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Professors warn academic intolerance for dissenting views is reaching new highs

Donald Trump ‘has made [conservatism] a bad word’

Viewpoint diversity in the academy is alarmingly low, and the next generation of academics is likely to be even less tolerant of opposing views, professors from various institutions told a New York University audience Tuesday night.

This is an historical anomaly, according to April Kelly-Woessner, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College: The more educated a person is, the more tolerant of other opinions that person is likely to be.

But the younger generation is bucking the trend, showing less ideological tolerance than their parents, Kelly-Woessner said.

Today’s students are also more accepting of authoritarian views, especially when it comes to responding to ideas and views with which they don’t agree, said Samuel Abrams, a political science professor at Sarah Lawrence College who is known for his research on lopsided political views in various academic disciplines.

The troubling environment for free speech on campus and within academic disciplines is worsened by the political rise of Donald Trump and his rougher-edged approach to conservatism, professors said.

The event was co-sponsored by Heterodox Academy, an organization founded by NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt that promotes academic viewpoint diversity, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It was livestreamed on Facebook as part of FIRE’s “So to Speak” podcast.

‘The big question is who gets to define what’s intolerant’

Abrams said his research found there are now eight liberal professors in higher education for every conservative, and students are increasingly less exposed to different lines of thinking.

Mainstream Americans consider themselves to be fairly centrist, a concept that is foreign to faculty, he said. They don’t just lean left: “They are strongly left, strongly progressive, and this [is] completely off from what the average American does.”

Abrams himself said he “kept his head down” until he earned tenure, after which he was able to safely become much more outspoken in favor of intellectual diversity. He encouraged other professors with tenure to do the same because those without it cannot speak out as freely.

MORE: In Ivy League stronghold, Dems outnumber GOP faculty 28-to-1

Asked by “So to Speak” host Nico Perrino about the 20th century German philosopher and political scientist Herbert Marcuse, Kelly-Woessner called him “the father of the new left.”

Marcuse argued in favor of a “paradox of tolerance” in which a truly tolerant person must be intolerant of intolerance, she said. “But the big question is who gets to define what’s intolerant, and that’s where it gets really sticky.”

Who gets to define what is appropriate speech, and what is not, was also a concern for Nadine Strossen, a New York Law School professor who was the first woman to lead the ACLU.

MORE: Evergreen State refuses to show at congressional free speech hearing

“One person’s hate speech is somebody else’s cherished speech,” and what one person finds hurtful may galvanize another to engage with more speech, said Strossen, who testified at a July congressional hearing on campus free speech.

She told an audience member that a good way to get people to support free speech is to present them with an example of their own opinions getting censored.

MSNBC should be hyping threats to campus speech

Coming up throughout the conversation was the 2016 election and Trump supporters, whose are often labeled as hateful on college campuses.

Abrams said he took some students to a Trump rally early in the Republican primary campaign so they could listen to and learn from an experience with which many of them fundamentally disagreed.

Kelly-Woessner added that conservatism under Trump has been redefined and that “Trump has made [conservatism] a bad word.”

Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, a political science professor, has drawn much left-wing criticism for his new book denouncing the infiltration of liberalism by identity politics.

As one way for advocates to rescue free speech from pollution by Trumpism, Lilla challenged MSNBC to report on any given “attack on free speech” at a college before Fox News, so the right-leaning network couldn’t “exploit it for their own ends.”

The audience rewarded his suggestion with applause.

MORE: Professor argues identity politics is killing liberalism

IMAGE: Everett Historical/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Jeremiah Poff -- Franciscan University of Steubenville