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February 27, 2021+Musa al-Gharbi
+Viewpoint Diversity

Difference and Repetition in the Viewpoint Diversity Space

A New Approach to a Longstanding Problem

In a previous essay for Heterodox Academy I demonstrated that virtually all of the concepts and arguments that people are arguing about today have, in fact, been around for decades. None of this stuff is new. Indeed, there have been at least two other ‘Great Awokenings’ in the United States since World War II.

In a follow-up, I highlighted that research exploring the ways positionality and homogeneity affect knowledge production dates back more than a century but has largely failed to have a robust institutional impact, in part because scholars working on these issues bifurcated into a set of mutually-antagonistic camps: one camp focused on ‘identity commitments’ (race, gender, sexuality, class), another on ‘ideology per se’ (political, religious, philosophical commitments).

In light of these realities, it should not surprise readers that Heterodox Academy is far from the first organization founded ostensibly to promote open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and/ or constructive disagreement. However, it may be instructive to walk through some of these predecessors in order to explore 1) What, if anything, HxA is doing differently from previous attempts that failed, and 2) what is HxA contributing that is non-redundant with predecessor organizations that are still around today.

That is, by looking at how HxA differs from these previous attempts, we can understand its novel contribution to the higher ed landscape – and gain a deeper understanding of the history, trajectory and limitations of the viewpoint diversity movement up to now.

