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.

Free Speech, Political Correctness and Higher Education

In the past week the University of Chicago made big news by defending academic freedom in a letter to incoming students. “Finally,” a distinguished alumnus wrote in a subject line of an email to me, “some sanity on campus.” Really? How is it possible that a distinguished university polishes its own apple by stating the obvious, that freedom of thought and expression are essential to its mission?

Well, last year was a tumultuous one for campus politics. Events from Claremont California to the University of Missouri to Yale gave plenty of fuel to older pundits already asking, “What’s the matter with kids today?” A chorus of critics of political correctness found common ground in mocking students’ desire for “safe spaces,” their concern over micro-aggressions, their need for trigger warnings. Kids today are coddled, we were told, and when they get to college, they fail to respect the rough and tumble contest of ideas that middle-aged alumni remember as being part of their own college experience. No matter that when most of us oldsters were in college, the campuses were far less diverse places than they are today. There were many voices back then that none of us got to hear.

Why did the Chicago’s Dean of Students feel the need to remind the happy few chosen to be part of the class of 2020 that the university does not support trigger warnings, intellectual “safe spaces” or the cancelling of visiting speakers? What if a faculty member wanted to give students a heads up that they would be reading a racist text or a book about rape so as to help them understand the reasons why it was part of the work of the class? Would giving this “trigger warning” not be part of the professor’s academic freedom? And what if students, as Northwestern’s president Morton Schapiro explained in an op-ed last year, sometimes wanted to hang out in the university’s Hillel so as to feel comfortable (safe) in discussions about Israel? What if students decided to protest a visiting war criminal who has been invited to lecture? Would these run afoul of Chicago’s posture of intellectual toughness?

When confronted with issues of power and inequitable distribution of resources, it’s far too easy to fall back on talk about abstract commitments to freedom and procedures. At a time when violent racism has been exposed as a systematic part of law enforcement, at a time when the legitimation of hatred in public discourse has become an accepted part of national presidential politics, it seems more than a little naive to tell incoming frosh that “civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us.” These students are coming to Chicago, after all ― one of the most violent cities in America. But perhaps the Dean’s letter was aimed at a different audience ― those concerned with the bogeyman of political correctness and those who worry that free speech isn’t the absolute value it used to be. That would explain the concerted efforts of the University of Chicago’s administrators to push for their unfettered marketplace of ideas version of free speech.

That said, I agree that freedom of expression is essential for education and for democracy. But speech is never absolutely free; it always takes place for specific purposes and against a background of some expression that is limited or prohibited. Hate speech and harassment fall into these legal or procedural categories. And there are some things, after all, that a university should refuse to legitimate or dignify by treating them as fit subjects for academic discussion. When we make a subject part of a debate, we legitimate it in ways that may harm individuals and the educational enterprise. We must beware of the rubric of protecting speech being used as a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power.

Last year at Wesleyan University, we had an intense debate about freedom of the press. Some students initially wanted to defund the student newspaper because they found it offensive, but others rushed to its defense. At that time, I wrote:

Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

It’s still the case that the great majority of those studying on American college campuses would agree.

Over time, our students realized that censorship in various forms is antithetical to our educational mission, and they also recognized that the school newspaper could do a better job soliciting diverse of points of view. Rather than merely affirming abstract principle, they worked through an on-the-ground commitment to freedom of expression along with the cultivation of diverse points of view and a sense of belonging. This is not “free speech absolutism” or even a pure standard for campus decision makers to apply. But it is a winning combination for those entering a university, in Chicago or anywhere else.

Cross-posted with the Washington Post.

Sharing Ideas at the Aspen Festival

At the beginning of this month, Kari Weil and I made a brief trip to Colorado to participate in the Aspen Ideas Festival. This brings together a few thousand curious and thoughtful people to hear talks from artists, academics, politicians, writers and activists. The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic magazine put together the program, and we were both invited to talk about our work.

Kari was interviewed about her research in animal studies, starting from the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo with the gorilla Harambe. You’ll remember that a small child fell into the gorilla enclosure, and after his panicked parents alerted the zoo’s staff, Harambe was shot. The boy (whose name I still don’t know) was saved—though it will always remain unclear whether his life was really in peril. As Kari said in her Aspen conversation, the aftermath of this event tells us much about key issues in animal studies.

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I was put on different panels with college presidents and others to talk about online international educational exchanges, the challenging issues in the future of higher education, and current tensions between a commitment to free speech on campus and calls for safe spaces and trigger warnings. That last topic was considered by a rather large group of lawyers, professors, administrators, faculty and students. You can watch the session here, though I warn readers that it is long.

During that panel discussion I found my commitment to free speech challenged because I am unwilling to declare myself an “absolutist” in this regard. I have a substantial and broad commitment to freedom of expression, and, as I have written on more than one occasion, it is a fundamental value of education and democracy. I just recognize it’s not the only value at the core of these enterprises.

