These remarks were offered at the 2nd annual Heterodox Academy conference, held June 20-1 2019 in New York City.
Heterodox Academy held its first annual conference one year ago. I took the stage having made a cross-country move with my 8-year-old in tow just two weeks prior. It’s been a year of transition and growth, both personally and for Heterodox Academy.
On the personal front:
- I’ve learned to put vacation days on the calendar. As a former professor, I can no longer count on the once-familiar rhythm of the academic calendar to provide me effortless access to Fall break, Winter break, Spring break, and Summer break.
- I’m much less intimidated by public transit than I was a year ago.
- I have learned the sanity-saving value of noise-cancelling headphones in a city teeming with jackhammers — and of happy hours with friends in a city devoid of eye contact.
- I have taken up three new self-expanding interests: playing bridge, playing electric bass, and ordering takeout via Seamless.
- And, I have learned the preferred pronunciation of my board chair’s last name, Jonathan Haidt [sounds like “height” not “hate”].
And what has this past year been like for HxA? Before answering that, I will need to take a step back.
As some of you already know, Heterodox Academy’s origin story could be accurately summarized as “three guys and a blog.” Three scholars from three different disciplines authored concurrent articles reflecting on the costs of orthodoxy in their disciplines. Chris Martin, Nick Rosencrantz and Jonathan Haidt then joined forces to create a blog, which very quickly attracted more writers and calls for a membership structure.
Soon, collaborations took root, creating new tools and research. Before long, a small staff was needed to help steward projects and seize opportunities. Efforts and relationships grew organically. At that point, Jon and others realized that a more formal organization would be needed in order to harness the potential of the open inquiry movement.
For Heterodox Academy, this past year has been all about putting the ‘organs’ in this organization – establishing critical strategic and operational foundations upon which to build programmatic and collaborative success. For example, since the last conference we:
- Obtained 501c3 status
- Established our Board of Directors
- Identified metrics by which we track progress
- Built a membership database and
- Brought needed focus to our work through strategic planning.
What was once an energized vision has transformed into a passionately non-partisan and non-profit organization, strategically built to achieve an urgent need: improving the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.
We aspire to create college classrooms and campuses that welcome diverse people with diverse viewpoints and that equip learners with the habits of heart and mind to engage that diversity in order to gain a deeper understanding of our social, cultural, and aesthetic worlds.
We see an academy eager to welcome professors, students, and speakers who approach problems and questions from different points of view, explicitly valuing the role such diversity plays in advancing the pursuit of knowledge, discovery, growth, and innovation. Rather than merely tolerating others who see things differently, we will be curious and eager to engage, appreciating that none of us know everything about anything. We need each other to fully understand nuance and complexity.
To achieve these ends, Heterodox Academy engages in four types of work:
1. We increase public awareness to elevate the importance of these issues on campus.
During the first three quarters of our fiscal year we
- Published 34 essays on our blog
- Placed 27 op-eds and carried out 21 interviews in external media outlets
- Produced 24 episodes of the Half Hour of Heterodoxy podcast.
- All Minus One – our beautifully illustrated edition of Chapter 2 of John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty — was downloaded over 51k times from the HxA website.
2. We develop tools and resources that professors, administrators & others can deploy to assess and then improve their campus and disciplinary cultures.
So far in 2019, we
- Became host to the Gallup/Knight data about free expression on campus.
- Collected benchmark data from two national samples of students currently enrolled at 4-year colleges
Over the coming weeks, look for the release of reports about our benchmark data and the launch of a graphic user interface that will allow visitors to our website to easily visualize patterns in the Gallup/Knight data. Moreover:
- Our Campus Expression Survey was administered on at least 11 campuses so far this year.
- I personally interviewed 22 college presidents as part of a listening tour to understand the challenges they face in the open inquiry space and what they need from HxA to create local change.
University leaders are hungry for best-practices, metrics and validated interventions. Thanks to a $2.8 million grant from the Templeton Foundation, Heterodox Academy will be able to create those things over the next few years.
3. We publicly recognize individuals, groups and institutions that make progress on these matters.
For example, in addition to awarding The HxA Open Inquiry Award for Institutional Excellence to Claremont McKenna College, we highlighted nine additional colleges in a recent feature published by Reason magazine. These schools provide models – visible pathways – for others looking to reclaim open inquiry as a cornerstone of the academy.
Again, thanks to the Templeton grant, next year we will launch the HxA Distinguished Academy initiative. Like the LEED Certification for energy-wise buildings, this accolade will signal to the world that a given college has provided concrete evidence that it has in place the philosophies, policies, and practices that create a positive climate for expression and constructive engagement across lines of difference.
4. We cultivate communities of practice among teachers, researchers & administrators.
To this end, we
- Added on average 43 new academic members each month; we now have over 3,200 members representing many disciplines, institution types, countries, demographics, and political commitments.
- Added a ‘Professional Affiliate’ membership category in recognition that staff play a central role in life of any college, and
- Launched four HxDisciplines groups—in psychology, sociology, classics, and rhetoric– to enable scholars to connect with each other and with opportunities to understand and advance heterodoxy in their teaching and research.
In the coming months, we hope to welcome additional disciplines to the effort. Please let us know if you are interested in starting a group or getting involved in one of the existing groups.
The HxA Conference and Open Inquiry Awards Dinner is, of course, a major community building event as well. More than 430 members, community leaders, administrators, philanthropists, and students will be here this year to discuss key issues at the core of our mission.
The program features a stellar lineup of speakers, panelists, moderators, and workshop facilitators who will advance discourse, provide tools, offer solutions, and ask tough questions – and opportunities for participants to think together about how best to foster heterodox cultures on campuses and in our disciplines, creating communities of practice we expect will reach far beyond the conference walls.
To state the obvious: The problems we seek to fix are incredibly complex and typically contextualized within the histories, values, and missions of each institution. The conference sessions will dive into some of that complexity, exploring—for instance– critical questions about the relationship among viewpoint diversity and other important diversities, and about which ideas gain entry into the academy, who decides, and how.
On this first question, I’ll quote my HxA colleague Musa al-Gharbi: “If we care about demographic diversity and inclusion…we also must care about ideological (political, religious, etc.) diversity and inclusion. To the extent that we attempt to pursue one to the exclusion (or at the expense) of the other – we are setting ourselves up for failure.” Or, as our colleagues at Interfaith Youth Core put it, if we have a campus where everyone looks different, but thinks the same, have we really accomplished diversity?
And to the second question about which ideas gain entry into the academy: We see viewpoint diversity as an instrumental good, not an absolute good — valuable to the extent it contributes to teaching, learning, discovery and the exposure of falsehoods. Quality of thought and modes of engagement matter. Indeed, improving the quality of research, teaching and engagement is central to our mission.
Please know: your colleagues at HxA know this is challenging work, and we applaud all of you who are working to develop or implement constructive solutions. While we know there are no one-size-fits-all answers, we also know that there’s nothing wrong with the academy that can’t be fixed by what’s right with the academy. I am more confident than ever that together we can, and we will, rise to the occasion.
Debra Mashek is Heterodox Academy’s Executive Director. She has a PhD in Social Health and Psychology (with a concentration in Quantitative Methods) from State University of New York at Stony Brook and served as a Professor in Psychology at Harvey Mudd College.