Photos by Ryan Brinkman | Photo Editing by Haley Hoidal
Controversial posts and shouting matches at the Freedom Wall.
A bitter tweet about Pepperdine’s dining options.
A conversation about abortion in a first-year dorm.
Discussions in an ethics class.
A humorous take on Yik Yak.
These are all ways in which opinions are expressed in Pepperdine’s community on a campus that affirms how “truth, having nothing to fear from investigation, should be pursued relentlessly” in its mission statement.
Students and professors seek truth in college, but this perhaps looks differently at a small, Christian liberal arts university in Southern California.
“This is the place for you to be able to try to voice your opinion and mess up,” senior Computer Science major Kiana Felkner said.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech in the United States, and Pepperdine’s mission statement also holds “that freedom, whether spiritual, intellectual, or economic, is indivisible.”
While students and faculty agree that everyone is free to speak their mind, some students and professors challenge the notion that all opinions should be weighted equally.
“Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, until it’s hateful,” first-year Political Science major Viviana Hernandez said.
In a recent anonymous Graphic poll 52.4%, said there is such a thing as an incorrect opinion.
The poll included as many as 146 participants — but slightly less on several questions.
These students use their many available modes of opinion sharing and communication to determine which opinions they may deem less valuable or simply incorrect.
How Opinions Change in College
When students depart their hometown bubbles and are exposed to people from an array of backgrounds, their opinions face challenges.
“College is a unique opportunity,” Assistant Professor of Communication Colin Storm said. “You may never be in this sort of situation again, where you have just a such a diverse range of people and opinions and viewpoints that you might not otherwise have engaged with.”
For example, Hernandez, who grew up in California but attended high school in Georgia, enjoys conversations with her suitemates about hot-button issues.
“It was interesting to hear everyone’s different perspectives within my own suite because there are people from all over the country,” Hernandez said.
Not every student agrees — a majority of respondents to the Graphic’s poll said “no” when asked whether professors, course material or fellow students caused them to change deeply held opinions since entering college.
At the very least, Hernandez said Pepperdine offers an inclusive and respectful space for opinion sharing, more so than her high school in rural Georgia.
Junior Psychology major Abby Morrow agreed, but she said her own deeply held beliefs remained at Pepperdine — they were challenged but ultimately strengthened.
Assistant Professor of Sociology Bryant Crubaugh said this lack of change may be due to the fact students can find a like-minded crowd on campus.
“There’s enough of social difference on campus that people can find their community and find who they’re comfortable with — and that can actually limit how much you’re going to change,” Crubaugh said.
Hernandez and Morrow agreed that some of the best opinion sharing takes place in classrooms, where a professor moderates a discussion and students can hear from peers with whom they would not normally associate.
“In classes I’ve had where we’ve talked about issues like this, everybody’s forced to come at it more respectfully, and I feel like that’s where I’ve had better, challenging conversations,” Morrow said.
Classroom conversations can also be emotional for those unprepared to discuss a certain serious topic, and they raise the question of whether some opinions should be valued over others.
At least one professor believes those who have more expertise and experience on a specific topic also carry more credible opinions.
“Maybe my opinions that are based in fact but they’ve been tested over time — maybe those are different sorts of opinions than someone who blogs on social media,” Professor of Religion Chris Doran said.
Ultimately, while students seem to learn just as much from each other as they do from professors, they can also be poor listeners, Doran said.
“The students’ inability to give grace to each other about trying to find commonality and find similarity and still understanding you can disagree is symptomatic of where we’re at as a society — we can’t seem to disagree with each other without becoming tribalistic,” Doran said.
Take the September Freedom Wall incident, where tempers flared.
Students took down others’ postings, and the discourse at the wall between abortion-rights and anti-abortion students made some feel “unsafe,” according to a Graphic article covering the incident.
Diversity of Thought at Pepperdine
Nonetheless, students from opposing sides of the political spectrum said they feel as if they are in the minority, Crubaugh and Morrow said.
