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February 6, 2018+Debra Mashek
+Academic Careers+Campus Climate+Open Inquiry+Viewpoint Diversity

Why I’m Leaving the Academy in Order to Help Save it

Dear Members of Heterodox Academy, I landed my dream job in 2005. For the past 13 years I have been on the faculty at Harvey Mudd College, an elite liberal arts school with an intense focus on the STEM disciplines. Every single day I get to work alongside incredible students and colleagues–faculty, staff, and administrators–who inspire and impress in thought, deed, and spirit. And, now, I’m stepping away from the campus, community, and career I cherish. Why? Because, as one who loves the academy, values inclusivity, and celebrates the ideals of a liberal arts education, I worry that the lack of ideological diversity on American college campuses (see here, here, and here) has undermined their core academic mission. I am heading to Heterodox Academy to be part of the solution. I am cautious here of sounding alarmist: students still learn and grow on America’s college campuses, professors still do great research. But, it is also true that more and more of us feel we cannot engage as freely or publicly with ideas as we did just a few years ago. Faculty members are walking on eggshells. After a faculty meeting in which I encouraged administrators to include viewpoint diversity in a forthcoming grants program to support diversity on campus, I received comments from a handful of colleagues applauding the ask while also acknowledging their own hesitation to support it publicly. Colleagues drop by every few weeks for closed door conversations about how they, too, are looking for ways to improve campus climate by opening discourse. Two different professor friends reported that other members of their faculties labeled them as fascist and racists, respectively, for asking questions in public spheres. And members of two hiring committees (two different disciplines on two different campuses) wondered whether the political leanings of candidates were unduly shading hiring discussions. Perhaps as a function of my position at a science-focused school, my mind often returns to the idea of systems. Roughly defined, a system responds to stimuli to produce some output. The thermostat is a very basic example: sensors detect temperature and tell the AC to blow cool air if the temperature exceeds a preset value. Today, the campus climate system is broken. There are a lot of assumptions within higher education about what qualifies as acceptable stimulus and what sets off alarms. A small range of socio-political views are communally endorsed as reasonable and valid. All views that fall outside that restricted range are either vilified or ignored. Ideas that stand in contrast to orthodoxies are not explored with the curiosity, openness, and care that would enable students to engage meaningfully with the ideas. Rather than doing the challenging work of thinking through how a novel position might contain a piece of the truth, difference is coded as offense. Rather than asking each other, “How do you see it?,” the impulse is to assert, “Here’s how you should see it.” The notion of proportionality seems to have all but evaporated. Even trace amounts of ideological difference in a classroom or on a campus can exceed somebody’s threat threshold and get labeled as bigoted or fascist. In this context, there’s no such thing as a false positive: if someone feels that a violation has occurred and makes an accusation, the accused is therefore guilty and few will come to his or her defense. We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt more often. We can’t know with such certainty what sort of “offenses” should be coded as threat, bad, wrong, unreasonable, or unjust. We need to do be slower to judge for many reasons, including credibility (the boy who cried wolf), sustainability (daily outrage isn’t healthy), and de-escalation (I genuinely worry what choices will present themselves as the new Level 10 response in the wake of offense). I am worried about the academy I love. It is not a happy or healthy place. Threats are coming from all sides. Trust between students, faculty, and administrators is decreasing. For these reasons I am leaving a tenured professorship and stepping in to lead Heterodox Academy as its inaugural Executive Director. Heterodox Academy is a non-partisan, non-profit organization committed to improving the quality of research and education in universities by increasing viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement. Its membership consists of over 1,500 professors, all of whom have affirmed a commitment to support viewpoint diversity in their academic fields, at their institutions, and in their classrooms. Why does viewpoint diversity matter to the core academic missions of colleges? Many college mission statements talk about the desire to make a positive impact on society. We want our students to go out and change the world. Yet, we will surely fall short as educators if we don’t develop in our students the habits of heart and mind necessary to understand diverse viewpoints, to consider (and reconsider) their own viewpoints, and to engage constructively with others. All of us–both within the academy and beyond– need deep, authentic exposure to perspectives that differ from our own. We need to try to understand those perspectives, even when we find them perplexing and troubling. We need practice changing our views in response to challenge and critique. We need experience challenging others’ views–civilly, constructively–and pulling them into conversation. We need to fail sometimes in our efforts to do so in order to learn the limits of evidence and reason. And then sometimes we need to succeed, so as to learn what approaches actually work when talking with real human beings who are just as flawed as we are. In response to rising ideological polarization and tribalism in the academy and beyond, calls have intensified for ways to depolarize communities and to foster cultures of mutual understanding across differences. At Heterodox Academy, we have developed tools to do just that. As the first Executive Director of Heterodox Academy, I am eager to partner with professors and administrators from across the country who want to equip their institution to thrive in this age of outrage, and who want to prepare their students to become strong and productive citizens in the polarized democracy that awaits them after graduation. This year Heterodox Academy will cultivate vibrant networks of engaged scholars and teachers who are interested in advancing knowledge and practice around viewpoint diversity, develop tools that professors and administrators can adapt to support viewpoint diversity within their local contexts, and engage in the broader social discourse about viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement. I welcome the opportunity to collaborate with members of Heterodox Academy who wish to contribute their time and talents to our critical mission. Stay tuned for information about opportunities to get involved. Warmly, Deb Mashek

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