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February 01, 2017

Jay Brenna teaches economics and ethics at Georgetown. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

When Cassandra Allan from Zionsville, Indiana enrolled at Wellesley College, she felt politically isolated.

“I came from a community that is the exact inverse of what we have here - where everyone assumes you’re a Republican and thus you go on with your political ideologies never questioned,” Allan said.

Of course, when she applied, the 20-year-old conservative knew Wellesley was liberal, but she didn't know exactly how liberal.

“I found that my own ideologies were constantly being questioned and it caused me to kind of have to justify what I believe on a daily basis, particularly within the classroom where professors just assume that [students] are all Democrats,” she said.

Cassandra says she found friends in the College's Republican Club, which has just 12 members.  

At a time when many college campuses are derided for politicized courses and slanted readings - for trigger warnings and safe spaces - a small group of professors at Wellesley is giving students like Cassandra a sort of safe space to debate free speech, something many Wellesley students say they aren’t necessarily getting in the classroom.

Last year, we visited a Wellesley sociology class designed to nudge left-leaning students out of their comfort zones.

In January, we went back for the college's winter-session, when professors from across the country lectured on a wide variety of political and economic viewpoints.

“We look around campus and if a conversation isn’t happening here that we think is important nationally or among academics elsewhere, we try to bring those people in,” said Josh McCabe is Associate Director of Wellesley’s Freedom Project, which aims to introduce students and faculty to a broad view of political philosophies - everything from communism to free-market capitalism.

McCabe teaches sociology and self-identifies as a bleeding heart libertarian.

“[That] makes me extra hard to place because I don’t fit along the normal partisan lines,” he said.

With many left-leaning professors voting on tenure, McCabe says, he usually keeps his political views to himself until after hiring decisions are made. And he says the Freedom Project avoids election-year politics.

“We’re thinking big ideas, so they’re detached from what’s going on in the political arena, which I think is really good because four years from now Trump might be gone but we're talking about those big ideas the whole time,” McCabe said.

Since the country is deeply divided, sophomores Sophia Leung, a Democrat, and Cassandra Allan, a Republican, say they appreciate that broadminded approach.

"I'm getting new perspectives," Leung said. "Scholars on different ends. Discussion that people are more comfortable with expressing what really is on their minds."

“I -- to use the very contested term -- feel that it's kind of a safe space for political discourse,” she joked.

Wellesley administrators say the College supports the Freedom Project's effort to promote free speech on campus and other colleges, including and Tulane University and Georgetown University, are taking note.

"Most professors have the view, 'Oh, there should be intellectual diversity but not in my backyard. I prefer my backyard to be filled with people that I agree with and like more,” said Jay Brennan who teaches economics and ethics at Georgetown.

Brennan says higher education has a moral and social responsibility to increase political diversity among its faculty, and he thinks other colleges could learn from Wellesley's Freedom Project.

"I do think it's part of the mission. You're not training your students well unless they hear the smart versions and also the dumb versions of all the different points of views that are actually out there," Brennan said. 

How best to do that when the political climate is so heated and polarized is the question still facing many liberal arts colleges and universities.

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