On Intellectual Diversity

Some weeks ago, I wrote an op-ed arguing that the free-market approach to freedom of speech (often identified with the University of Chicago) is inadequate for bringing more intellectual diversity to college campuses. The recent string of right wing provocateurs successfully baiting left leaning students on college campuses is, I think, a symptom of a deeper problem. We need to find productive ways of dealing with intellectual/ideological difference. The Wall Street Journal published the piece this past weekend under the title “The Opening of the Liberal Mind.”

I have received plenty of responses from readers—some applauding my call for greater intellectual diversity, some angered by my use of “affirmative action” as a label for the kind of proactive work that universities should be doing in the humanities and social sciences to explore different viewpoints with students. I thought the irony was obvious; legacy preference in admissions, after all, is often described as “affirmative action for the wealthy.” My point is that we can’t rely on the market of ideas to create intellectual diversity; we must be intentional in seeking out serious ideas from traditions under-represented on campus. This is critical for our students’ intellectual development, giving them the opportunity to test their own thinking against different approaches to enduring questions.

Since I took an early stance against what I called “the Trumpian Calamity” and have urged resistance to attempts by the current administration to curtail civil rights, others have asked how I could now call for more scholarly attention to conservative ideas and intellectual traditions.  It should be clear that I do not regard the president’s incoherent leadership—which is so often driven by impulse, resentment and prejudice—as belonging to significant streams of conservative thought, even broadly conceived. And we already study the dynamics of authoritarianism.

My example of the Posse Program for Veterans as contributing to intellectual diversity does not, of course, imply that all our Posse Scholars (or all veterans) are conservative. The point is that these older students have different life experiences than most undergraduates, and that this likely leads to a different mix of political views.

I should emphasize that the courses supported by the endowment gift mentioned in the op-ed will be created and taught by faculty—not donors—as is always the case.  The goal here is to expose students to a wider range of thought—with especial attention to the classical liberal tradition—and develop their capacities to engage with those who may hold positions different from their own. We are regularly developing our curriculum to fill gaps in instruction and provide students with a broad education. We have engaged in similar fundraising to develop: the Quantitative Analysis Center; The College of Film and the Moving Image; The College of the Environment; and the Creative Writing Program—just to name a few.

Our present political circumstances should not prevent us from engaging with a variety of conservative, religious and libertarian modes of thinking, just as they shouldn’t prevent us from engaging with modes of thinking organized under the banner of progressivism or critical theory.  Such engagement might actually lead to greater understanding among those who disagree politically, and it might also allow for more robust critical and creative thinking about our histories, our present and the possibilities for the future.

Naturally, I didn’t expect my op-ed would generate agreement among all readers, least of all among all Wesleyan readers. I am pleased it has generated conversation. That’s the idea!  


There is no denying the left-leaning political bias on American college campuses. As data from UCLA’s Higher Education Institute show, the professoriate has moved considerably leftward since the late 1980s, especially in the arts and humanities. In New England, where my own university is located, liberal professors outnumber their conservative colleagues by a ratio of 28:1.

How does this bias affect the education we offer? I’d like to think that we left-leaning professors are able to teach the works of conservative thinkers with the same seriousness and attention that we devote to works on our own side of the political spectrum—but do we?

It is hard to be optimistic about this challenge in the wake of recent episodes of campus intolerance for views on the right. Would-be social-justice warriors at Middlebury College transformed the mild-mannered political scientist Charles Murray into a free-speech hero, and campus appearances by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald and the right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter have been handled badly, turning both women into media martyrs.

Most colleges, of course, host controversial speakers without incident and without much media coverage. In March, for instance, Franklin & Marshall College gave a platform to the Danish editor who published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. There were protests and arguments but no attempt to silence the speaker.

Academics worried about attacks on free speech have felt the need to respond, and they have articulated sound principles. Princeton professors Robert P. George and Cornel West recently attracted lots of supporters for a statement underscoring that “all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views” and that “we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses.”

The issue, however, isn’t whether the occasional conservative, libertarian or religious speaker gets a chance to speak. That is tolerance, an appeal to civility and fairness, but it doesn’t take us far enough. To create deeper intellectual and political diversity, we need an affirmative-action program for the full range of conservative ideas and traditions, because on too many of our campuses they seldom get the sustained, scholarly attention that they deserve.

