Universities are by their very nature progressive institutions. They encourage students and faculty to study the existing order and try to come up with something better. They broaden students’ minds and encourage curiosity about different people and ways of living. The ranks of nearly all progressive institutions are full of the top students from our top universities.

But something started going wrong on many campuses in the early 2010s. The combination of more polarizing social media, an intensifying culture war, and a changing Republican party drove an intense new kind of activism among a subset of progressive students that — whatever its noble motives — is damaging what is most precious about university life: the ability to have open and wide-ranging conversations. Students and faculty across the political spectrum now say that they are “walking on eggshells,” afraid that one slip could bring about terrible social consequences. As they learn to avoid making verbal “mistakes” in an unforgiving environment, students are being trained in habits of mind and heart that are antithetical to their own mental health, their own success in life, and the success of their political activism.

This is why many leading progressives have been warning, since 2015, that the new university culture is harmful to the country overall and to the Democratic party in particular. For example, at a forum on education in 2015, Barack Obama offered a beautiful meditation on the importance of viewpoint diversity:

Look, the purpose of college is not just … to transmit skills.  It’s also to widen your horizons; to make you a better citizen; to help you to evaluate information; to help you make your way through the world; to help you be more creative.  The way to do that is to create a space where a lot of ideas are presented and collide, and people are having arguments, and people are testing each other’s theories, and over time, people learn from each other, because they’re getting out of their own narrow point of view and having a broader point of view.

In a 2016 New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof wrote:

When scholars cluster on the left end of the spectrum, they marginalize themselves. We desperately need academics like sociologists and anthropologists influencing American public policy on issues like poverty, yet when they are in an outer-left orbit, their wisdom often goes untapped.

And in the most powerful plea for liberal students to make themselves stronger rather than safer, Van Jones responded to a question from David Axelrod, about the wisdom of stopping members of the Trump administration from speaking on the campus of the University of Chicago. After noting that physical safety on campus is important, as is safety from bigots, bullies, and harassment, Jones said:

But there’s another view that is now I think ascendant, which I think is just a horrible view, which is that “I need to be safe ideologically. I need to be safe emotionally. I just need to feel good all the time, and if someone says something that I don’t like, that’s a problem for everybody else, including the administration.” I think that is a terrible idea for the following reason: I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different.

I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym. You can’t live on a campus where people say stuff you don’t like?! And these people can’t fire you, they can’t arrest you, they can’t beat you up. They can just say stuff you don’t like — and you get to say stuff back — and this you cannot bear?! … You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous.

Jones’ fear about this new “kind of liberalism” is now increasingly being recognized as an existential threat to the Democratic party’s electoral future. Policy analyst David Shor has pointed out the outsize influence of young highly educated staffers who push Democratic politicians to embrace positions that alienate most of the electorate, including many Black and Hispanic voters –– ideas such as defunding the police or abolishing honors classes –– which causes them to lose elections that they would otherwise have won, such as the 2021 governor’s race in Virginia. These unpopular and often poorly thought-out positions are going to be a strong wind in Republican sails in the midterm elections, and in the presidential election of 2024.

Heterodox Academy’s mission is to improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement. HxA was not created to help conservatives or liberals. It was created to help universities guard what makes them the crown jewels of American society: their ability to bring people together and harness their diversity to make all of them smarter, stronger, and better able to play a constructive role in a complicated democracy that is eternally at risk from fragmentation.

If you are concerned about the present state of universities, young people’s mental health, the future of the Democratic party, or the future of American democracy, please consider supporting Heterodox Academy. Learn more about us. If you are a professor, grad student, or higher ed administrator, please apply for membership. If you can support us financially, please do so

Progressives and conservatives will have plenty of time to fight after graduation. Until then, let’s make college a time for learning from one another.