1915 Following the political firing of Stanford sociologist Edward A. Ross, Columbia University philosopher John Dewey began to publicly argue that professorial autonomy should not be contingent upon the whims of people who administer academic institutions. He rallied other professors to his cause — starting with those who were terminated or resigned in the Stanford Incident – eventually leading to the 1915 formation of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
Dewey served as the association’s first president. The top priorities of the organization were to render tenure protections more robust, to help standardize tenure processes and protections across disciplines and institutions, and to ensure that professors (rather than administrators or trustees) played the central role in decisions to hire, promote or dismiss faculty members.
These efforts culminated in the landmark 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure — jointly formulated with the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), which had been founded in the same year as the AAUP (albeit with a different purpose: to advocate for the value of liberal education at colleges and universities nationwide). This joint statement has defined academic tenure in the United States ever since.
1947 Under the management of Harold Luhnow, the William Volker Fund began funding initiatives to help spread libertarian and classical liberal ideas. As a result of the Great Depression, the Keynesian Revolution and the New Deal, the rise of Communism, socialism and other experiments in social arrangement following World War II and decolonization – Luhnow perceived that free markets, limited government and foreign non-intervention were growing increasingly passe – particularly in academia. Through the Volker Fund, he began to fund a series of initiatives to help reinvigorate these ideas.
He began by funding conferences for the Mont Perelin Society – a network of libertarian and classical liberal scholars led by Friedrich Hayek. Luhnow, through the Volker Fund, then helped scale up the nascent Foundation for Economic Education (est. 1946). In 1953, the Volker Fund helped establish the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (now, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute) — formulated as a response to the previous Intercollegiate Socialist Society (which, after a series of reorganizations and restructurings, eventually became the influential Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS – one of the primary organs of the New Left movement of the 60s). Towards the end of Luhnow’s tenure at the Volker Fund, he and longtime associate F.A. Harper sowed the seeds for what would become known as the Institute for Humane Studies (est. 1961). However, due to a series of personal and professional conflicts, Harper ultimately established the organization independently of Luhnow and the Volker Fund (for a time, running it out of his garage) – albeit following largely the same model.
What is that model? The Volker Fund initiatives each varied a bit from one-another in terms of their core audiences, methods, and top priorities – however there was also significant overlap in their approaches: they hosted events, meetings and conferences – fully funded for participants – to help build networks, mentorship relationships, and to deepen understanding of the classical liberal tradition. They produced materials to facilitate teaching others about these ideas – disseminated at little-to-no cost. They sponsored and published scholarship by those who were working within this tradition.
Through these methods they attracted a number of scholars dissatisfied with the nascent ‘New Left.’ Indeed, although the Volker Fund is no more, these organizations have not only survived until the present day, they have grown – not just in numbers, but also in the scale of their initiatives and operations.
1968 A former Marxist who had grown disenchanted with Communism, NYU professor Sidney Hook founded the Committee on Cultural Freedom, aimed at opposing ‘totalitarianism’ from the left and the right. The organization was reorganized in 1951 into the American Committee for Cultural Freedom – subsumed under a larger international organization Hook had launched in 1950, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). The organization attained significant cultural influence worldwide, and was endorsed by a number of prominent scholars. However, in 1966, it was discovered that the CCF and its affiliates were receiving significant funding and support from the CIA – leading many former sympathizers and members to dismiss it as a propaganda organization and to distance themselves from it.
In the aftermath of these revelations, Hook stepped aside from the organization, which was renamed and restructured into the International Association for Cultural Freedom (IACF), and continued to exist with support from private foundations until 1977 – although it never recovered its former levels of credibility and influence.Hook, however, was not done with organization building. In 1968 he organized faculty on 97 campuses into the Coordinating Center for Democratic Opinion — later called the University Centers for Rational Alternatives (UCRA) – to push back against what he perceived to be illiberal tendencies among student activists of the 1960s.
In a letter announcing the launch of the organization, Hook argued that its purpose was to “to protect and advance the freedom and democratic integrity of academic life,” to struggle against the “extremist challenge,” and “to support the university as an open center of free thought and speech – as a meeting house of many viewpoints – not as an enclave of enforced conformity or a totalitarian beachhead in a democratic society.”
At its peak, the organization had about 3,000 members from 350 campuses nationwide. However, as the student protest movement fizzled out, the organization struggled to define its purpose and maintain its relevance. By the early 1980s, it had largely fizzled out — although it continued to operate a journal Measure, into the mid-90s.
1973 In 1951, Buckley published God and Man at Yale, arguing that conservative and religious views were increasingly being denigrated and marginalized within institutions of higher learning — even as professors attempted to impose secularist, Keynesian and collectivist thinking upon students. Over the decades that followed — especially following the ascendance of the ‘New Left’ within institutions of higher learning — Buckley and his colleagues would continue to bemoan that conservative students, scholars and ideas were increasingly unwelcome within colleges and universities. However, there was no alternative intellectual infrastructure for these ideas and scholars, which would allow them to thrive, and for their work to have an impact.
The 1973 founding of the Heritage Foundation turned out to be a political and intellectual game-changer. They created a venue for conservative intellectuals to directly influence policy without being saddled by traditional gatekeepers. They revolutionized the “think tank” world through their new models of engagement with policymakers and journalists, their emphasis on concise and pragmatic ‘policy briefs’ (as opposed to the journal articles and books think tanks formerly dedicated themselves to producing); they revolutionized think-tank fundraising through direct-mail advertising and aggressively soliciting corporate donations.
Their success served as a template for subsequent right-aligned efforts, such as the libertarian Cato Institute (est. 1977 by Murray Rothbard, Ed Crane and Charles Koch) — and even helped pull older think tanks (like American Enterprise Institute) more directly into the partisan fray. In the process, they created an alternative infrastructure for right-aligned intellectuals and scholarship. The emergence of this infrastructure had three major effects with respect to institutions of higher learning:1. It radically exacerbated the conservative and libertarian “brain drain” among the professoriate (as right-aligned scholars increasingly fled to think tanks, where they could pursue their work with less stigma or constraint).