Such an effort can take many different forms. In 2013, Wesleyan decided to join Vassar College in working with the Posse Foundation to bring cohorts of military veterans to campus on full scholarships. These students with military backgrounds are older than our other undergraduates and have very different life experiences; more of them also hold conservative political views.

One notable episode illustrates how this program has contributed to broadening discussion on campus. A student named Bryan Stascavage, who had served almost six years as a U.S. Army military intelligence analyst in Iraq and Haiti, came to Wesleyan to study social sciences. In the fall of 2015, he published an op-ed in the student newspaper questioning the Black Lives Matter movement, which enjoys widespread support here. He asked whether the protests were “actually achieving anything positive” because of the damage done by the extremists in their ranks.

The essay caused an uproar, including demands by activists to cut funding to the school newspaper. Most students, faculty and administrators recognized that free speech needed to be defended, especially for unpopular views. They rose to the challenge of responding substantively (if sometimes heatedly) to Bryan’s argument. As for Bryan himself, he felt that he had “field-tested” his ideas. As he told the PBS NewsHour in an interview about his experience at Wesleyan, “I don’t want to be in an environment where everybody thinks the same as me, because you just don’t learn that way.”

At Wesleyan, we now plan to deepen our engagement with the military. We have been working with the U.S. Army to bring senior military officers to campus, and starting next year, the first of them will arrive to teach classes on the relationship between military institutions and civil society.

Another new initiative for intellectual diversity, launched with the support of one our trustees, has created an endowment of more than $3 million for exposing students at Wesleyan to ideas outside the liberal consensus. This fall, our own academic departments and centers will begin offering courses and programs to cover topics such as “the philosophical and economic foundations of private property, free enterprise and market economies” and “the relationship of tolerance to individual rights, freedom and voluntary association.”

We are not interested in bringing in ideologues or shallow provocateurs intent on outraging students and winning the spotlight. We want to welcome scholars with a deep understanding of traditions currently underrepresented on our campus (and on many others) and look forward to the vigorous conversations they will inspire.

Many of our undergraduates already have a strong desire to break out of their ideological bubbles. Recently, the student Republican and Democratic clubs began jointly hosting lunchtime lectures and discussions. Catherine Cervone, a member of the Wesleyan Republicans and an organizer of the series, put it this way: “We recognized the necessity on this campus for dialogue and communication. We decided to reach across the divide to team up with WesDems in hosting this speaker series, a discussion forum with the purpose of really understanding what the other side thinks.”

Trying to understand the logic of someone else’s arguments is a core skill that schools should be paying more attention to, and it doesn’t always require elaborate new programs. The group Heterodox Academy, which includes faculty from many universities and from across the political spectrum, has recently launched the “Viewpoint Diversity Experience,” an online effort to combat “the destructive power of ideological tribalism.” The aim is “to prepare students for democratic citizenship and success in the political diverse workplaces they will soon inhabit.”

Such efforts are sorely needed, but they can succeed only if we do a better job of bringing underrepresented points of view into the mix. Simply relying on the marketplace of ideas isn’t enough. We need an affirmative-action program for conservative, libertarian and religious modes of thinking.

As someone who identifies with the political left, I welcome this intellectual diversity—and as a teacher, I know that education requires it. If you are on the right, you might call this a remedy for political correctness; if you are on the left, you might prefer to call it the “new intersectionality.” Whatever the label, the result will be a fuller, more meaningful educational experience for everyone.

13 thoughts on “On Intellectual Diversity

  1. Your good faith is unquestionable, but the problem is not the failure of the free-market of ideas to produce the intellectual and ideological diversity that you seek, but, rather, the closed-shop departments of “humanities” and “social sciences” with their inappropriate and destructive political and ideological litmus tests. It is rarely a conspiracy (except in the most politicized outcome-driven departments), but, for most, a problem of confirmation bias (anyone who thinks that differently from me must be dumb), combined with a commitment to use academic departments as weapons in a political and tranformative crusade. What dissuades dissenters in love with inquiry from seeking academic positions in these fields is the crude politicization of so many of the courses they have taken and the crude contempt so often shown to those who refuse to get with the self-proclaimed and self-defined “social-justice” agenda. You don’t need “affirmative action,” just an end to the closed shops and some concern for tolerance along the pipeline. Also, though I am a libertarian conservative myself, in my 48 years of teaching intellectual history, my most frequent complaint from students is that I don’t tell them my views of which thinkers are right and which wrong. I don’t want disciples, and my teaching is *not* an “extension of my politics.” Just end the bias!

