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Heterodox Academy
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February 25, 2020+Musa al-Gharbi
+Campus Policy

Potholes on the Road to Institutional Reform

I began working with Heterodox Academy in the fall of 2016, about a year after the group was formed. At that time, the organization (such as it was) was a handful of interesting people who met in Jon Haidt’s NYU office every week to talk about current events, ideas for blog posts and external publications, and to touch base on projects different team members were working on.

Things quickly changed:

The ‘surprise’ outcome of the 2016 election – and the shock, horror and terror that many left-leaning faculty and students felt in the aftermath – made the task of encouraging ideological diversity much more challenging. Granted, if anything, the election showed a growing disconnect in America between highly-educated elites and everyone else. The need for higher ed institutions to foreground viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding and constructive disagreement was perhaps never greater. Yet, for many – in that moment — the idea of platforming and engaging civilly and in good-faith with, say, conservative or Christian views… this seemed to be too much to ask, too much for them to bear.

Exacerbating this sense were coordinated campaigns by right-aligned actors to troll distraught students by inviting inflammatory figures to campus. Too often, organizers got the reactions they were looking for — leading to more notoriety, and invitations to more campuses, for these speakers. Disinvitationsspiked to record levels. There were high-profile altercations atMiddlebury,Evergreen,Berkeley and other schools. This led to major partisan polarization with respect to perceptions about colleges and universities. There was a sharp rise in facultyfired for political speech-related issues – often following after Fox News witch hunts against professors accused of corrupting the youth. This cycle of provocation, overreaction and escalation continued for nearly two years — culminating with the killing of Heather Heyer in the aftermath ofclashes at UVA.

We recognized that Heterodox Academy needed to get a lot more organized, to approach these challenges far more systematically, and to address them at a much larger scale. In January 2018, Deb Mashek was hired to be our inaugural executive director. Her first order of business was to add “organs” to the organization. We became a 501c3. We began tracking metrics to evaluate our membership and our impact. We conducted member surveys, and a listening tour at different types of institutions nationwide, to hear from various stakeholders what they wanted or needed from us. We began building out the team and expanding our tools, resources and interventions. Shortly into this process, I was appointed to head up communications for the organization.

Over my time with HxA – especially my nearly two years in this role – I have been blown away by many scholars’ courage, commitment and intellectual humility, by their willingness to engage patiently and in good faith even with views they strongly disagree with, their willingness to change their minds about things when presented with compelling arguments and evidence, and so much more. Both working with us, and on their own, scholars across the U.S. and beyond have launched research collaborations, working groups and events; they have developed pedagogical innovations; members have sought out ways to better integrate heterodoxy into everything from course syllabi, to job ads, to non-discrimination and diversity statements, to how they approach institutional service and pedagogy; they have been making their case to their colleagues and other academic stakeholders through public talks, publications and social media engagement. And progress is being made — both in local contexts and in the broader milieu — as a result of their initiative, bravery, hard work and perseverance.

Engaging with, and learning from, these colleagues has been a joy and a privilege. I feel much more optimistic about the state of higher ed than I did when I began this work. To be sure, the challenges colleges and universities face with respect to ensuring students and scholars can freely express and explore ideas, that the processes of admissions, hiring and promotion are as rigorous, fair and inclusive as possible, that research and teaching is not systematically distorted by scholars’ own identity and ideological commitments – these are not small issues. As I have indicated elsewhere, it will likely be a fairly protracted campaign. But I am confident that faculty, administrators and students will ultimately rise to the occasion.

Hence, it is bittersweet to be stepping back from my day-to-day work with Heterodox Academy in order to better focus on my research and my obligations at Columbia University. In my last essay here for the foreseeable future, I would like to offer some parting observations about pitfalls viewpoint diversity advocates often fall into, and advice on how to avoid them:

Skip the Nostalgia

Often viewpoint diversity advocates frame their mission almost like a variation of “make academia great again.” The current dynamics in higher ed, and especially among contemporary students, are unfavorably contrasted with the “good old days” when people could supposedly research whatever they wanted, however they wanted, and say whatever they wanted, without much fear of repercussions.

I often wonder when, exactly, this was: work on how political and identity commitments of scholars (and homogeneity among them) distorts research goes back roughly a century – as do movements to push back against consistent assaults on viewpoint diversity. This began with the 1915 founding of the AAUP, and extended into a number of other initiatives that predated Heterodox Academy. Pretty much all of the controversial frameworks and approaches that dominate discussions of higher ed today go back decades. In short, the “good old days” of higher education are quasi-mythological at best.

