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heterodox: the blog

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Five Years of Challenging Orthodoxies: Reflections on Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

Sam Abrams, Bradley Campbell, Jonathan Haidt, Irshad Manji, Chris Martin, Steven Pinker, Paul Quirk, Nadine Strossen, Jonathan Zimmerman December 24, 2020

Heterodox Academy celebrated five years this year. In keeping with what we did for our first anniversary, we’re publishing our members’ answers to this question: Looking ahead, what are some of the key areas where you think HxA can make a difference and help promote open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in higher education?

Sam Abrams, professor of politics and American government at Sarah Lawrence College:

I think that the HXA has been remarkably effective in not only creating a truly diverse group of thinkers and agents of change who have become community that cares about promoting and protecting true viewpoint diversity, but also that HXA has very effectively documented to the world and a variety of constituencies that diversity matters but is increasingly under threat. 

Going forward, I think that HXA has another daunting and important task ahead itself and all of its members will need to contribute. That is, HXA will need to work hard to train, support, and backstop the general public, administrators, professors, leaders in higher education, and – perhaps most importantly – students who want to push back against the status quo and promote open inquiry. We as a community already know of the social, professional, and reputational consequences that can emerge when challenging a prevailing set of norms and values. We as a community need to help provide the analytical, pedagogical, rhetorical, and intellectual tools to help varied persons and groups push and demand real intellectual diversity and open inquiry. This is very hard for many and if we can support those who do as they need it (and it will vary), we can gradually make progress toward more openness while respecting and honoring the varied local and institutional differences that make our system of higher education so Great.

Bradley Campbell, professor of sociology at California State University at Los Angeles and coauthor of The Rise of Victimhood Culture:

The obstacle Heterodox Academy faces is that people usually organize to advance themselves or to advance their own viewpoints, not to advance others or to advance other viewpoints. HxA formed to address the lack of political diversity in academia. Its founders saw that political homogeneity was inhibiting good scholarship, and around the time the organization got going, they also began to see that it was leading to intolerance. Incidents such as those at Yale and later at Evergreen State College alarmed even many left-leaning faculty and no doubt contributed to HxA’s growth. 

HxA was always going to have a difficult time persuading a homogeneous group they needed to be more diverse. However much people may value viewpoint diversity as an abstract goal, in an environment where faculty are overwhelmingly on the left, increasing viewpoint diversity means bolstering the right — something most faculty were never going to be passionate about. What probably helped HxA’s numbers, though, was that center-left faculty started becoming the targets of far-left activists. This put HxA in the position of defending these center-left faculty, the kinds of people already filling up the ranks of many parts of academia, and it made it easier for more faculty to get excited about the organization — again, people usually organize to advance themselves or their own viewpoints. 

What seems to have been forgotten, though, was that the bigger problem in academia, and the problem HxA originally sought to address, wasn’t the intolerance of some leftwing activists; it was the near-absence of conservative voices. Thus HxA’s first meeting featured panelists who were almost exclusively liberal or progressive, and they revealed all the biases and blind spots you’d expect if you’d been listening to HxA’s founders a few years before about the dangers of ideological homogeneity. 

More than ever, it’s important to promote open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in higher education. But going forward, it seems clear that HxA can’t succeed in its original mission without more ambitious goals for reform. The problems HxA identified existed long before the organization was formed, and they aren’t problems that are going to be easy to correct. The goal can’t just be to get us back to the status quo of 2014.

Jonathan Haidt, co-founder of HxA and Chair of the HxA Board:

The major story of the year for higher ed was of course COVID and the massive and budget-busting changes every school had to scramble to make. But the second most important story was the protests against police violence and racism in general, following the killing of George Floyd (and many other Black citizens). Universities, like many companies, faced strong demands to implement mandatory antiracist training, often drawing on Robin DiAngelo (White Fragility) or Ibram Kendi (How to Be an Antiracist). These approaches are generally moralistic and dogmatic, punishing dissent and chilling speech, open inquiry, and constructive disagreement on campus.

I have long said that universities should do something to set norms and improve communication when students first arrive on campus. Many of our schools draw students from all over the world and from all regions and social classes of the United States. These incoming students can’t be expected to know the ever-changing set of words and attitudes we “enlightened” academics use – and shun – when talking about race, gender, and sexuality. Call it sensitivity training if you like; I support some version of it. But I also insist that whatever we do to reduce racism and improve sensitivity and inclusion must be empirically validated. I have been searching for proven methods, and as far as I can tell, there are none that have been shown to provide lasting, measurable benefit. 

This is a problem that HxA and its members can help to address. The standard methods of diversity training and antiracism training don’t seem to work as intended, and may in some cases backfire. (We have several blog posts on the issue at HxA; see especially this literature review by Musa al-Gharbi.) Many professors and students have written to me in the last year to express their concerns about these mandatory trainings, but they are often afraid to speak out publicly. They are right that it is dangerous to speak; one of the most reliable ways for a professor to trigger outrage and cancelation attempts on campus is to question some aspect of the DEI agenda, even in good faith. (Just ask Bret Weinstein or Erika Christakis).