  2. I agree with your premise;however, how does one discuss the issues of the day with a speaker who refuses to except the facts? We can no longer argue whether the earth is flat or round. Why would you invite a speaker to your campus who insists that the earth is flat? Is this the definition of free speech? I think not! I don’t think the Ann Coulters of the world add anything to the discussion. They refuse to acknowledge the facts. I can accept one’s opinion but not when it flies in the face of known facts.

  3. My comment is more a question than a comment. Do true friendships still exist? Because true friends can accept and agree to disagree on many points and retain the mutual respect that is the foundation of friendship.

  4. I have been liking Sir Ken Robertson”s views ,he is very entertaining and exposes the narrow thinking of our education system.

  5. Readers of this blog should read the article in the WSJ. In the article, Mr Roth makes no mention of the standard left attacks. Why was he unable to just place the article as is in this blog. Did he feel the need to placate the student left for leaving the reservation. The WSJ article has no political statement, it is a straight forward essay. Unfortunately, his blog quote….shown below…is an attempt to show that he’s still “with you”…..Or was he intellectually dishonest for not including the quote in the WSJ?

    “Since I took an early stance against what I called “the Trumpian Calamity” and have urged resistance to attempts by the current administration to curtail civil rights, others have asked how I could now call for more scholarly attention to conservative ideas and intellectual traditions. It should be clear that I do not regard the president’s incoherent leadership—which is so often driven by impulse, resentment and prejudice—as belonging to significant streams of conservative thought, even broadly conceived. And we already study the dynamics of authoritarianism.”

  6. Dear Professor,

    First of all, I find your commitment to facing our times’ challenges admirable. This self-conscious attitude towards those seemingly unanswerable questions is, I believe, what it takes to drive us forward a more complex—and thus more accepting—understanding of our world.

    I would just like to catch a glimpse of your thoughts regarding of why do you think there is a left-leaning bias in the first place. As I read, I caught myself hypothesizing about how academics might lean left in seeking equilibrium to the heavy hand of the economic system on the right side of the balance. As much as I like to believe we can develop a more sustainable capitalist society, to take capitalism itself as a given seems to be already closing many doors to our societies’ futures.

    Best regards,
    Eduardo Souza

  7. The place where we most urgently need conservatives is in the field of politics. There are virtually none left on the national scene in this country — just reactionary minions serving the ultra-rich. Perhaps having more genuine conservatives in the academy would actually bring the left and the right closer together in the real world.

  8. President Roth has announced an “affirmative action” program to appoint military brass and neoliberal shills to the faculty who will teach “the full range” of right-wing thought and politics. The announcement, fittingly published in the Wall Street Journal, is so filled with alternative facts and devoid of rational logic that I hardly know where to begin. Maybe it’s the way he cloaks his agenda in the rhetoric of fairness and ideological “opening.” Maybe it’s the other ways he tries to co-opt progressive politics, even referring to “intersectionality” and counting himself among the ranks of “left-leaning professors” (it’s a strange leftist who eliminates need-blind admissions, as Roth recently did, then shoves a reporter on video when questioned about it). Maybe it’s his disingenuous insistence that right-wing thought isn’t already addressed in most social science and humanities courses (it was certainly addressed in the courses that I took in History, Latin American Studies, Sociology, English, and other disciplines at Wesleyan, though most of my professors were not right-wing apologists themselves). Maybe it’s that remark about “the full range” of right-wing thought – equal time for the KKK, rapists, the Pentagon, and climate science and Holocaust deniers? Maybe it’s his reference to biological racist Charles Murray as a “mild-mannered political scientist.” Maybe it’s his cynical conflation of tolerance for opposing views and tolerance for incendiary hate speech. Or his conflation of liberals and the left. Maybe it’s the transparency of Roth’s bid to bring in donations from business and the wealthy, which to him is probably well worth the cost of alienating progressive alums (who tend to have less money, but who Roth thinks have too much control over the university). Maybe it’s that smug smile on Roth’s face, that says “I’ll do what I want and you whiny little critics can’t do a damn thing about it.” Roth isn’t the only problem — the corporatization of the university has been happening across the country for decades, with devastating impacts on students — but Roth takes the sleaze to a new level.