Perhaps the kernel of truth is that certain people probably did feel freer in some respects “back then” than they do today — largely due to the fact that that the faculty and student body used to be MUCH more homogenous in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality:

Consequently, up until the mid 80s or early 90s (note: the last major uproar over political correctness just so happened to occur in the mid-to-late 90s), people from the dominant group probably could have said whatever they wanted with respect to race, gender, sexuality and class without fear — in part because the people one might offend simply were not present. And to the extent they were there, it was in such small numbers – and their position was so precarious – that they could not really push back too hard. Today, people from these historically marginalized or underrepresented populations are in larger numbers and are more confident in their position. They don’t have to put up with B.S. in the same way. And so, they don’t. On the whole, I think this is a good thing — although much more must be done to teach students to perhaps take less offense in certain circumstances (for instance, misunderstandings), to continue engaging patiently, charitably and constructively despite offense, and to rely less on administrators to adjudicate interpersonal differences, etc.

In any case, when people from historically marginalized and underrepresented groups hear others (most frequently, older white people, especially men) waxing nostalgic about the “good old days” when they could say and do as they pleased — what they often hear (and not unreasonably) is a longing for a time when people like them were less “present” in institutions of higher learning. Yet, the reality is that universities are going to remain more diverse for the foreseeable future – or trend even further in that direction as education access continues to expand and U.S. demographic distributions continue to evolve. Consequently, tensions around class, gender, sexuality and race are not going anywhere. Everyone will have to account for more stuff than they had to in previous decades because the universities themselves are more heterogenous.

Yes, this takes work. It can create anxiety. It often does mean expressing oneself in a more thoughtful and precise manner. But that’s life in a diverse and pluralistic society.

The Left is Not the Problem

Heterodox Academy is not a right-wing advocacy group. We never have been, we never will be. There are some who believe this is a problem rather than a virtue. They argue that any movement, group or institution that is not explicitly right-wing will become left-wing over time (an idea colloquially referred to as “O’Sullivans First Law”). They claim that by reaching out to academic stakeholders like university administrators, Heterodox Academy has effectively been ‘captured.’ In virtue of exploring the intersections between ideological diversity and other forms of diversity – and advocating for a more comprehensive vision of viewpoint diversity than just political diversity — we have ‘lost our way.’

There are many problems with this line of thought.

The first is that there already exists a range of institutions and movements who actually are trying to advance particular worldviews. Critics are free to join or support those instead, as desired. However, it must be noted that many of these other groups have existed for decades – and not only has ideological homogeneity and parochialism continued nonetheless, it has actually accelerated. That is, the “O’Sullivan method” does not seem to be particularly effective. It may even be counter-productive insofar as a hostile approach alienates potential allies and galvanizes the opposition, or hyperbolic rhetoric leads more conservatives to write off academia as a lost cause – thereby exacerbating the ideological skew these critics are so concerned with.

A deeper contradiction is that, in virtue of the very problem these critics are ostensibly trying to address, it is virtually impossible to make any meaningful change in higher ed institutions without working with people on the left and through left-dominated institutions. Consider that most students lean left. Professors tend to be far to the left of students. Administrators tend to be even farther to the left than faculty (as Abrams explored here). Realistically speaking, there is no foreseeable future in which this would cease to be the case. For instance, let’s assume we had a magic wand and could instantly:

  • Eliminate all unfair discrimination against non-left, non-secular or non-WEIRD views in peer review, institutional review boards, hiring and promotion committees or graduate admissions
  • Render all faculty and staff much more attuned to the ways ideological and identity commitments can distort research and teaching
  • Establish more robust and charitable engagement with non-secular, non-WEIRD and non-left thought in scholarship and in the classroom
  • Ensure all incoming students were trained on things like motivated reasoning, confirmation bias and how engage across difference
  • Establish robust institutional protections safeguarding freedom of conscience, association and expression against actors from within or without who would persecute scholars for their views or their work

Even in a fantasy scenario where all of these objectives were instantaneously realized, given prior distributions of ideology among faculty, pipeline issues, longstanding cultural dynamics and the like – the ideological composition of the academy would be unlikely to approach that of the general society for some time. Generations of scholars. For HxA, this would be fine. Our goal is not to have the academy perfectly mirror society, we are simply trying to enhance the quality and impact of research and teaching. We believe that ideological diversity is instrumentally valuable for this (alongside other forms of diversity), but it is not something we pursue for its own sake. So in a situation where the other reforms described above were realized, we would probably be content with whatever ideological distribution emerged therefrom.

