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Viewpoint diversity group overhauls its college rating system to move away from anecdotes

School may be ‘hung out to dry because of the action of one person’

Heterodox Academy is retooling an initiative to help students and parents find colleges that promote viewpoint diversity, after coming to doubt its usefulness.

Executive Director Deb Mashek previewed the nonprofit’s plans for the new “Distinguished Academy” in a Heterodox Academy podcast earlier this month. It will “create a list of criteria that we believe characterizes a campus where people can come together who can interrogate ideas across lines of difference,” she said, according to the podcast transcript.

Three years ago, Heterodox Academy released a “Guide to Colleges” that aimed to rank institutions of higher education based on their tolerance for differences in opinions. It used four criteria, including college ratings by two other groups.

But the viewpoint diversity organization, co-founded by New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, determined that it needed a more analytical and data-driven initiative than the Guide to Colleges could deliver.

Mashek laid out possible factors that Distinguished Academy will take into account, emphasizing objective actions that colleges can take on their own to improve their rating. One of the downsides of the Guide to Colleges is its reactive nature, she said: Colleges may receive a misleading rating because of “anecdotal” reports.

A spokesperson for Heterodox Academy declined an in-depth interview with The College Fix on its detailed plans for Distinguished Academy, saying the initiative is still early in the design stage and specific criteria have not been finalized.

Instead, the spokesperson shared a months-old article by Haidt and Mashek on 10 colleges where students would not have to “walk on eggshells” in expressing their opinions.

Other academic groups that release their own rating lists declined to comment on Heterodox Academy’s pivot.

Possible factors: syllabi that emphasize viewpoint diversity, free-speech orientation

The Guide to Colleges rated schools based on four metrics. The first is the most objective: whether the school has adopted the University of Chicago’s principles on freedom of expression. The fourth is the least specific: “relevant events since 2014” on campus.

The second and third are other groups’ rankings: the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s speech-code database and Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s “Choosing the Right College” guide, which measures a school’s tolerance towards conservative and libertarian students.

Mashek said on the podcast that the Guide to Colleges was “one of our most visited webpages,” but it was not something “we still feel like we can stand behind,” so Heterodox Academy took it down. An isolated event, such as “a professor say[ing] something that’s silencing the students … caught on tape,” could disproportionately affect the school’s rating, she said.

Podcast host Chris Martin jumped in to say that Georgia Tech received an unusually low rating because Heterodox Academy factored in a news story on unidentified people setting fire to a police car on campus. Mashek agreed the data sources can mislead: “What does that feel like [for an administrator] to have your college hung out to dry because of the action of one person who may or may not be a student?”

MORE: Heterodox Academy co-founder runs for Yale trustee


While criteria have yet to be determined for Distinguished Academy, Mashek threw out some examples that Heterodox Academy is considering as evidence that a school intends to “advance open inquiry.”

One factor might be a university hosting a series where speakers with a range of different viewpoints come and speak on a particular topic. A campus could receive high marks for distributing syllabi that encourage open inquiry in the classroom, stating explicitly that a student will not be punished for expressing a differing or unpopular opinion.

A university could create a mandatory course during freshman orientation that discusses the importance of open inquiry on campus and how to deal with feeling discomforted by a possibly offensive opinion, Mashek said.

Once a set of criteria has been established, the organization will “put out a call to colleges and universities” explaining how to “distinguish yourself” by providing “direct evidence” of pro-viewpoint diversity actions.

“I can’t imagine” Heterodox Academy will require schools to “hit every single one of this criterion” on the future list, but it will design “some sort of a process for vetting” which schools “really are doing a phenomenal job,” Mashek said. Her group wants to highlight “great role models.”

Colleges respond: ‘they don’t want to stand out as being in the bottom’

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education declined to comment on Heterodox Academy’s pivot toward Distinguished Academy, despite being shown the podcast transcript where Mashek describes the initiative.

But Laura Beltz, senior program officer for policy reform, generally defended the usefulness of ranking and rating lists for prodding colleges in a certain direction. “If enough prospective and current students make clear to a university that a particular metric is important to their college experience, the schools are likely to respond,” she told The Fix in an email.

As evidence, Beltz cited the history of FIRE’s annual Spotlight on Speech Codes report. The percentage of schools earning FIRE’s worst “red light” rating has fallen by two-thirds in a decade, to just a quarter of schools in the most recent report.

“Several schools have contacted us to work with them on their policies so that they no longer land on that red light list, since they don’t want to stand out as being in the bottom 1/4 of their state or of the country,” Beltz said. FIRE has also observed a “ripple effect” when several schools in a state earn the highest “green light” rating by revising their policies.

The American Association of University Professors, which maintains a widely read “censure list” of institutions that do not “generally recognize principles of academic freedom and tenure,” declined to comment. A spokesperson told The Fix it is not familiar with the “Distinguished Academy” proposal, even after being shown the podcast transcript.

MORE: Paul Krugman slanders Heterodox Academy as right-wing outrage porn

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About the Author
Christian Lubke -- Carthage College