  9. The massive “left-leaning bias” only exists in US colleges. The country itself is too far to the right politically. Republicans are not an accurate representation of conservative-minded individuals. If you go to the UK, suddenly this threat against conservative thinking is non-existent. Ofcourse, while colleges there are still more left-leaning than the country as a whole, conservatism still thrives as an ideology and the Conservative Party is extremely powerful.

    US colleges have some of the most diverse demographics in the world in terms of race, ethnicity and nationalities. US undergraduates are far more exposed to people from all over the world than the rest of the US(on average). They’re not the ones stuck inside a bubble. Rather, its the rest of the US that is.

  10. Your idea is an excellent way to present a range of economic and legal theories and perspectives such as trickle down versus up economics, and the merits and limitations of civil rights legislation. On the other hand the evidence for the role of human activity in climate change is so overwhelming that I see little merit in recruiting climate science deniers (usually either religious dogmatists or corporate puppets) to enter into dialogue so students can be exposed to a range of view points. In other words there are areas of knowledge where debate is a waste of time, e.g., evolution, climate change, price gouging by pharmaceutical companies. Stick to topics where reasonable people can rationally disagree and potentially learn from one another. Avoid the fruitcakes in the name of dialogue.,

  11. I was excited to read President Roth’s article in the WSJ. It came days after the University of Colorado announced that it would have “Social Justice” dorms. My first semester as an Ivy League freshman in 1965, I was shocked when a scheduled conservative speaker was “disinvited”. I (as a liberal) hated his ideas, but was looking forward to being challenged and trying to identify the holes I presumed existed in his theory. The strong left-leaning bias of our universities has been around for a long time, but according to President Roth is getting worse. Many self-perceived “white hats” in our society act unethically, partly because it never occurs to them that they could do anything unethical. Perhaps they are more ethical in general than business people, but business people are more likely to question their behavior because they recognize their potential conflict of interest and because they know their behavior is being monitored. In response to Mr. Souza, I suggest that “group think”, failure to challenge their behavior, their inexperience in the “real world” and the ease of being a “hero” with a leftist position all contribute to the bias of academia. I apologize if I am misinterpreting, but Mr. Souza’s comment strikes me as suggesting that academia should be more of a religious calling than education. I particularly appreciate Mr. Kors’ and Ms. Weyl’s comments. I am uncomfortable not knowing what Mr. Bruno perceives to be “the facts” and feel that G Lud’s criticism is unjustified because I believe Mr. Roth HAS re-printed his WSJ article faithfully. He simply added a preliminary comment. I have had no previous tie to Wesleyan but I am thinking of making a donation as a result of President Roth’s article.

  12. Relax libs, Roth’s WSJ Op-Ed piece was nothing more than a flagrant attempt to convince the new administration in Washington, to avoid tightening the spigot of the gravy train of dollars that flows under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Wesleyan and every other university or college in the U.S.other than Hillsdale. A revisit of and revisions to Title IX are long overdue, it is the gift that keeps on giving, except only to hard left progressive (what an abuse of a good word)
    causes. Breaking federal law because it feels good to be a sanctuary campus, to cite just one recent example, has consequences. Bloated administrative bureaucracies devoted to “advising” students which Halloween costumes “appropriate” minority cultures must be replaced with dedicated professors who understand that good ideas come in all shapes, forms and colors and that just because brilliance emanated from old white males for thousands of years doesn’t diminish their veracity. Hate to break it to you, but there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes–from that horrible book). So, you won’t need your SPF 50 to avoid the “greening” (a side effect of too many greenbacks)of Wesleyan. The calamitous Russian spies in the Trumpian dynasty will cut you off. I guess you’ll just have to ask the Soros family for more.

  13. I am a volunteer tutor in the University of California system who is occasionally allowed to teach a small class under the supervision of a faculty member. As far as I can tell, I am the only instructor here who assigns work by supporters of a Gold Standard and people who question the need for a Central Bank. I am the only instructor who assigns Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. And I am the only instructor who assigns Robert Nozick and Richard Epstein.

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