But you can’t beat something with nothing. You can’t expect university administrators to cancel a training program because you show them that it is ineffective if they can’t replace it with something else. They must show that they are actively promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. I personally share those goals while questioning many of the methods commonly used to achieve them. So what should administrators do?

Heterodox Academy can and will convene groups of members to discuss this issue, read the research literature, and evaluate a range of approaches. (al-Gharbi offers some suggestions on strategy here.) One important research finding is that diversity training is most likely to backfire when it uses shame and blame (as is common in white fragility training). We will therefore seek out a range of methods that use love, common humanity, or other positive and welcoming approaches. (For examples, see Chloe Valdary, Irshad Manji, and Karith Foster.) To quote Pauli Murray, a black and queer Episcopal priest and civil rights activist, writing in 1945

I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. . . . When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.

I think this is a much more psychologically realistic way to promote inclusion on campus, but it’s an open, important, and ultimately empirical question. 

Irshad Manji, founder of Moral Courage College and member of the HxA Advisory Council:

As HxA considers its mission in the post-Covid world, a glance back at 2020 reminds us of a crucial lesson: We live in a time when anything, including a global public health crisis, will be politicized. The domestic divide between “Us” and “Them” is not disappearing. Which makes viewpoint diversity that much more necessary — yet also that much more daunting — to role-model.

Going forward, then, it won’t be enough to urge intellectual pluralism. The next step is to teach the “how” of practising it sustainably. How, for example, can professors turn contentious issues into constructive conversations? How can researchers develop the courage to bust out of self-censorship? How can students build relationships with their ideological “others”? How can staff co-create a campus culture that emphasizes listening alongside speaking? What leadership skills do these transformations require — and how can administrators demonstrate those skills amid the political pressure to wink at groupthink?

HxA is poised to workshop a “how-to” primer with the higher ed community. Those who embrace viewpoint diversity, but don’t know what they can do to embody it, will welcome the practical support. So will the academy’s future, which demands thinking beyond rigid categories.

Chris Martin, co-founder of HxA and postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology: 

I’d like to reiterate part of what I wrote 5 years ago: 

In the academy, I hope that by 2025 we find a way to have civil discussions about taboo topics instead of shying away from those areas and pouncing on people who touch on those topics. The avoidance of taboo topics hinders research. In a related vein, I hope that sociologists become more comfortable with the fact that nature is cruel. We acknowledge that nature can hurt people through natural disasters, but still jump at the idea that nature also hurts (and helps) people through genetic endowments that are deeply cruel, but that must be acknowledged. We are already making progress on this, but I hope that by 2025, people across the social sciences acknowledge the importance of genetics, and receive training to discriminate between valid and invalid genetic research.  

 I would also add:

Colleges should adopt a different conception of inclusion. An inclusive campus should be a campus where every student can find at least one community in which they feel a sense of belonging. However, the campus overall should be like a city–people of various ideologies and religions should coexist in an atmosphere of tolerance. By tolerance, I mean that people should abjure violence and ostracism. I hope that faculty and administrators adopt this model of campus, and set expectations accordingly. Students should not expect the whole campus to feel like a unified community to which everyone belongs. That model may no longer be tenable in the 21st century.

I also hope that colleges differentiate between social justice and diversity. Social justice requires the acceptance of people who are otherwise stigmatized in society. It also requires the distribution of resources to those who lack them. For this reason, social justice revolves around issues like class and race in the U.S. A college is successful at social justice when students from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to succeed in their academic pursuits. 

Diversity is about knowledge. We all learn more when we understand the opinions of people who have different ideologies, and cultural backgrounds. A college is successful at diversity when the population has such a diverse composition and when people from different backgrounds feel that it is psychologically safe to express their perspective.

Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Harvard University:

HxA’s mission is clear and requires no further elaboration, but it needs to target its ideas at two points of leverage. One is the grownups in academia who have shockingly prostrated themselves in front of outrage mobs: the deans, provost, and presidents who take the path of least resistance and drink the regressive Kool-Aid rather than affirming the principles of freedom of thought and responsible governance. They should be feel pressure from the other side: those who affirm that universities are forums for research and debate, not ratifiers of an ideology; that students are just one set of stakeholders in a university, and don’t get to impose policy on the institution on pain of vandalism and disruption; that the response to demands should be reasoned argument and deliberation, not showering money on ever more layers of redundant bureaucrats; that members of a university community must adhere to norms of civility and respect and refrain from tantrums, abusive invective, and reckless libels of racism.

A second point of leverage is the many students who are sympathetic to viewpoint diversity and intellectual freedom but have been bullied into silence by their noisier classmates. We know that punishment of dissent can lead to pluralistic ignorance, in which few people believe something but everyone thinks that everyone else believes it. HxA should be the little boy at the parade who shatters the silence with the obvious.