2. It created alternative pathways for conservative students to persist in the academy and pursue scholarly work thereafter (where they might not have previously perceived a viable pathway to becoming a scholar, given the growing perception among conservatives that academia was essentially ‘lost’ to the left).
3. It helped drive a rupture between think tanks and the academy — with parallel literatures being produced and ever-less engagement between them (as think tank intellectuals — across the board — increasingly prioritized policy briefs, white papers, short monographs and op-eds over journal articles and scholarly books).
1987 Allan Gruchy coined term “Heterodox Economics” to identify approaches to economic theory that defied prevailing Keynesian and neo-classical approaches (an example of a ‘heterodox’ approach would be Marxist economics). United under this banner, a movement emerged – which continues to the present day — focused on challenging orthodoxies in this particular discipline.
Also in 1987, Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind. It became a cultural sensation, sparking a renewed national debate about the extent to which universities, as a result of New Left professors, ‘radical’ students, relativism, the neglect of the ‘canon,’ affirmative action and other diversity or anti-racism/ sexism initiatives, etc. may be undermining the fabric of American society and culture, threatening the integrity of knowledge production, and perhaps Western civilization itself.
That same year, a new national organization was launched to “preserve Western intellectual heritage” — the Campus Coalition for Democracy, now known as the National Association of Scholars (NAS). Its initial efforts were geared towards criticizing diversity, equity or multiculturalism efforts, gender studies, critical race studies, postcolonial studies, etc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this focus, the organization quickly developed a reputation as a conservative advocacy organization, although they have generally resisted that label. Today, for instance, NAS President Peter Wood prefers to define the organization’s primary mission as speaking up for ‘deplorable scholars.’
1988 David Horowitz and Peter Collier establish the Center for the Study of Popular Culture (now known as the David Horowitz Freedom Center). In contrast with NAS, the CSPC was explicitly and unabashedly a conservative advocacy organization, ostensibly aimed at countering ‘liberal indoctrination’ and ‘political correctness.’
In the early 90s, the CSPC launched a magazine, Heterodoxy, intended to ‘expose the excesses of political correctness’ on college and university campuses throughout the United States. In many respects, it served as a template for subsequent initiatives to surveille and report on ‘out of control’ left-leaning professors. For instance, in the aftermath of 9/11, Campus Watch(est. 2002) was established to target scholars who did work on Islam and the Middle East. With the advent of social media a number of new sites sprouted up to crowdsource and amplify incidents of alleged bias such as Campus Reform (est. 2009), College Fix (est. 2011), Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist (est. 2016). An entire ecosystem has emerged to cultivate and funnel (often decontextualized, exaggerated, distorted or otherwise non-representative) incidents of perceived educational malpractice into a right-aligned outrage machine – in order to mark scholars for campaigns of intimidation and harassment, or to push for their termination — in the name of academic freedom and viewpoint diversity, no less!
1995 Lynne Cheney, Richard Lamm, Hank Brown, David Reisman, Saul Bellow, Joe Liberman and Anne Neal formed the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) — originally known as the National Alumni Forum — in order to mobilize trustees and alumni to adopt a more assertive governing role at colleges and universities, ostensibly to promote academic freedom, viewpoint diversity, high academic standards, and a robust liberal arts education. The AAUP and others have criticizedACTA and movements like it on the grounds that movements attempting to shape teaching, research and campus culture should be led by people who are teachers and intellectuals, who are part of institutions of higher learning, etc. ACTA’s response has been that institutions of higher learning are of deep relevance to society overall — and as a consequence, non-academics also have a stake and a voice with what happens therein (especially with respect to publicly-funded colleges). Trustees and alumni in particular, they argued, have both a right and responsibility to advocate for a good education (however they understand it) via the power of the purse.
1999 In contradistinction with organizations seeking to advance a particular political agenda/ line of thought, or who lay siege to students and professors for their political views, Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate established the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to defend academics who were under attack for their beliefs, expression or scholarship – irrespective of the ideological positions of the aggressors or their intended targets. The organization is focused on legal equality (combatting discrimination and bias), ensuring due process, and defending freedom of conscience and expression. Their legal team files lawsuits and amicus briefs, drafts model legislation, consults university leadership on best-practices and educates faculty and students on their rights. In 2003 they began a university ratings project, assigning tracked schools a ‘green,’ ‘yellow,’ or ‘red’ rating depending on their openness to free expression (relative to their metrics) – which has subsequently expanded into a range of resources and student surveys to understand the state of free expression and due process on campuses nationwide.
The same year FIRE is launched to assist scholars in the United States, another organization, Scholars at Risk, was created to help provide temporary academic positions and support for academics who are threatened or persecuted for their work – focused primarily on scholars beyond the U.S. and Western Europe (who are often, in many respects, more vulnerable due to weaker protections for free speech, open inquiry, due process, etc.).
2002 Interfaith Youth Core was launched to help promote interfaith cooperation and understanding (to include building mutual understanding between religious people and secular / non-religious people) on college campuses and their surrounding communities. Today the organization operates on 600 campuses across the United States, with a robust network of students, alumni and faculty committed to learning and constructive exchange across worldviews.
2009 Dennis Prager originally planned on launching right-aligned university along the lines of Liberty University (est. 1971) or Hillsdale (which ‘declared independence‘ in 1962). This proved cost-prohibitive. However, recognizing the growing popularity of online instruction, and of video platforms like YouTube, he got an idea to reach students with his preferred educational materials while circumventing professors and other institutional gatekeepers altogether. The result was PragerU.
Their primary product: short, polished five-minute ‘explainer’ videos offering highly-controversial takes on various topics, but presented in a way that seems authoritative, even commonsensical. Occasionally these explainers are put together by actual academics. More typically, however, they feature scholars associated with various conservative think-tanks, prominent media/ online personalities, or up-and-coming young conservative activists. According to their website, PragerU videos have received over three billion views to date — this despite a significant share of their content being restricted by YouTube.

