Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University, and the Director of Communications at Heterodox Academy.
Around this time last year, I had the honor of sharing the stage with former UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks for a dialog on academic freedom.
While the event was billed as a “debate” between us, it turned out that we held a lot more in common than we differed on the core issues. And so, it was with great interest that I read his recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “How Colleges Make Themselves Into Easy Targets.” Once again, I found a broad sphere of agreement — and not just between myself and the Chancellor, but between he and Heterodox Academy more broadly.
Chancellor Dirks’ central argument is that attempts to shut down disagreeable speech, while often well-intentioned, are typically counterproductive. Riffing on this theme, Half Hour of Heterodoxy host Chris Martin has argued that it is in everyone’s interests to restrict the capacity of administrators or lawmakers to exert arbitrary power over students and faculty. Jon Haidt and I argued in The Atlantic that scholars from historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups tend to suffer most when speech protections are undermined on campus. I elaborated in subsequent essays how the lack of engagement with the right, and growing partisan distrust of social research (and the academy overall), is especially damaging for those who do work on gender, sexuality and/ or race. That is, a commitment to academic freedom and constructive disagreement is just as (or perhaps more) important for progressives as conservatives.
Given this strong overlap between the expressed views of the HxA core team and his own, it was surprising to hear Chancellor Dirks insist:
“This is not to say that universities should seek ‘viewpoint diversity’ (to invoke the phrase of the Heterodox Academy) in the service of mirroring political opinions as they exist in society, nor is it to say that universities can be entirely neutral.”
While Heterodox Academy does believe that promoting viewpoint diversity (alongside open inquiry and constructive disagreement) is essential to addressing the problems Chancellor Dirks raised, our goal is not to have institutions of higher learning simply mirror “political opinions as they exist in society.”
For one, our concern for viewpoint diversity is not restricted to concerns about political monocultures. There are many deficits of viewpoint diversity on campus which we are concerned about, including a lack of socio-economic diversity, geographical distortions in higher ed (e.g. here, here, here, here), the failure to engage with religion (here, here), and the dearth of blacks, Hispanics, and women in many fields. Indeed, we are currently in the process of reformulating our Guide to Colleges to better reflect this more comprehensive and demanding conception of viewpoint diversity.
However, it’s critical to note that these problems are all interrelated, and are most effectively addressed in tandem. For instance, as I pointed out in a recent essay, blacks and Hispanics tend to be more socially conservative and religious on average than whites. Therefore, institutions which are hostile to socially conservative or religious perspectives will be more likely to alienate black and Hispanic students than white students. Incidentally, that essay closes by directly rejecting the aspiration to have institutions of higher learning precisely mirror ‘political opinions as they exist in society’:
“The Academy need not reach 100% parity with the broader public in ideological representation. Indeed, any particular target ratio would be arbitrary. But we clearly need more ideological diversity than we currently have. And we need to take a sober look at the institutional and cultural barriers conservatives face and ask if they are truly consistent with our values – be it as scholars or as progressives.”
As HxA Executive Director Deb Mashek put it:
“This is not a left-right issue. This is about creating intellectual institutions where learners can come together, humbled by their incomplete knowledge, curious what they can learn from others, able to share their own ideas and perspectives and eager to think together with nuance, open minds, respect and goodwill — all in service to understanding the complexities of our world more deeply.”
She argued that three components are essential: university stakeholders must value open inquiry and constructive disagreement, have access to (or create) strategies for enacting these values, and perceive social permission to act on them. Notice, Mashek’s prescription is virtually identical to that of Chancellor Dirks, who asserts:
“The commitment to freedom of speech and expression should be accompanied by an institutional culture that values disagreement and debate, and that provides a supportive setting for fundamental differences of belief, perspective, and persuasion.”
Over the course of his essay, Chancellor Dirks decries how trolls and provocateurs abuse the First Amendment to wreak havoc at public universities. He admonishes efforts by lawmakers to subvert institutions of higher learning for political ends. The Heterodox Academy core team has consistently emphasized similar themes in our own publications:
Research Associate Nick Phillips has argued that his fellow conservatives should avoid inviting trolls or provocateurs to campus. He has argued that the efforts to achieve viewpoint diversity on campus through top-down legislation are ill-conceived. I have argued the same, as has our Board Chair Jon Haidt.
Haidt has gone on to condemn the right-aligned ‘outrage industry;’ I have elaborated that, in the current climate, virtually any progressive scholar could end up in its crosshairs. Research Associate Ian Story explored on our site how most of the faculty terminated for speech issues actually seem to be on the left. Pushing back against these trends, literally the only official position HxA has taken as an organization so far has been to condemn Professor Watchlist.
Not all of us agree on these issues (that’s the point!) — indeed, even for our statement on Professor Watchlist we published a dissent by UCO psychology professor Robert Mather. But nonetheless, as Director Mashek put it, “virtually anyone who enjoyed [Dirks’] column would feel right at home in Heterodox Academy.”
As an organization that prizes pluralism and disagreement — with more than 2400 members holding diverse views on most issues — Heterodox Academy almost never takes positions as an organization on current events and controversies. Opinions expressed here are those of the author(s). Publication does not imply endorsement by Heterodox Academy or any of its members. We welcome your comments below. Feel free to challenge and disagree, but please try to model the sort of respectful and constructive criticism that makes viewpoint diversity most valuable. Comments that include obscenity or that sound like a tirade or screed are likely to be deleted.