The mission of Heterodox Academy (HxA) is “to improve viewpoint diversity in the academy.” We have repeatedly shown that viewpoint diversity—particularly political diversity—has been declining since the 1990s, and that improvements in viewpoint diversity are likely to improve the quality of research and education that universities deliver.
We have had a very successful first 16 months in pursuit of this mission, since our launch in September of 2015. We grew from 25 members at the start of 2016 to 363 members today, and our membership is drawn from across the political spectrum, as you can see in the table below. Heterodox Academy is now among the most politically diverse organizations in the academy, and our members have modeled the kind of wide-ranging inquiry and civil disagreement that has traditionally characterized academic life at its best.
We published 117 blog posts in 2016; the site was visited by a quarter-million readers; and we received favorable coverage in major media outlets. Our members collected new and much-needed data upon which informed policies can be based, and they made the case for the value of viewpoint diversity in the academy during a year of rising political polarization and tension. We have ambitious plans for expanding our membership and our offerings in 2017. For example, we will soon expand to admit all professors and post-docs with a university appointment (not just those with tenured or tenure-track appointments). And we will continue to expand our international membership, as we have come to learn that the trends and challenges affecting American universities are occurring in many other countries as well, particularly in the UK.
But on November 8 there was a political earthquake in the United States. Most of us on campus were expecting Hillary Clinton to win, and many thought that the Democrats would retake the Senate. Donald Trump’s unexpected victory and the Republican Party’s upcoming control of all three branches of the federal government and many state governments creates a very different landscape for universities. Any organization trying to influence university life must reflect upon these changes and take them into account.
I think the presidential election has produced three changes that are particularly relevant to our mission:
1. There is now much wider recognition of the value of viewpoint diversity as an antidote to the partisan “bubbles” created by social media and social networks. Many social scientists, journalists, and pollsters miscalculated the dynamics at play in this election. A commitment to truth in a time of polarization requires people on all sides to take positive steps to seek out and listen to those with differing views. Many organizations and writers on the left—including President Obama—have called for greater viewpoint diversity. Heterodox Academy can claim some credit for having popularized that term.
2. The pressures applied to universities by the federal government will change. In 2011, the Obama Administration’s Department of Education sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter that applied pressure on universities to greatly expand their concepts of harassment to include a much broader swath of verbal behavior. Failure to comply put universities at risk of losing federal funding. This new policy encouraged universities to become far more vigilant about policing the speech and social interactions of their students and faculty and has led to a variety of problems on campus. We can expect that Trump’s Education Department will rescind this letter, which would give universities more leeway to address on-campus problems as they think best.
However, it is quite possible that the departments of Education and Justice will now apply different pressures to universities, to advance a different set of political goals, as was suggested by one Republican candidate during the primary. As a general principle, I am concerned whenever universities become political footballs, to be moved down the field by whichever team has the power to do so. I think that most members of Heterodox Academy want to reduce the politicization of academic life, and we are trying to do that from within. Heterodox Academy will oppose threats to academic freedom from either side.
3. Political polarization and passion will be far stronger for many years. Since the 1990s, America has experienced rising levels of political polarization and cross-partisan animosity. That animosity seems to have taken a giant leap upward in 2016. In a time of such powerful and understandable passions, it will be harder for HxA to make the case that wisdom is to be found on all sides, and from the conflict of viewpoints. It will be easier for us to anger and alienate potential supporters.
Putting these three changes together, I believe that the ground has shifted and will continue to shift in unpredictable ways. HxA must proceed with caution. But the uncertainty that all of us in the academy now face opens up many opportunities as well, for HxA is uniquely positioned to help universities find answers in a time of rising polarization and rapid change. Our political diversity is an asset — we have the potential to find novel solutions and earn the trust of all sides. We are, after all, professors who joined HxA because we love the academy and want to see it thrive.
I therefore suggest that HxA focus its efforts on two priorities for 2017:
1. Data collection and empirical research.
We will continue to gather data and report on all new research related to viewpoint diversity and the state of free inquiry (e.g., see our recent summary of Langbert et. al.). We will also actively seek information about trends or practices that have the effect of suppressing left-wing or progressive viewpoints or scholarship, as well as the suppression of non-left perspectives that has been our focus until now. We oppose censorship and intimidation by all sides.
We are also creating a tool that will facilitate research by others. Our “Fearless Speech Index” is an online survey that any professor or administrator can use to find out which kinds of students fear which kinds of consequences when talking about which specific topics. The tool is intended as an aid to those who truly want to improve the quality of discussion, and it will make it easier for anyone to do empirical research on interventions designed to reduce fear and improve the quality and inclusiveness of discussions.
2. Resources that help universities improve viewpoint diversity and promote fearless but civil speech.
Social media bubbles expose us to the worst things said and done by the “other side” every day. But what if you wanted to read the best ideas from all sides? We are creating a Viewpoint Diversity Experience which makes it easy for students to broaden their thinking. It also makes it easy for professors to create teaching modules of any length to insert into a variety of courses, including a first-year seminar on diversity. In the wake of the 2016 election, we think this resource is badly needed, not just on campus, but in high schools as well, and in any organization that lacks political diversity or suffers from partisan conflict. If you can calm partisan passions first, then conversations about other kinds of diversity may become more productive and less defensive. We think that universities should cultivate an appreciation of viewpoint diversity not as an alternative to other kinds of diversity, but as an essential precondition for creating open, trusting environments where everyone feels included, everyone feels free to share their opinions and to offer and receive the gift of constructive and civil disagreement.
In addition to creating the reading list, we will continue to develop our Guide to Colleges. We will continue to aggregate all the information we can find pertaining to the degree of viewpoint diversity likely to be found at each of America’s top schools. That is a data collection function that no other organization is fulfilling, and we think that many high school students want to know such information. But as we move forward we will place more emphasis on successful schools, and will highlight best practices.
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In conclusion, America is badly divided along many fracture lines, and our partisan divisions are growing wider and more hostile. Some of America’s political trends are occurring in many countries, suggesting that there may be systemic issues related to the interactions of democracy, globalization, and new technologies which are at present poorly understood. Universities should be the premier institutions studying these trends and challenges in open, unbiased, non-partisan ways.
Furthermore, universities are ideally situated to foster mutual understanding and respect across partisan lines. We can and must prepare our students to be effective as citizens in a diverse democracy and as employees in workplaces where disagreements over values and ideals will be a constant feature of life. We must educate all of our students, regardless of their politics, and we must equip them to live, debate, cooperate, and disagree civilly among themselves, regardless of their politics.
For these reasons and more, improving the health and vitality of universities should be an urgent national priority. At HxA, we will be constructive partners in that mission.
Jon Haidt, Director
(Incorporating comments and guidance from the HXA Executive Committee)