“Conservative students feel more targeted from the general student body, and leftist students feel more targeted from staff and the church at the school,” Morrow said.
Crubaugh said students from the South are naturally going to feel as if the Pepperdine community is more liberal than their own background, while someone from the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, may feel as if Pepperdine is more conservative.
The University’s demographic differences between administration, faculty and students may also contribute to this perception.
While Pepperdine continues to receive less and less devout Christians as part of its student makeup, Doran said, there remains a requirement for faculty and administration to be a part of a faith community and uphold the school’s mission of Christian values.
“Many students, and basically all faculty, come from the same starting point of believing in Jesus Christ,” Storm said.
Pepperdine’s website displays that 53% of students declare themselves Christian, while the faculty and administration number is undoubtedly higher, Storm said. The University hires along “mission fit,” which ensures that faculty upholds the school’s mission, which includes Christian values, Storm said.
The OIE’s 2017 Faculty Census showed that 88.6% of Seaver College faculty identified with some denomination of Christianity.
“Because it is a Christian school, that diversity of thought is […] a much higher proportion of Christian thought than in your day-to-day life at a career or something,” Felkner said. “So there’s definitely a little bit more of a focus on Christian perspective.”
Students may be intimidated by the differences in diversity of thought between their peers and their professors and administrators. In a recent anonymous Graphic poll, 61.4% of students said they find themselves hesitant to share certain opinions because they feel the opinions would not be well-received on campus.
“We have to be careful in any organizational structure not to have the leaders dominate their opinions over the community,” said Stella Erbes, associate professor of Teacher Education and divisional dean of the Humanities and Teacher Education division. “Leaders can facilitate opinion forming, but should they use their leadership to further just their own opinion […] you could see how that power dynamic could be troublesome.”
Despite the hesitancy expressed by poll respondents, more than half also said the campus is a place that fosters opinion sharing in general.
Social Media Making its Mark
Erbes mentioned a theory that education and culture favor extroverts, a point that author Susan Cain makes in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”
At Pepperdine, the most outspoken people sometimes dominate the cultural narrative — Pepperdine College Republicans President Spencer Lindquist and Crossroads Gender and Sexuality Alliance President Hope Lockwood were among the most recognizable and prominent figures at the forefront of September’s Freedom Wall controversy.
Social media has helped to change what communication scholars such as Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann call the “spiral of silence” — keeping minority opinions silent to blend in with those around us.
“It’s a little bit easier to criticize and to have conflict in an asynchronous manner than face-to-face,” Storm said.
A positive example of this is the Instagram account @BlackAtPepperdine, which started in 2020, allowed anonymous posters to tell their stories of racism experienced on Pepperdine’s campus to a wider audience and created dialogue regarding those incidents.
Communities like @BlackAtPepperdine and “Pepperdine Twitter,” an undefined group of students who actively post about Pepperdine happenings, allow students to find like-minded individuals online, air grievances, tell stories and — theoretically — effect change.
“During the pandemic, I was just feeling a lot more frustrated with Pepperdine and very isolated from the community,” Morrow said. “So it was nice to be able to go onto Twitter and be able to be like, ‘OK, these people are too.’”
For Morrow, fellow upper-level students on “Pepperdine Twitter” provide that community.
For first-years, it’s a large Class of 2025 Snapchat group where students shares memes and inside jokes.
The drawback of these online communities often comes from anonymous posters who encourage cyberbullying. An example of the negative side of social media’s influence on opinion is Yik Yak, the anonymous discussion board app that sparked racial tensions on Pepperdine’s campus in 2015.
“There is plenty of research that shows that social media increases depression and loneliness,” Storm said. “But there’s also other research that shows that social media allows people who might be more introverted to be able to more clearly express their opinions.”
A place like Yik Yak, Hernandez said, is funny at first but can be rife with bullying.
“That type of behavior from college students — I did not expect that immaturity and cowardice,” Hernandez said.
