HxA’s Origin Story
One question that people have often asked me is whether or not Heterodox Academy is, at bottom, some kind of reactionary response to student protests and the like. The logic goes as follows:
Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote their landmark essay “Coddling of the American Mind” in the fall of 2015 (expanded into a book in 2018). Heterodox Academy was launched in the fall of 2015. Major student protests occurred in the fall of 2015. Surely these things are related. In particular, both Coddling and HxA must be some kind of response to the student protests.
In fact, the Coddling of the American Mind was published in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic — prior to any major student protests of the 2015-6 academic year… and it was written in the summer of 2015. HxA was also formed towards the fail end of summer 2015, and formally launched in early September of that year — prior to any major student protests. Heterodox Academy’s origins actually go back to 2011:
Drawing on the aforementioned lineage of research on how ideological commitments affect scholarship, his own scholarship on moral psychology (he was beginning work on The Righteous Mind at the time) — and responding to contemporary trends and challenges in his field — Jon Haidt delivered a provocative address to the 2011 convention for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, entitled “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology.”
The talk generated immense conversation and debate within psychology and beyond — eventually culminating with a 2014 paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences which Haidt co-authored with psychologists Jose Duarte, Jarrett Crawford, Lee Jussim, Phil Tetlock and sociologist Charlotta Stern, arguing “Political Diversity Will Improve Psychological Science.”
Incidentally, the same year that essay was published, a sociologist (Chris Martin) and a law professor (Nick Rosenkranz) published independent-but-roughly-contemporaneous papers about how ideological homogeneity and insularity were undermining work in their respective fields. After discovering each-other’s essays, the scholars started corresponding and decided: rather than trying to tackle this problem independently in psychology, sociology and law they should pool their resources and efforts to improve the quality and impact of social research more broadly. Heterodox Academy was born. The HxA website and blog were launched in September of 2015 as a venue for social researchers to talk about their work and the open inquiry and viewpoint diversity challenges facing their disciplines and institutions.
The initiative’s inaugural year was trying. Universities across the country were rocked by student protests in the Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 semesters. Although the 2014-5 academic year had also witnessed a significant uptick in student activism, the tone and tactics of demonstrators seemed to be growing much more aggressive, intolerant and uncompromising – exemplified by the clashes at Mizzou, Yale and beyond.
The situation deteriorated further as the 2016 election cycle got underway. The increasingly toxic turn in U.S. civic culture and political discourse permeated institutions of higher learning, and also polarized public perceptions about colleges and universities: There was a sharp rise in faculty fired for political speech-related issues. There were campaigns to troll and provoke student activists 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. Disinvitations spiked to record levels. There were high-profile altercations at Middlebury, Evergreen, Berkeley and other schools. This cycle of provocation, overreaction and escalation continued for nearly two years — culminating with the killing of Heather Heyer in the aftermath of clashes at UVA.
Although Heterodox Academy was initially founded to address problems in research, the HxA blog increasingly became a venue for concerned scholars to try to work through what was happening, its causes and implications. Yet, as an organization, we were committed to going beyond anecdotal incidents and rising above reactionary takes. We set out to more systematically study the apparent changes in campus culture – and developed tools (Campus Expression Survey,OpenMind), resources (All Minus One, HxCommunities) and launched a podcast (Half Hour of Heterodoxy) to help members better understand and address key challenges. In the process, we expanded our mission – increasingly focusing on pedagogy as well as research – and emphasizing constructive disagreement alongside viewpoint diversity and open inquiry.
In an effort to enlist a broader range of university stakeholders in the process of reform, we also opened up membership to graduate students (allowing us to intervene earlier in the faculty pipeline) and university professionals such as administrators and counselors. In 2018 we hired an executive director — Deb Mashek – who has built out the team and added ‘organs’ to the organization to help us better realize our objectives and measure our impact.