How to Help Conservatives Who Are Pushed Out of the Ivy League

(Gabriella Borter/Reuters)

Both as a law student and a guest speaker I felt unwelcome at Yale. Ted Cruz’s investigation can be a step toward increasing true diversity and tolerance.

Senator Ted Cruz’s ongoing investigation into Yale Law School over its treatment of Christians and conservatives is a good thing for American education. As a Yale Law graduate and active member of the Yale alumni community, I believe that elite universities are in the middle of an identity crisis. And they need to understand that the accusations of intolerance are part of an ongoing effort to make space for people deemed “outsiders.”

The Senate Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee turned its attention to Yale after the law school made a decision to restrict funding for student internships at faith-based organizations that have a traditional understanding of sexual morality. But this is a much deeper problem than one particular policy. Genuine concern over anti-conservative bias at Ivy League schools explains the fervor in response to Harvard University’s recent decision to rescind its admissions offer to Parkland-shooting survivor Kyle Kashuv, and it also explains reactions to how universities have responded to Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation to the Supreme Court. Cruz’s investigation will surely have implications for college campuses across the country.

Like other elite institutions, Yale has long struggled with creating a genuinely inclusive and diverse environment.

The category of who is welcome at elite universities, who appears to fit in, and what a “typical” Ivy League student or professor looks like has always been overly narrow, historically excluding most Americans because of race, gender, or class. For most of the school’s history, someone like me wouldn’t have been admitted to Yale or given adequate financial aid to attend. Today’s efforts to fight anti-Christian and anti-conservative bias are part of a continuing struggle to create an accessible, truly merit-based university.

When I was a law student, from 2010 to 2013, I was deeply bothered by an orthodoxy I found in elite law schools, a status quo that didn’t include me because I had different priorities than the institutions did. For example, I gave a lot of my time to leading the Yale Black Law Students Association and working in New Haven public schools. I was part of the communities around Yale, not stuck in an ivory tower, because I wanted to be connected to neighborhoods similar to where I grew up in Toronto. Grassroots community service focused on empowering people (as opposed to top-down legal services) was not rewarded or encouraged by elite universities or employers, so I mostly felt like an outsider swimming against the current.

Still, elite universities were not as partisan then as they are today. Yes, most of my Yale classmates would identify as Democrats or leftists, and conservatives usually kept their political opinions to themselves. I never saw any open hostility toward conservatives, though, until I returned to Yale four years later as a guest speaker.

In October 2017, I made a presentation to a Yale seminar class focused on the opioid crisis. My presentation partly discussed the importance of a kinship-care bill in the Ohio state legislature that would provide more resources to the child-welfare system. Yale professor Ian Ayres was in the classroom and openly criticized my presentation, which is his right, but he went so far as to personally attack my former Yale classmate J. D. Vance — the author of Hillbilly Elegy, who worked with me to support the Ohio legislation. It appeared to me as though Ayres did not want me on campus talking about my work with J. D. Shocked, I exited the classroom wondering why he made things unnecessarily personal. A few days later, Ayres’s potentially partisan motivations became clearer when I learned that he was hosting a fundraiser for Betsy Rader, a 2018 Democratic candidate for Congress who was trying to build her political brand in Ohio by trashing J. D., a popular Republican, in The Washington Post.

At face value, feeling excluded as I did as a student and feeling unwelcome as a guest speaker may seem very different. My two roles — as a working-class black student trying to empower New Haven youth, and a lawyer in Ohio working with conservatives — should have little in common. However, both scenarios where I felt pushed away by Yale are rooted in the narrowness of the elite university identity. Is it an inclusive and diverse identity based on skill and merit? Or is it an identity based on a particular political ideology, one that leaves as little room for grassroots community service as it does for Christianity and conservatism?

No school should be all things to all people, surely. But schools hoping to empower the next generation of American leaders should not be places where a specific set of political values or priorities are a prerequisite to feeling that you belong and can get a fair shot at succeeding. When Christians or conservatives are pushed out, so are lots of others who, for other reasons, also don’t see themselves embraced on campus.

Ivy League schools are still figuring out what an inclusive and diverse university ought to look like. Let’s hope that Senator Cruz’s investigation inspires American educational institutions to move in a better direction.

Jamil Jivani is the author of Why Young Men: The Dangerous Allure of Violent Movements and What We Can Do About It, forthcoming from All Points Books on June 25, 2019.

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