NEW YORK – Heterodox Academy is challenging the ideological status quo of higher education, and it is doing it from the inside out.
The organization, “a politically diverse group of more than 1,800 professors and graduate students,” is determined to “improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement.”
That the modern campus sorely lacks in all three of these things is self-evident to most observers today. Heterodox Academy, which is not even 3-years-old yet, is working to save higher education from itself.
Its inaugural Open Minds Conference, which took place last week in Midtown Manhattan, was a bright and lively gathering of a few dozen of higher education’s less orthodox movers and shakers: professors, students, administrators and more.
The purpose of the conference was, in part, to “define and diagnose the problems” facing higher ed today, as well as “explore stakeholder-specific strategies to improve campus climate.”
It is a sad truth that American higher education has become so hamstrung by ideological ubiquity today that a symposium is needed to try and figure out how to fix it, but attendees said it is encouraging that more than a few academics and professors are at least willing to admit there is indeed a problem and work toward a solution.
Richard Shweder, from the University of Chicago, identified the issue as one of in-group parochialism.
“I think what’s happened on college campus is that dogma and radical subjectivism have been joined in expressive, demonstrative identity politics, where you’re only interested in your group’s story, and you have to be one to know one,” he said. “And that creates a whole set of problems.”
The opening panel included a diverse group of speakers–including former ACLU president Nadine Strossen and former Evergreen State College professor Heather Heying–who explained “how a lack of viewpoint diversity harms higher education.”
The examples are stark. Heying herself was effectively driven off Evergreen’s campus along with her husband by a mob of students who were furious that her husband had not left campus on an anti-white “day of absence.” Heying recalled how a “silent majority” of people on Evergreen’s campus had expressed support for her and her husband’s plight but who had nonetheless remained silent for fear of retribution from the angry mobs.
“One thing that people must do is not be silenced by the vocal few,” Heying said.
Assistant Professor of English and Humanities Lucia Valdivia of Reed College recounted a controversy in which student activists decided that a humanities course had too many white authors in it. These students protested the course until scholars caved and allowed them to effectively dictate the curriculum.
“I was raised a socialist,” Valdivia said. “In Europe, I would be a member of the socialist party.”
And still they protested her class, showing that ideological homogeneity, particularly the ruthless and utterly pervasive homogeneity found on so many American campuses, will inevitably target the very people it once regarded as natural allies, she said.
Heterodox Academy largely consists of centrist, Democrat, left-of-center and open-minded thinkers who are willing to sound the alarm while most of their peers are not. But a few right-of-center thinkers were represented at the conference as well, including Princeton Professor Robert George, who spoke both on a panel and during a lunchtime reception about the necessity of an open-minded and pluralistic student body.
“There is no position that is out of bounds, as long as you can defend it with reason and arguments and evidence, which are the proper currency of intellectual discourse,” George said.
The conference did not include any scholars who openly supported President Donald Trump.
A long, wide-ranging discussion about free speech and campus politics featured academics like Alice Dreger and John McWhorter, the latter of whom observed that, around 2014, open discussions became harder in his classes.
“It got to the point that a certain minority of students could swerve or even staunch discussion with what’s called the social justice warrior ideology,” he said. That ideology, McWhorter said, has become “a religion.”
Dreger, who resigned her position at Northwestern University rather than withdraw a controversial article from a bioethics journal, has for years advocated ideological pluralism in higher education.
“What we need is a new kind of branding in universities, where the brand is about diversity of opinion and diversity of viewpoints,” Dreger said.
At some points in the conference, concerns about the “right wing” were also raised.
Angus Johnston from the City University of New York pointed out that “If you go on Twitter and say something intemperate, you can…wind up on a right wing website, you get quoted in your student newspaper, you can find yourself the subject of three New York Times articles in four days.”
Jason Stanley, a professor from Yale, argued that the real “free speech crisis” in this country is due to the fact that “the far right has taken over the vocabulary of free speech.” By way of evidence he cited Jeremy Joseph Christian, the Portland murderer who stabbed two people on a subway last year and who incoherently shouted about free speech during a subsequent court appearance. Christian, who holds white nationalist beliefs, is also a rabidly passionate anti-circumcision activist who expressed some sympathy for Bernie Sanders and who has no known ties to any legitimate right-wing or conservative organizations.
But the ongoing anti-speech zeitgeist gripping higher ed remained at the forefront of the conference. Looming over the event was a campus atmosphere in which professors are put in the hospital for hosting unpopular speakers, College Republicans literally fear for their safety after inviting an inflammatory provocateur to campus, and angry student mobs can force a scholar to deliver her address via livestream rather than in person.
Panelists said they were genuinely concerned about the campus crisis and committed to doing something about it.
In one discussion, Greg Lukianoff, from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Jon Haidt, from New York University, summed up their classic article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” in which the two highlighted the “vindictive protectiveness” that has taken hold of so much of academia and which has given rise to “a campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers.”
Haidt, however, is hopeful. “What we’re seeing as we travel around and talk with professors is, this is everybody’s issue now,” he said in the closing panel. “That really bodes well for the future. It means, in our hyper-polarized society, it’s much more likely to get solved.”
In addition to the conference, Heterodox Academy also gave out several distinguished awards to both individuals and institutions for their contributions to a more diverse higher education landscape. The University of Chicago received the Institutional Excellence Award for “advancing and sustaining viewpoint diversity and free inquiry on their own campus and beyond.” Canadian student Lindsay Shepherd, meanwhile, was given the Outstanding Student Award “for making a particularly vital and durable contribution to viewpoint diversity on their campus and/or other campuses.” A full list of awardees can be found here.
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