While HxA shares some similarities with some of these previous movements (and has served as an implicit rebuke of others), the organization was also intended to be something new and different.

Like the Heterodox Economics movement, HxA pushes back on orthodoxies in scholarship – but unites scholars across disciplines and fields.

Similar to many other groups and movements above, HxA recognizes that there is a dearth of engagement with conservative, libertarian, religious and other non-left/ secular views across most lines of social research – and the organization sees this as a problem. However, (unlike many others operating in this space) HxA does not take the position that conservative, libertarian or religious thought is ‘correct,’ nor that the prevailing secular and left-aligned values are ‘wrong.’ Instead, the organization recognizes homogeneity itself as a problem for research and teaching. It leads to blind spots and overconfidence, untested axioms, underexplored possibilities, it contributes to a disconnect between scholars, the public and policymakers – undermining the credibility, impact and continued viability of research and institutions of higher learning. These are the problems Heterodox Academy was founded to help address.

Put another way: HxA does not advocate for any particular ideology (conservative, libertarian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim) nor any particular tradition or canon (such as the classical western tradition). They were intended to be focused on the process of research and pedagogy, making sure it is as inclusive, free, rigorous and fair as it can be. Increasing ideological diversity is one means to this end – although the organization also supports other diversity and inclusion efforts, for instance those aimed at increasing participation among women, ethnic or racial minorities, those from modest socio-economic backgrounds, rural areas, etc. Indeed, Heterodox Academy was perhaps the first initiative of its sort — that embraces and seeks to address both ideology and identity issues in knowledge production, and to understand the complex relationships between these domains.

While recognizing the necessity of legal action at times to push back against incursions on freedom and defend scholars under fire for their ideas or research — as an organization, Heterodox Academy has been consistently opposed to attempts at legislating viewpoint diversity, etc. As HxA co-founder and board chair Jonathan Haidt put it, “The political world is playing a very different game, and it’s a game that almost always damages our ability to do our work in universities.”

Unlike the UCRA — which was formed in response to student protests and struggled to find a purpose as campus disruptions died down — Heterodox Academy was founded prior to(rather than in response to) the latest major outbreak of campus eruptions (contemporaneous with the 2016 election). Its founding purpose had nothing to do with the culture wars or ‘kids these days.’ As noted above, there were plenty of already-existing organizations focused on the culture wars. Indeed, other such movements have risen up and largely fizzled out in the years since Heterodox Academy was formed, and new organizations are cropping up all the time. Yet very little has been accomplished with all this sound and fury beyond denigrating young people, delegitimizing expertise, polarizing institutions of higher learning, and inviting more outside meddling into colleges and universities.

There are innumerable organizations ostensibly focused on ending the culture wars too. Indeed, there was an explosion of initiatives focused on community building, civil discourse, and bridging partisan divides in the wake of Trump (some focused on campuses, others the broader society). While these efforts are laudable, HxA was not intended to serve as one more player in the over-crowded ‘civic culture’ space. Instead, it was an organization with an idiosyncratic mission and approach – one that set it apart from both its predecessors and contemporaries, and which is worth reiterating here:

  • Heterodox Academy was intended to be focused, first and foremost, on improving research and teaching. Viewpoint diversity (again, understood to include both demographic and ideological dimensions) was emphasized as a means of improving knowledge production. It was not an end to itself, nor was the goal to advance any particular ideology or worldview within institutions of higher learning. Critically, the goal was not to oppose ideas associated with the left either. Indeed, concerns about ideological diversity as actually flowing naturally from the kind of critiques raised by queer theorists, critical race theorists, postcolonial theorists, feminist standpoint epistemology, etc. Taking those ideas to their logical conclusion should lead one to interrogate the extent to which one’s own ideological commitments (and especially the homogeneity of convictions like one’s own within a field) may undermine the ability to understand certain phenomena, may lead scholars to ignore key perspectives and inconvenient facts in the pursuit of preferred narratives and policies – ultimately leading them to pursue courses of action that do not, in fact, empower or serve the people they are supposed to be empowering or serving, and do not reflect others’ own values and perceived interests. Indeed, my first exposure to the importance of viewpoint diversity, the problems with homogeneity and groupthink, etc. didn’t come from reading people like Jon Haidt, but instead Edward Said, Foucault, Fanon, Gramsci, Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler.
  • HxA was intended to be an organization by and for academic insiders who have deep knowledge of the institutions they are trying to reform and the challenges they face – and who are invested in institutions of higher learning, with a profound stake in their flourishing. This is in contrast with many other organizations dominated by people who are not part of institutions of higher learning and do not understand them particularly well.
  • Heterodox Academy was committed to conducting original research, and to curating and disseminating empirical research by others, in order to facilitate pragmatic and evidence-based solutions to the challenges members were working to address. This is in contrast with other organizations that traffic in hyperbole and anecdote, or who proffer empty platitudes in response to practical problems.
  • HxA was intended to be constructive in nature – not just harping on problems but helping to work through possible solutions and to highlight exemplars — to provide data, frameworks, tools and resources that members could put to use.
  • Heterodox Academy was oriented around grassroots reform – hoping to inspire, mobilize and support academics to themselves lead the charge in the disciplines and institutions they are embedded in –to tackle concrete problems in their own specific contexts. This is in contrast with organizations that promote coercive, top-down and/or outside-in approaches to addressing problems within institutions of higher learning.

Collectively, these represented genuine innovations to what others had been trying to do up to then, and indeed, what other organizations are trying to do today. To the extent that HxA leans into the elements that set it apart, it will likely remain a vital element in the higher ed landscape, and may be able to help accomplish positive change in a way that many others have not.


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