issue that has remained important to him, financial debt, showed its danger in Argentina. “We had four Presidents in one week,” he remarked. “If you don’t have a solid budget you’re gonna impact whole families at all levels of the economy.” Uzarowicz’s deference to the church on hot-button issues like abortion, and deference to right-wing economic policies made him enemies when he started writing a TKS column. Uzarowicz was one of the only conservatives that wrote for the paper.
His articles were often met with angry comments, which pushed Alex to be more inflammatory his freshman year. The campus and academic departments would by and large embrace Alex, but the first year was difficult for him.
Alex held onto his beliefs, and eventually became an influential member of campus. He converted the ailing Knox Republicans club into what is now Knox Conservatives, encouraging open discourse, and inviting libertarians, democrats and other skeptics into discussions.
Still, he felt othered. On election night in 2012, walking on the way home to Sigma Chi, Uzarowicz ’s presence was heralded by the chanting of “RNC! RNC! RNC!”
With Uzarowicz ’s help, Knox Conservatives became better attended and more active than their counterparts at Knox Democrats. Both groups shared some members and held joint events throughout the 2012 election season. Five years after Knox students proudly asked a former Attorney General if he had a soul, Uzarowicz was made the 2013 Senior Commencement Speaker.
Still, Uzarowicz said these moments of accepting discourse were often fleeting. When a friend and member of both Knox Conservatives and Democrats graduated, Knox democrats became “more militant,” he attests.
“It was kind of toxic,” he said. “Knox has the view that conservatives are all like the ones from Fox News where they yell at each other.”
While Uzarowicz was inspired by conservatives with intellectual reputations like Bill Buckley and Richard Kirk, those voices were hardly represented or heard by Knox’s Obama-era moderates and progressives.
A May 2016 New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof, a self-identifying progressive, argued that academia has a large liberal bias, which can be detrimental toward conservatives and all students. In a follow-up, Kristof discussed the article’s backlash. Liberal commentators argued that conservatives were off base with reality, or too stupid to merit debate.
Kristof’s data identifies between six and eleven percent of humanities professors as Republican. In the social sciences, the number is between seven and nine percent. In some fields Marxists are actually more prevalent than Republicans. English also remains nationally an overwhelmingly liberal field. Faculties admitted to profiling against conservatives and evangelicals at an alarming rate.
Kristof quoted an African American and Evangelical professor who admitted in his profession that his beliefs had caused him more adversity than his race.
Hulett, one of two conservatives on a six person Political Science department, acknowledges her own department as abnormally moderate. Hulett has been at Knox since the first Reagan presidential campaign, for three and a half decades that have shown conservatism retreat from academic institutions.
The International Relations majors she works with are often liberal, but they get along with her. When Attorney General Ashcroft was mistreated by the student body, she says her liberal students distanced themselves from the protesters.
Hulett knows that Knox’s biases are as evident in the institution as anywhere else. While Justice Scalia was treated respectfully, she notes, faculty still organized an event afterwards to “skewer” the speech. Of the faculty panel, only one professor, Lane Sunderland, the organizer of Scalia’s speech, was present to argue on the Justice’s behalf. Hulett notes that such “counter events” are not a norm at Knox, even for much more radical leftist speakers.
“You can’t bring a conservative to campus. Crazy,” she remarked.
Professor of Political Science Duane Oldfield, who supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, agrees with some of Hulett’s points. He believes having more “counter events” may be due, if there’s enough interest for attendees. As for Knox’s dearth of conservative speakers, Oldfield argues that issue might be monetary as much as political. There just aren’t the funds, or student interest, to bring a conservative to campus. Oldfield also noted that Knox’s current overwhelming liberalism is very much in line with other colleges, and its students with their generation. After the election of Barack Obama, conservatism has become increasingly unpopular among young people.
For the conservatives that do best on campus, many simply learn to find communities that accept them. Junior Miranda Hallmark, a Baptist Republican who supported Mike Huckabee in the primaries of her home state Missouri, finds community in nonpolitical organizations, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the community of First Baptist in Galesburg. Not being outspoken, and taking mostly literature classes, Hallmark’s managed to make friends on and off campus with similar beliefs. She said she often meets people around town who she recognizes from First Baptist, where around 20 Knox students attend services.
Non-traditional student and senior David Khalimendik is the son of immigrants from the former USSR, now Ukraine. He’s religious, but also generally libertarian in his leanings.
Married and working his way through college, Khalimendik has little time to be involved in on-campus politics. He openly debates in his classes that do involve politics. He’s perhaps the only former coal miner in Knox’s student body. Coal mining is a strongly conservative, tea-party leaning environment. Compared to that, Khalimendik finds Knox comparatively tolerant.
Senior Roberto Angel Davila didn’t know he was conservative until he came to Knox. Raised a democrat, Davila came to conservatism his freshman year when he took the Human Animal Relations preceptorial.
“Pork is a huge part of my culture,” Davila said, whose parents are Mexican and Puerto-Rican immigrants.
When students in his class suggested cutting demand or limiting sales of meat, his disagreement spurned into an interrogation of his own beliefs. He found Affirmative Action offensive. He was against abortion. He became the rare college student that came home more conservative than when he left.
Davila supported Marco Rubio in the Republican primaries. Coming from Evangelical and Catholic backgrounds, he is active in Knox’s Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Still, around acquaintances he avoids politics. He said he stopped talking to a friend after a discussion about the violence in Chicago went awry. He has to watch what he says in classes too.
“There’s a lot of backgrounds, but do we have an inclusive culture? I would say no,” he said.
In a class he took in the spring about social justice in Galesburg, one student suggested Galesburg attract the “creative class” to enliven the town’s economy. Davila said the student was called racist for not prioritizing minorities going to school.
In his freshman year, he remembers the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship’s prayer box being vandalized. They had to cover the obscenities with Bible verses.
Roberto would “probably not” choose to go to Knox, if he were to pick again. He would prefer a religious school, one with a more conservative Political Science department.
James actually did leave Knox her sophomore year after feeling isolated. Uzarowicz says conservative alumni often feel unwelcome coming back to campus.
“Knox has only been a bubble,” Uzarowicz said. “I tried to pop the bubble while I was there.”
He hopes Knox works to elevate discourse, but also is aware of the incidents that have drawn conservative speakers away from it.
“Every side has something right,” he said. “I don’t think only conservatism has it right. I don’t think only liberalism has it right. Everyone can learn a lot by talking, by being open, by respecting each other.”
For some of Knox’s conservative and right-leaning students, however, the best way to stay respected is to stay quiet.
“Diversity is only diversity if it’s diversity of thought,” James said. “I think it’s really sad when being a conservative means that I can’t be as vocal in class as I think that I should or could.”
According to Hulett, the school could work harder to make amends, bringing in conservative speakers for example, and seeking to balance its faculty. However, as a secular, historically liberal institution, she finds it unlikely that this climate will change dramatically.
In Hulett’s opinion, Liberal or conservative, echo chambers like Knox’s are dangerous.
“It’s not healthy for personal growth. It doesn’t mean you need to change your views. You just need to be pro-discourse.”