And of course, there is no magic wand, nor are there easy shortcuts, to achieve the outcomes described above. Instead, we must persuade academic stakeholders to move in this direction — and equip them with the skills, tools, resources and frameworks to do so. It is not clear how anyone could be effective at these tasks while placing themselves in explicit opposition to the very people who must be brought ‘on board’ (and in many cases, already are on board. As Jon Haidt put it, “How has Heterodox Academy been able to be so successful so quickly? The basic answer is, we’re pushing on open doors.” Less than a fifth of HxA members are conservatives; the vast majority of our members are moderates and liberals who are concerned about problems in scholarship, teaching and campus climate but have not previously had an adequate means to express or act on these concerns… precisely because most previous initiatives to address these problems were trying to push particular ideological or political agendas as well).

To be blunt: anyone who says they are out to reform higher education but spends their time trying to mock, caricature, villainize or discredit the left — they are not serious about realizing change. They are prizing sanctimony over effectiveness. They are engaging in a nihilistic way and, in fact, harming the ability of others to make progress as well.

The left is not the problem. Homogeneity is a problem. Parochialism is a problem. Dogmatism is a problem. And these are general problems, not left problems. In a world where most students, faculty and administrators skewed conservative to the same degree they currently skew liberal, we should expect to see roughly the same issues arise with respect to bias, discrimination, censorship, institutional capture, etc. (indeed, we do observe just that in situations where the tables are turned).

The goal, therefore, should not be to advocate for the right or against the left (or any variation on this approach), but rather to create and implement institutional values, policies and practices that prevent people from establishing their own ideology as an orthodoxy and punishing or expelling those who dissent therefrom.

Walk the Walk

Again, in my time with HxA, I have been floored – absolutely humbled – by members’ commitment to put our ideals into practice, to translate our aspirations into realities. However, I have also been deeply distressed, and at times discouraged, by the lack of self-awareness, the imposition of double-standards — and at times, apparent bad faith — among many others who ostensibly align themselves with Heterodox Academy and its objectives.

For instance, I’ve seen many, many people who decry victimhood culture on the one hand, yet eagerly depict themselves as victims at any opportunity; whole outlets have emerged for people to carry out this ritual. I’ve seen people who complain about the lack of academic freedom turn around and support legislation that would further curtail said freedom for the sake of advancing political goals. I’ve seen people publish anonymous complaints about others making anonymous complaints. I’ve seen people lamenting cancel culture and then celebrating or joining pile-ons against professors who make arguments they don’t like. I’ve seen people who ridicule ‘snowflake’ students absolutely lose it when subjected to criticism themselves – launching harassment mobs or character assassination campaigns, threatening to sue, calling for others to be disciplined by their institutions, all because someone had the gall to criticize them.

I’ve seen a lot tribalism from people who purport themselves to be beyond tribes. I’ve seen scholars present themselves as though they had actually transcended bias, motivated reasoning – even though if there is one huge takeaway from the literature it’s that NO ONE is immune to, or above, these tendencies. This is why we institutionalize. As I’ve noted elsewhere, there is a religious analog here: the self-righteous person who, in virtue of knowing they are a sinner, spends their days passing judgment upon those who do not yet recognize themselves as fallen – even as their own actions and lifestyle are out of step with the gospel they preach. That is, some people get so focused on scrutinizing others that they lose sight of their own fallibility. They pay lip service to intellectual humility and open-mindedness even as they model epistemological and moral arrogance or parochialism.

Although perhaps not apparent to the people engaged in these behaviors, this hypocrisy is obvious to virtually everyone else. And it leads many to wonder, reasonably, whether all this talk about viewpoint diversity, etc. is just a pretext for trying to delegitimize certain views in favor of others. And for some, it must be acknowledged, this clearly is the case.

What (too) many in this space seem to prioritize most is bashing identity-based critiques, postmodernism, the left more broadly. That is, they aren’t particularly interested in learning from views they disagree with – for instance, feminist, queer or critical race scholarship. Instead, they want to use the viewpoint diversity movement to rally people against those perspectives. Simultaneously, they hold up their own views as cases of obvious and incontrovertible truth, cast to the margins as a result of political correctness (and nothing more) — often taking to prominent platforms to complain about how their views are being silenced (although this latter phenomenon is more complex, and less ironic, than it may initially appear).

Of course, the examples I’ve described above are not characteristic of most in the viewpoint diversity space. But they are nonetheless distressingly common. Dealing with these kinds of cases, and the understandable blowback against them, has probably been the least enjoyable part of my work at HxA.

