The Problem

American universities have leaned left for a long time. That is not a serious problem; as long as there are some people with a different political perspective in every field and every department, we can assume that eventually, someone will challenge claims that reflect ideology more than evidence.

But things began changing in the 1990s as the Greatest Generation (which had a fair number of Republicans) retired and were replaced by the Baby Boom generation (which did not). As the graph below shows, in the 15 years between 1995 and 2010 the academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left. (The 12% in the red line for 2014 is mostly made up of professors in schools of engineering and other professional schools; the percent conservative for the major humanities and social science departments is closer to 5%. For more data on these trends and the rising imbalance, see Gross & Simmons, 2007; Inbar & Lammers, 2012; see latest study, Langbert et al. 2016, here; see many older links here).

Trend in Percentage of Left, Moderate, and Right Faculty

Data from Higher Education Research Institute, based on a survey of college faculty conducted every other year since 1989. Plotted by Sam Abrams.

The organization was founded in September 2015 to call attention to this trend and the problems it is causing for scholarship, particularly in the social sciences and related fields (such as law and public policy). The word heterodox means “not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards of beliefs.” We chose that word to contrast with “orthodoxy,” which refers to conforming with accepted norms and beliefs. Orthodoxy has religious connotations, but it can be applied to any view that becomes dogma or dogmatic, such as “orthodox Marxism,” “social constructionist orthodoxy,” or “free market orthodoxy.”

In the year after our founding, we learned that similar trends and problems are occurring in the UK, and to a lesser extent in Canada and Australia. We therefore opened up membership to any professors who publish largely in English, anywhere in the world. Here is a graph of those trends in British universities, from a report by Noah Carl:

Figure 1. Percentage of academics supporting the Conservatives and major left-wing parties over time.

Notes: Figures are from Halsey (1992, Chapter 11, Appendix 1) and THE (2015).

Are these trends, in the US and UK, any reason for universities–or citizens–to worry?

Sometimes (to paraphrase the evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould), ideas become accepted because there is so much evidence in support of them that it would be perverse to believe otherwise (e.g., the Earth is round; modern living species are descended from earlier ones).  Other times, however, ideas become widely accepted, even entrenched, without any real evidence.  Such entrenched beliefs often arise because they support particular political or moral agendas; if the beliefs are falsified, the moral agenda will be threatened.

Examples of entrenched yet questionable orthodoxies include:

  • Humans are a blank slate, and “human nature” does not exist.
  • All differences between human groups are caused by differential treatment of those groups, or by differential media portrayals of group members.
  • Social stereotypes do not correspond to any real differences.

However, if academics were predominantly conservative or libertarian, a very different set of unjustified orthodoxies would likely be prevalent. Such orthodoxies forestall scholarly inquiry.  There is a strong consensus in the academic world that diversity is important because bringing diverse viewpoints to bear on social, intellectual, philosophical, legal, and moral problems is likely to enhance the quality of the scholarship that bears on those issues.  We enthusiastically embrace this view.  The academic world must have viewpoint diversity if it is to function properly and produce reliable research.

The dangers of orthodoxy to the academy are many:

  1. We do our colleagues students a disservice by not challenging their cherished beliefs.  We fail as colleagues and as scholars when we allow unjustified dogmas or simply insufficiently justified claims go unchallenged.
  2. We fail as teachers to teach students the most important skill — how to think. When we shield them from strong counter-arguments on the issues they care most about, we set them up for confusion and anger when they later encounter people who think differently.
  3. By failing to contest inadequately justified dogmas, we risk advancing solutions that have no effect. For example, if a particular inequality does not result primarily from prejudice, and we engage in prejudice reduction efforts, we will fail to reduce that inequality.
  4. Promoters of orthodoxies often create an environment of intolerance for diversity of ideas and dissent in the very institution in which free exchange of ideas is its raison d’etre. Free speech and the exploration of unsettling ideas is threatened on many campuses  If you think that goes too far, look at this post regarding the extent to which people have been intimidated by campus protests, and this post about Jon Haidt’s experience at a high school. Addendum in March 2017: Look at recent violent protests at UC Berkeley, and at Middlebury college.

Heterodox Academy includes active and respected scholars from across the social sciences and related disciplines (such as law). We are a mix of progressives, conservatives, libertarians, and centrists who have coalesced around the need to create a credible counterforce to entrenched orthodoxies.  John Stuart Mill spoke for us all back in 1859, in On Liberty:

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

– Jon Haidt, Lee Jussim, and Chris Martin