There are some things I don’t think a university should legitimate or dignify under the rubric of protecting speech. When we make a subject part of a debate, we legitimate it in ways that may harm the educational enterprise. Moreover, there are always things that an institution or a culture doesn’t dignify by debate. Hate speech and harassment fall into these legal or procedural categories at many places now, but there are always some things that are deemed beyond the borders of legitimate debate in a given setting. Speech is never totally free.

This is not an excuse for political correctness, nor is it a cover for censorship. I only want to recognize that we have real borders for discussion, no matter what our abstract commitment to freedom. Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter and I took different approaches to this question, as reported here.

Today, we see an accelerating coarsening of political discourse, as topics that inspire hate and violence are legitimated by political candidates and would be revolutionaries alike. To refuse to dignify discourses of despicable racism and terror with an educational platform is not an abdication of one’s commitment to speech but a recognition that speech always takes place in a context, in a culture.

These are complex matters, to be sure, and I certainly do recognize that the best way to think them through requires freedom of expression. It also requires a recognition of the rights of those who participate in the conversation. Happily we are able to protect all these things at Wesleyan.

One of my favorite moments at Aspen was saying hello to Governor John Hickenlooper ’74, MA ’80, Hon. ’10. This great force for good things has just published a memoir, The Opposite of Woe, with plenty of interesting stories about Wesleyan in the 1970s and politics over the last 20 years. A wonderful read! (Learn more in this interview with Hickenlooper in Wesleyan magazine, and this Careers by Design podcast).

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Biggest Threats to Free Speech Not on College Campuses

In response to some of the misinformation and manufactured outrage in the press, I wrote an opinon piece for the Hartford Courant on Sunday. This was reproduced on the HuffingtonPost the next day. ICYMI, I post it here.

 

As we prepared to honor Middletown military veterans at Wesleyan University’s first home football game, I sought out one of our engaged and thoughtful student vets. Bryan Stascavage had published an opinion piece in The Argus, the school newspaper, raising critical questions about the Black Lives Matter movement. The reaction to his provocative piece was intense: Some students were angry, some hurt and still others wondered what editors of The Argus were thinking when they published an essay that questioned a civil rights movement that has claimed the hearts and minds of so many of us on campus.

I trust the editors thought that Bryan’s essay would spark real conversations — the kind that make newspapers a vital part of so many communities’ cultural ecology. Sure, the editors got more than they bargained for. Some students argued that the essay was racist (I don’t think it was), or at least that it participated in systems of racist domination (what doesn’t?). They made the important point that opinion pieces like these facilitate the ongoing marginalization of a sector of our student population; and they angrily accused The Argus of contributing to that marginalization.

I’m very glad these important issues were made public — sometimes quite forcefully. Those who think they favor free speech but call for civility in all discussions should remember that battles for freedom of expression are seldom conducted in a privileged atmosphere of upper-class decorum.

Unfortunately, in addition to sparking conversation, the op-ed also generated calls to punish the newspaper. Protests against newspapers, of course, are also part of free speech. But punishment, if successful, can have a chilling effect on future expression. Many students (I think the great majority) quickly realized this and, contrary to what has been reported in the press, the student newspaper has not been defunded. Students are trying to figure out how to bring more perspectives to the public with digital platforms, and I am confident they can do this without undermining The Argus.

Commentators, perhaps weary of their impotence in the face of the perversion of free expression in politics by means of wealth, have weighed in on this so-called threat to free speech on college campuses. “What’s the matter with kids today,” these self-righteous critics ask, “don’t they realize that America depends on freedom of expression?” While economic freedom and political participation are evaporating into the new normal of radical inequality, while legislators call for arming college students to make them safer, puffed-up pundits turn their negative attention to what they see as dangerous calls to make campuses safer places for students vulnerable to discrimination. But are these calls really where the biggest threat to free expression lies? I fear that those who seize upon this so-called danger will succeed in diverting attention from far more dangerous threats.

Students, faculty and administrators want our campuses to be free and safe, but we also acknowledge that the imperatives of freedom and safety are sometimes in conflict. A campus free from violence is an absolute necessity for a true education, but a campus free from challenge and confrontation would be anathema to it. We must not protect ourselves from disagreement; we must be open to being offended for the sake of learning, and we must be ready to give offense so as to create new opportunities for thinking.

Education worthy of the name is risky — not safe. Education worthy of the name does not hide behind a veneer of civility or political correctness, but instead calls into question our beliefs. We learn most when we are ready to recognize how many of our ideas are just conventional, no matter how “radical” we think those ideas might be. We learn most when we are ready to consider challenges to our values from outside our comfort zones of political affiliation and personal ties.

Historically marginalized groups have the most to lose when freedom of expression is undermined by calls for safety. Just look at Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans for silencing anything deemed “extremist” and in conflict with “British values,” or Donald Trump’s fascistic rhetoric about closing mosques as part of his effort to “make America great again.”

My role as a university president includes giving students opportunities to make their views heard, and to learn from reactions that follow. As I wrote on my blog shortly after Bryan’s opinion piece was published, debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our opinions, but, as many free speech advocates have underscored, there is no right not to be offended. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

Our campus communities, like the rest of society, will be more inclusive and free when we can tolerate strong disagreements. Through our differences we learn from one another.