One more thought, inspired by Richard Hanania. The response to intellectual repression in universities should not be grounded exclusively in considerations of freedom of speech. The university, of all places, must apply standards of intellectual merit that render certain ideas as too stupid to earn a forum on campus, even if the government does not criminalize them. The problem with campus repression is not that it prevents any old cockamamie opinion from being voiced; it’s that it shuts down ideas that may very well be true: that have enough reason and evidence behind them to be debated seriously. The issue is not free speech; it’s the pursuit of truth via the consideration of all defensible hypotheses.

Paul Quirk, Phil Lind Chair in U.S. Politics and Representation at the University of British Columbia:

Recent surveys of academics have demonstrated that there is in fact a silent majority of faculty on campus that supports freedom of expression and academic freedom, opposes cancel culture, and rejects many of the dogmas and demands of the authoritarian left.  A key task for Heterodox Academy should be to help develop means of promoting  candid expression by this dissenting majority. Such means may include more frequent, topical surveys of faculty opinion, campus-based blogs, on-line events, and others.  In the near term, the safety of anonymity may be an essential condition for candid expression on some matters.  Over time, as typical faculty become aware of their majority status, there may be a return to the mostly free and open campus debates of past eras.

Nadine Strossen, immediate past President of the American Civil Liberties Union and member of the HxA Advisory Council

Throughout the ongoing COVID era, and continuing into the post-COVID era, when much of education will take place online, there will be additional challenges to the open exchange of ideas.  Students, faculty, and other members of campus communities will be deprived of the myriad opportunities for casual in-person interactions with fellow members of those communities that organically provided exposure to and engagement with diverse viewpoints  – e.g., in campus cafeterias, common areas of classroom buildings, and outdoor gathering places such as malls. Therefore, it will be especially important for all organized campus activities – from classes, to co-curricular activities, to forums with outside speakers – to be carefully, intentionally arranged to promote “the HxA Way.”

Another COVID-specific concern is the enormous dependence that educational institutions have on technology companies, such as Zoom, which have no legal obligation to honor academic freedom principles.  In some recent situations, Zoom has apparently denied its services to campus events or speakers due to their disfavored viewpoints.

Even though Zoom maintains that it had other reasons for these service denials, it (along with other similar companies) has the power to set almost any restrictions it might choose on what events it will or will not host.  As non-government entities, such companies are not bound to honor either the Constitution’s free speech guarantee or the academic freedom that the Supreme Court has held to be implicit in that guarantee.  Therefore,  either individually, or banding together to increase their bargaining power, educational institutions must negotiate for appropriate contractual terms – most importantly, to require these companies to comply with fundamental academic freedom principles.  Alternatively, universities could encourage new companies, which would honor these principles, to provide the needed services, and universities should commit to giving their business to such companies.     

Jonathan Zimmerman, a founding member of HxA and professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania:

The quickest way to an academician’s heart is through, well, academics. So for the next iteration of HxA, I’d urge it to develop a more discipline- and research-based focus. In short–and for lack of a better adjective–we need to be dweebier.

Specifically, I’d like to see the organization provide ongoing, tangible evidence about how all of us lose when big questions are taken off the table, or not asked at all. It’s not enough simply to state that we should have viewpoint diversity (although of course we should) or to plead for academic freedom when a scholar is censured/censored for a dissenting claim (although we should do that, too). That will only attract the people with small-l liberal political instincts, which are in short supply across our country (not just our colleges and universities) right now. It won’t lure the great bulk of academics.

But a more academic *approach* might. So, for each discipline, commission reviews of recent research that underscore advances in the literature as well as limitations of it. Are psychologists and biologists neglecting the inheritability of intelligence, for fear of being labeled racist? Are historians exaggerating the role of racism in the nation’s founding and downplaying anti-racist sentiments and activism? These are *research* questions, not just political ones, and I think HxA should treat them as such. So, instead of just a piece defending Abigal Shrier’s right to express her views on gender transition (although again, that’s fine and good), how about a roundtable of sexologists and gender-studies experts who debate her book and the fallout from it? If it’s presented as a state-of-the-research discussion rather than a pro-con “debate,” we’ll engage scholars who read and care about these fields. And that’s a much bigger group than the more limited sub-set who care about the fate of Abigail Shrier. Enough about “cancel culture,” already! Let’s talk about what specifically is getting canceled, and how our knowledge and imagination is thereby narrowed.

“Lingua Franca,” a journal that flourished briefly in the 1990s, might provide a good template here. It would choose an academic controversy–to take a contemporary example, Bruce Gilley on the “benefits” of colonialism–and enlist a group of scholars to comment on it. Of course, the journal folded after a few brief years. But that was in the dim pre-digital yesteryear, and things are different now. Or so I hope.

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