Students say the back-to-back lectures show a campus open to diverse ideas

Liberal arts colleges get a lot of flak these days for interpreting the “liberal” part of their moniker in a political sense—and Granville’s Denison University is the 43rd most liberal college in the nation, according to Niche, a website that rates colleges and neighborhoods. Niche ranks Denison well behind Oberlin (#3) but ahead of the University of California at Berkeley (#47).

So it piqued our interest when we learned that Reince Priebus, President Donald Trump’s deposed-but-still-loyal former chief of staff and the onetime chair of the Republican National Committee, would be speaking on campus today. Would students turn out to protest? Listen? Applaud, even?

When we learned that Jim Obergefell, plaintiff in the landmark 2015 Supreme Court case that resulted in marriage equality for same-sex unions, would be giving a campus talk the following day, our curiosity intensified.

So we called a couple of campus leaders to get their take.  As it turns out, civil discourse, not inflamed rhetoric, seems to be the order of the day.

Angela Phifer, president of The College Democrats at Denison, is looking forward to Priebus’s speech. “I think Denison is a campus that values hearing all sides of the story and what you can learn educationally from someone who has been as high up as that,” she says.

The senior from Warren, Ohio, who is majoring in political science, is planning to attend the lecture. She’s also looking forward to a face-to-face with Priebus in her class on the politics of Congress. She won’t be carrying a protest sign; she’s prepared to ask a polite question. “I’m hoping to get Priebus’s sense of the state of the presidency at the moment, and of how the White House is operating.”

Max Siwik, president of the Denison College Republicans, says the members of his club are excited to have a conservative voice on campus—“Especially someone who was prominent [at the RNC] during an interesting time for the Republican party,” says the senior from just south of Cleveland.

“The campus leans a little to the left,” he acknowledges, “but I don’t think it’s an echo chamber for leftist ideas. Most professors are open to good discussions and open dialogue.” Conservative students on campus don’t feel embattled, he says. In fact, being in the minority might be helpful. Siwik called our attention to recent research by Denison social scientist Paul Djupe on the prevalence of resilience among Denison students. Conservatives, Djupe found, were 10 percent more “gritty” than liberals, meaning that they were more likely to persevere when challenged—which may or may not be a good thing in a political debate, but was associated with a significantly higher GPA.

As for the Obergefell speech, Siwik hopes to attend that, too, if he can finish studying for an upcoming midterm in time. “I’m kind of excited to have him on campus as well,” he says. “He has an interesting perspective and voice and obviously that was one of the landmark Supreme Court cases of the last century.”

 “[Obergefell] probably has a lot of different views than we do,” Siwik goes on. “But I think our generation, at least I can speak for Millennials, is a lot more open to gay marriage, even as a Republican, than past generations have been.”

Phifer sums up with a statement that some might argue is foundational to a liberal arts education. “Whether or not you agree with a person,” she says, “you can learn from his point of view.”

The Priebus appearance, sponsored by the Mary Elizabeth Babcock Lectureship in the American Conservative Tradition, will be held at 8 p.m. at Swasey Chapel, 200 Chapel Drive, in Granville. It is free and open to the public.

Jim Obergefell will speak on Tuesday at 7:30 at Slayter Hall Auditorium, 200 Ridge Road. That program, also free, is sponsored by the college’s Queer Studies Program along with several other departments and professor David Woodyard.

Want to get Columbus Monthly in your inbox? Sign up for our enewsletter today.