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Heterodox Academy
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December 11, 2023+John Tomasi
+Open Inquiry+Campus Policy+Viewpoint Diversity+Constructive Disagreement

Campus Culture at a Crossroads: A Letter From the President

Dear members and supporters,

College and university responses to the October 7 attacks by Hamas, and the subsequent response by Israel, have put questions of campus culture in the public spotlight like never before. The clumsy and tone-deaf statements by university presidents in the immediate wake of the attack and, even more dramatically, before Congress last week, have served to deepen public distrust in higher education and its values. As a nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement, HxA takes no position on the moral and political questions raised by the conflict in the Middle East. We do take a position on what role higher education should play.

As many have noted, there was profound hypocrisy in the spectacle of prominent university presidents claiming to be staunchly committed to free expression, when their own institutions have been anything but. For years, a practice of silencing offensive ideas has run rampant on college campuses – including at Harvard, MIT, and Penn. Just ask Carole Hooven, Tyler VanderWeele, Amy Wax, or the admitted Harvard students who were disinvited for sharing the wrong memes online. Any credible change in principles should start by acknowledging and rectifying such mistakes, not brazenly pretending they never happened.

We have seen this same pattern of hypocrisy in universities’ enforcement of various speech-adjacent rules. Rules about putting up posters, or taking them down, about bullying and harassment – such as obstructing the passage of students into and out of classes and events – have been enforced selectively, if at all. At one Ivy League university, whose handbook explicitly forbids the shouting down of speakers, the university president was recently shouted down–without disciplinary response.

But the opposite hypocrisy is also visible. Some advocates of free expression have failed to distinguish between true threats and harassment (which are rightly banned), and debatable slogans or offensive ideas about geopolitics and war. As others have argued, asking university administrators to decide which slogans and arguments count as a “call for genocide” – in the absence of a true threat or harassment – is ill-advised. For example, consider the opinions and slogans that could easily be cast as calls for “Gazan genocide,” “trans genocide,” or “genocide of the unborn.” History shows that speech codes have a way of coming around to bite their advocates.

Yet this moment is about more than free speech, because free speech is a low bar for a university. Excellence in research and education also requires a positive set of ideals, habits, and cultural norms. It is these norms that distinguish the academy from an ordinary place for clashing opinions. Without open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement, an institution of higher education can easily degrade into just another outpost for this or that constituency, worldview or monoculture.

Heterodox Academy calls on college and university leaders to:

  • Protect physical safety and the learning process, by firmly and consistently enforcing content-neutral rules against violence, threats, harassment, and physical intimidation.

  • Protect open discourse, by firmly and consistently enforcing rules against classroom disruptions, speaker shout-downs, tearing down of flyers and displays, and physical takeovers of campus spaces.

  • Protect the pursuit of truth and the exposure of errors, by firmly and consistently defending the rights to explore and express objectionable opinions on any topic, from any perspective.

  • Elevate the culture of teaching, research, and student life by emphasizing the ideals of intellectual discovery and innovation, rather than the mere rehearsal of (someone else’s) political dogma.

On that last point, Heterodox Academy has a special role to play. Recent events have highlighted a simplistic moral model that has come to dominate campus life, in the dorms, on the quad and, increasingly, in classrooms and in scholarship too. This model arises from combining identity politics with a binary approach to morality. It sees the social world as conveniently divided into two great classes: oppressors and oppressed. In this milieu, winning an argument, or even deciding what you think, is simply a matter of asking which category each group has been slotted into. This model cuts off thinking and discussion before they can begin. It is a fundamentally anti-intellectual mindset.

The foundational values of Heterodox Academy—open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement—work directly against that procrustean worldview. Rather than allowing universities to settle into their role as second-rate political actors, HxA redirects universities to a higher ideal: through open scholarship, our universities should be known for producing fresh and creative ideas, work and teaching that deepens our understanding of pressing problems in the real world.

Endorsing HxA values requires far more than unwinding the hypocrisies about speech codes or the selective enforcement of college rules mentioned above—important though that work is. HxA’s values of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement operate on the deeper level of culture. And, on that cultural level, our values are transformative by their very nature. Indeed, at universities, HxA’s values work like acid against rigid world-views of every sort—ungumming fixed assumptions, eroding comfortable campus paradigms, dissolving moral monocultures, and undermining the institutional fortresses on campus that most resist the changes we seek. 

So HxA seeks radical change across our university system: scholar by scholar, department by department, and campus by campus. HxA is building a culture where every serious thinker is welcome to express their views, where people who see the world differently nonetheless work and learn together, and where impatience with the intellectual status quo is a badge of honor.

John Tomasi

President

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