But here, it should be acknowledged that some hypocrisy is inevitable. What Heterodox Academy and its members aspire to do is hard and, in many respects, unnatural. Tribalism, cherry-picking and motivated reasoning are our default settings. Consequently, all of us fall short from time to time — myself certainly included. What is important is avoid simply shrugging off these failures on the grounds that ‘no one is perfect,’ but rather, to recognize and try to learn from instances where we fail to embody our ideals – and to strive to do better down the line. This is how change happens, by putting in the work. Day to day. Project to project. Interaction to interaction. If we are unwilling or unable to shoulder this mental, emotional and social labor, then it is unreasonable for us to expect others to do the same. But when we do lead by example, it can inspire others to follow suit. It can lead interlocutors to respond in kind. I’ve seen it first-hand, over and over again, with our members changing the game by walking the walk. Much more important than making arguments for open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement is modeling those values. Show, don’t tell.

Draw a Line

I am a Muslim. One popular bit of rhetoric I am used to hearing from Islamophobes is that most Muslims are secretly, or not so secretly, sympathetic to ISIS and al-Qaeda – that these terrorist groups reflect the true character of Islam, rendering explicit what is otherwise implicit. They argue that if this were not the case, Muslims would be constantly denouncing these groups and their actions.

Muslims do, of course, regularly denounce these acts. We stand in solidarity with victims of terror attacks – be they carried out by Muslims or others. However, we do not do this in an attempt to placate those advancing the narrative described above; that would be a fool’s errand. Most such people are not making a good-faith claim to begin with. Their opinions about the issue are firmly set, and no amount of denouncing, etc. will ever be satisfactory to them – they’d just keep moving the goalpost or changing the subject. Instead, our objectives in denouncing terrorism are to live our values, undermine the terrorists (who kill primarily other Muslims) and assist those who are harmed by them.

Why do I bring this up here?

Many people argue that calls for viewpoint diversity and open inquiry are, at bottom, ‘Trojan Horses’ for white supremacy, the patriarchy and other cynical or reactionary agendas. As evidence for this charge they point to a very real set of phenomena:

There are groups out there who co-opt the language of viewpoint diversity, open inquiry, free speech, etc. in order to advance a particular political agenda— and who demonstrate no interest in meaningfully or charitably engaging with (let alone learning from) views they disagree with. Some even try to censor or persecute their political opponents in the name of free speech or viewpoint diversity – there’s a whole industry of people surveilling and reporting on professors for this purpose. There are people out there who are trying to advance hateful agendas and use ‘free speech’ arguments as a means of securing platforms to try and recruit students. There are people out there who are clearly trying to stir up the culture wars for the sake of enriching themselves and elevating their public profile (colloquially referred to as ‘grifters’) – just as there are politicians who seek to capitalize on these issues in order to shore up support with their base.

Advocates for viewpoint diversity and open inquiry need to take a strong stand against those who would seek to co-opt our rhetoric and our cause for noxious purposes. We need to do this, first and foremost, because these bad actors constitute a very real threat to open inquiry and viewpoint diversity. They cause immense harm, and they must be resisted.

Second, we need to be clear about what we stand for, what we’re about – not for the sake of placating those who are firmly against the cause, but to help persuadable skeptics or fence-sitting sympathizers gain a better understanding of what our ideals look like in practice (and what they do not look like) or what it is, concretely, that we are trying to accomplish. As far as we can tell, a plurality of faculty and students actually are on board with our mission and values. However, they are also deeply – and rightfully — concerned about these bad actors. To the extent that it is unclear if we are aligned with these characters, they will be hesitant to align themselves with us.

Finally, we know from research in psychology and sociology of knowledge that it is not enough to just expose people to a different point of view: quality matters. If a person’s first exposures to a given line of thought — say, conservativism — involve arguments that are empirically dubious, poorly reasoned, etc., then exposure will be counterproductive. It will reinforce their bias against conservatives and the value of conservative thought — and color (if and) how they engage with subsequent examples from that line of thought. It is therefore imperative for those affiliated with underrepresented perspectives, as well as those who would otherwise seek to boost such perspectives, to do curatorial work — elevating the best examples and explicitly recognizing low-quality examples as such.

The point of viewpoint diversity is to help us better discern the good approaches from the bad, what is right from what is wrong. It should sharpen our moral and intellectual rigor. What better place to demonstrate this than with respect to those who are trying to hijack our cause?


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