Our commitment to heterodoxy within the academy has taken shape as a response to the rise of orthodoxy within scholarly culture — when people fear shame, ostracism, or any other form of social or professional retaliation for questioning or challenging a commonly held idea. We believe that the best way to prevent orthodoxy from taking root within the academy is by fostering three key principles: open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.
Open Inquiry is the ability to ask questions and share ideas without risk of censure. In an environment that is insufficiently open, facts can be corrupted or suppressed for the benefit of special interests. Important innovations can be set back or outright snuffed out. Avoidable problems can fester and spread. Personal and intellectual growth can be stunted.
We see the following threats to Open Inquiry within the academy today:
- Across the political spectrum, we see protest and backlash against scholars that threaten a preferred narrative.
- Expanding bureaucracies at many colleges and universities subject ever more of campus life to administrative oversight — and encourage people to resolve disputes through reporting, investigations, and academic reprisals rather than good-faith debate and discussion.
- Concerns about placating donors, ensuring high enrollments or positive course evaluations can distort research and pedagogy — especially for the growing numbers of contingent faculty whose careers and livelihoods can be threatened by a single upset student, donor or colleague. Contingent faculty are statistically more likely to be women, people of color, and other equity seeking groups whose numbers are underrepresented in tenure track positions.
- Many fear losing the esteem of, or being ostracized by, one’s peers for saying the “wrong” thing. Even in the absence of formal sanctions, social and professional isolation can make academic life difficult — and many prefer to self-censor rather than risk it. This is a significant concern among students, faculty, and administrators: our 2018 Campus Expression Survey found that roughly half of students, regardless of their political ideology, agreed that the climate on their campus prevents people from saying things because others may find them offensive.
Viewpoint diversity exists when members of a group or community approach problems or questions from a range of perspectives. When a community is marked by intellectual humility, empathy, trust, and curiosity, viewpoint diversity gives rise to engaged and respectful debate, constructive disagreement, and shared progress towards truth.
Institutions of higher learning face several interrelated deficits in viewpoint diversity, including racial, socioeconomic, geographical, religious, political, and gender. When environments lack sufficient viewpoint diversity, assumptions can go unchallenged, promising ideas and methods can go underexplored, and it can be difficult to effectively understand or engage with others who have different backgrounds.
- When institutions of higher learning are not representative of the broader societies in which they are embedded, scholars may struggle to communicate the value and relevance of their work to people outside of the academy in an accessible and compelling way.
- Well-intentioned social programs can fail in their stated aims — or even cause harm — when the people designing social policies are disconnected from the populations their interventions are intended to serve.
- Young people from underrepresented groups may come to feel as though they don’t belong in the academy, and decline to apply to college, drop out midway through, or self-select out of academic paths once they graduate.
Constructive Disagreement occurs when people who don’t see eye-to-eye are committed to exploring an issue together, acknowledging their own fallibility and the limits of their knowledge — and open to learning something from others who see things differently than they do. Learning from our differences, and modeling how to engage despite them, is the foundation of healthy academic practice, and indeed of democratic society itself.
Colleges and universities face a number of challenges in fostering constructive disagreement:
- Many students, faculty, and staff lack sufficient training in how to constructively engage across difference — especially as it relates to fundamental ideological commitments.
- Constructive disagreement is a skill that must be refined through real-world engagement, but due to the aforementioned deficits within institutions today, many students lack opportunities to meaningfully and charitably engage with underrepresented perspectives.
- Many professors who are concerned about this problem don’t know where or how to begin introducing missing perspectives, as they often do not have a solid foundation in them either.
- Many academic contexts, from class discussions to academic research, incentivize competition in a way that can be counterproductive to learning and growth. It often seems easier to build a reputation by attacking others than by seeking opportunities for mutual growth and collaborative discovery among people who seem to be on opposing sides of an issue.
- The political culture in the United States is highly polarized and increasingly toxic. In such an environment, differences of opinions are often attributed to moral or intellectual defects, with people easily branded as sellouts or traitors for engaging across the aisle.