Dear Members and Friends of HxA:

2017 was another astonishing year for those who care about universities, and another extraordinary year for Heterodox Academy.

First, the universities. This year we saw an increase in intimidation tactics, uncivil behavior, and actual violence on campus. Most alarmingly, students joined with local activists to use violence as a tool to stop unwanted speakers, first at UC Berkeley and then at Middlebury CollegeMore generally, we saw a sharp rise in the use of intimidation tactics and organized shout-downs–the heckler’s veto–to stop speakers, and to dissuade students from attending lectures, as at Claremont McKenna College and Reed College. We saw an entire college descend into anarchy when HxA member Bret Weinstein started questioning Evergreen State College’s new and deceptive equity policies.

The left had no monopoly on intimidation tactics; 2017 saw a sharp rise in campaigns against left-wing professors initiated by right-wing media outlets and executed via online mobs making racist, sexist, and otherwise threatening social media posts and phone calls. I summarized this sad state of affairs in a Heterodox Academy essay titled Professors must now fear intimidation from both sides.

In the most horrific event of the year (for universities) we saw neo-Nazis and Klansmen bringing torches, guns, and racist flags to the grounds of the University of Virginia and the city of Charlottesville, where one of them killed a peaceful protester. We witnessed President Trump’s difficulties in condemning the marchers and their overt racism.

Along with the Nazis, 2017 brought the old East Block back to campus too. We saw the growing use by professors of open letters of denunciation of fellow professors for things they have written (as happened to HxA member Amy Wax), and open letters demanding that articles be retracted (as happened to HxA members Rebecca Tuvel and Bruce Gilley). Such letters are efforts to win by applying social pressure, magnified by social media, rather than using the proper method of the academy: reasoned argument. Several of our members who were raised behind the Iron Curtain pointed out to me the similarities between these tactics and those employed by the Soviets. HxA graduate student affiliate Lindsay Shepherd got a taste of those old ways during her interrogation at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Canada.

Among the most dangerous trends, I believe, is the rising popularity of the idea that speech is sometimes violence – not metaphorical violence but actual, real violence, which can justify physical violence in response. (See these letters from UC Berkeley students, and this Op-Ed by a professor of psychology in the New York Times. Greg Lukianoff and I responded in The Atlantic).

I have focused on events in the United States, but in 2017 it became undeniable that rising illiberalism is a problem at universities in many other countries as well, particularly Canada and the UK.

With so many alarming events and trends on campus, it should not be surprising that polls by both Pew and Gallup showed rapidly declining support for universities by Americans who identify as Conservative or Republican. This declining support cannot be written off, as some have tried to do, as evidence of a sudden wave of anti-intellectualism on the right. It is what any group would do if a major social institution suddenly turned against the group, attacking its members physically and banishing its ideas with ever-increasing ferocity. It is “potentially devastating for higher education,” as Gallup’s head of polling for education recently stated.

The intensifying politicization of college campuses since the fall of 2015 is morally wrong, intellectually unjustifiable, and financially unsustainable.  Professors and administrators from across the political spectrum are coming to the shared realization that the two core academic missions of universities–research and education–are under threat.  If you love universities and want them to earn the respect of the public and the support of the taxpayers, you should support Heterodox Academy.  

Our mission at HxA is to improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement. That mission seemed pretty important to us when we founded the organization, in September of 2015. Today, it’s critical.

The worse things get on campus, the more support we receive from professors, students, and administrators. 2017 was a year of extraordinary growth and success for us. Here are a few stats and achievements for the year:

  • Membership has risen nearly 300%, from 363 last December to 1,427 today.
  • We opened membership to graduate students enrolled in PhD programs in April, and now have 157 graduate student affiliates.
  • Our social media presence grew more than 160% on Twitter and 100% on Facebook, while our website traffic increased by more than 60% since last year.
  • We launched a podcast series, Half Hour of Heterodoxy, which now features 16 interviews with prominent academics conducted by HxA’s Chris Martin.
  • We launched the OpenMind App, which is now being used (or about to be used next semester) on more than 45 campuses to prepare students to benefit from exposure to viewpoint diversity.
  • We created the Campus Expression Survey and are making it freely available to professors and administrators who would like to know which groups of students are fearful to speak up about which issues and why.
  • We improved our Guide to Colleges, which is now consulted by many high school students, parents, and guidance counselors to help students locate the schools most likely to expose them to a diversity of viewpoints.
  • We launched a partnership with a promising organization of undergraduates called BridgeUSA.
  • We received great press coverage, including in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CSPAN, The Washington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and The Atlantic.
  • We incorporated in October, and have applied to the IRS for designation as a tax exempt charitable organization. (In the meantime, if you’d like to support us financially, please contact edevito@stern.nyu.edu)

And the most important news of all: We have hired our first Executive Director. We’ll announce her name in January when she takes over the leadership of HxA. For now, I can tell you that she’s a full professor of psychology with extensive experience in university administration. She was already an HxA member when we posted the job advertisement last July.

