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Former Stanford provost: The lack of intellectual diversity on campus is higher ed’s biggest threat

Higher education faces a number of external threats, but its biggest hazard is looming within the walls of colleges and universities.

That’s the message former Stanford University provost John Etchemendy told the university’s board of trustees in a recent speech, which was highlighted by The Wall Street Journal.

In his remarks, Etchemendy listed off a number of external threats such as cuts in federal funding and travel restrictions. But the bigger threat, the scholar said, is the lack of political diversity on college campuses:

Over the years, I have watched a growing intolerance at universities in this country – not intolerance along racial or ethnic or gender lines – there, we have made laudable progress. Rather, a kind of intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for. It manifests itself in many ways: in the intellectual monocultures that have taken over certain disciplines; in the demands to disinvite speakers and outlaw groups whose views we find offensive; in constant calls for the university itself to take political stands. We decry certain news outlets as echo chambers, while we fail to notice the echo chamber we’ve built around ourselves.

This sort of “intellectual blindness,” Etchemendy said, poses more severe consequences to the state of America’s colleges and universities than any budget cut:

It will be more damaging because we won’t even see it: We will write off those with opposing views as evil or ignorant or stupid, rather than as interlocutors worthy of consideration. We succumb to the all-purpose ad hominem because it is easier and more comforting than rational argument. But when we do, we abandon what is great about this institution we serve.

The former provost told the board of trustees it’ll take “real courage” to resist this current trend in higher education. Etchemendy argues universities must remain the marketplace of ideas and promote intellectual diversity:

The university is not a megaphone to amplify this or that political view, and when it does it violates a core mission. Universities must remain open forums for contentious debate, and they cannot do so while officially espousing one side of that debate.

But we must do more. We need to encourage real diversity of thought in the professoriate, and that will be even harder to achieve. It is hard for anyone to acknowledge high-quality work when that work is at odds, perhaps opposed, to one’s own deeply held beliefs. But we all need worthy opponents to challenge us in our search for truth. It is absolutely essential to the quality of our enterprise.

Read Etchemendy’s remarks.

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