Tenured Faculty Members Opine on Behalf of Non-tenured
On the faculty side, while they may have more direct communication with administrators, they may also feel hesitant to share challenging opinions — if their future and job security do not permit it.
“As an untenured faculty member, I don’t feel as if I can be as honest and transparent as I would like to be,” Storm said.
To have academic “tenure” as a faculty member means to have an indefinite appointment, which a college or university can only terminate under extreme circumstances — providing stability and protecting academic freedom. Non-tenured professors, including visiting, adjunct and assistant positions, do not have indefinite contracts with the University.
Non-tenured professors like Storm and Crubaugh may turn to their more senior colleagues to express thoughts that could be in the minority.
“There are a couple specific [faculty members] who are tenured and will regularly ask untenured faculty, ‘What do you think about this?’” Storm said. “And then they will vocalize that to the administration, to almost act as a shield in some respects.”
Doran said he recognizes his colleagues’ hesitancy, which may also stem from the knowledge their fellow faculty members may review their work in the future, and he will speak on their behalf. He said he considers it the “socially responsible” action, as he is the president of the Faculty Senate.
“It’s my responsibility to make sure that I voice concerns to either the dean’s office or the president’s office about things that untenured folks feel uncomfortable or are too timid to voice,” Doran said.
Erbes said non-tenured faculty members can also share opinions via polls or other anonymous methods, in addition to sharing them with more senior faculty.
Students Hold More Power than They Know
Faculty do have a chance to speak with administrators regularly, as well as engage in formal actions like passing resolutions through the Seaver Faculty Senate, which carry the weight of all of the professors.
The formal system, Crubaugh said, can be slow at times.
“The general faculty feeling is we want to actually see things change, but we get caught in bureaucracy,” Crubaugh said.
Crubaugh, as chair of the Seaver College Diversity Council and co-chair of the University Diversity Council, said he has an invitation to “make administrators uncomfortable,” he said. He utilizes his role to speak on behalf of those who have less privilege, along with co-chair J. Goosby Smith, Pepperdine’s chief diversity officer.
In instances where bureaucracy stops change in its tracks, Doran said it is nice to be at a small school where people know each other by face.
“There are other times where I use the culture of Pepperdine to our advantage,” Doran said. “Which is to say we like to meet with people personally and talk about things rather than having a bunch of formalities.”
Crubaugh said change at Pepperdine is more in the hands of the students than faculty members.
“If a collective group of students get involved, they are the most likely to actually see things change,” Crubaugh said. “Our model of student-centered education only works if you keep responding to students on most issues.”
At a student-driven university, a critical mass of students can effect change.
After the sit-in against racism at Waves Cafe in 2015, Pepperdine honored some of the protesters’ suggestions: The University removed a wooden mural from the Caf in 2016 and relocated a Christopher Columbus statue from campus in 2017.
Occasionally, school administrators ignore students — or petitions for change are caught in bureaucracy.
Ask Hernandez: She started and circulated a petition while in high school to rebrand her school’s mascot, which she deemed “offensive to the Native [American] culture.” The petition has over 47,000 signatures — but with the administration and Board of Education “refusing” to work with her, the mascot has yet to change, Hernandez said.
Or ask Black students at Pepperdine: After requesting cultural sensitivity training for faculty and administration in 1970 and again in 2015, as well as a General Education requirement that focuses on diversity and inclusion, both have yet to come to fruition.
Opinion sharing and longer commitment may be the keys to effecting change at Pepperdine. Students come and go every four years, so they may need to invest in the future of other students to see change through, Doran said.
“The school does an excellent job in its organizational structure to pass the baton, if you will, if there is a change in leadership at the student level,” Erbes said.
When students challenge the status quo on campus with their opinions, they often determine the future of the social climate of the school.
“It’s your job as students to voice your opinions and to try to change Pepperdine for the better,” Storm said.
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Contact Karl Winter via Twitter (@karlwinter23) or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org