Under the guidance of our new Executive Director, we will complete a strategic planning process in early January. While our exact activities in 2018 will depend on the outcomes of that process, we have already identified three priorities: 

  1. Deepen the engagement of our members.
  2. Create and disseminate more empirically-backed tools for use by our various campus constituencies.
  3. Engage more fully in the broader societal discourse about the importance of viewpoint diversity in research and education.  

Here are just a few of the initiatives we will roll out in 2018 to support these priorities:

  • Launch a fully redesigned website that will better connect visitors with the information and tools they need to create change on their campuses;
  • Create networks and procedures to support those who find themselves being punished or attacked for good faith teaching and scholarship;
  • Provide mentoring for graduate students and junior faculty members, for whom standing on the side of heterodoxy can be especially risky;
  • Distribute a beautifully illustrated edition of Chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s classic text, On Liberty, which we have created to spur campus conversations about the value of constructive disagreement;
  • Expand the number of campus adoptions of the OpenMind app, its accompanying workshop, and its extensive library in order to equip more students with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to engage constructively with others;
  • Create a Best Practices Guide for professors and administrators who wish to develop campuses and classrooms that support viewpoint diversity. The guide will include sample syllabi, guidelines for the prevention of crises on campus, and suggested language for academic job ads to signal that viewpoint diversity is valued;
  • Create a team of staff writers who can respond to the fast-paced news cycle and draw from their own scholarship to illuminate trends in higher ed. In addition, our team will draw on the wealth of knowledge among our members to encourage more frequent postings and to help members get published more often in high profile outlets;
  • Synthesize and make accessible all available research on complex and politically controversial topics, such as what the existing polling data really say about student attitudes toward free speech;
  • Conduct our own original empirical research about campuses and viewpoint diversity, while facilitating the empirical endeavors of our members.

In short, we have a big year planned — our biggest by far. These nine initiatives, in tandem, will fundamentally change the intellectual landscape on campus. Ideas matter in the academy. So does data, so does leadership. These initiatives will foster the production of essential research, the creation of networks of engaged scholars, and more vibrant classroom experiences for students. They will also make it easier for leaders to stand up for academic principles and guide their schools through perilous times, when so many off-campus actors are seeking to find and publicize the next on-campus scandal or blowup.

We think that 2018 will be the year things begin to turn around and many more university leaders stand up and assert the value of viewpoint diversity. Things may continue to get worse on many campuses, but I predict that we’ll begin to see a growing number of universities breaking from the pack and following the lead of the University of Chicago–taking active steps to create cultures of vibrant inquiry and debate, implementing programs to bring diverse and high-quality speakers to campus, and otherwise welcoming viewpoint diversity. Once a few more universities commit to viewpoint diversity, market pressures are likely to boost their applications, donations, and rankings, encouraging others to follow suit.

We think the stars are aligned and there is a widespread desire to change course. Our initiatives are designed to help campus leaders turn those desires into action. We are finding allies and supporters wherever we go. But change will require the persistent, patient, and collaborative engagement of many constituencies on and off campus–people like you. We are so grateful to each of you for supporting us in 2017. Whether you became a member, adopted one of our tools, contributed a blog post, or made a philanthropic donation, you made our successes in 2017 possible. We welcome your continued engagement in 2018.

I close with a quote from John Stuart Mill, my new favorite philosopher. In On Liberty, Mill notes that despite the severe flaws of individual minds, humankind makes progress in its understanding, and he credits our progress to:

a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning.

Has there ever been a clearer plea for the importance of epistemological humility, and the need for an institution that fosters such humility and then hosts such discussions and experiences? Mill goes on to note that viewpoint diversity is essential for such discussions to have any salutary effects:

the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.

May 2018 be a year of increasing wisdom at our universities, and of peace and joy for you.

Jon Haidt