A Campus Conversation About Diversity of Ideas

J. Martin Rochester

Author’s note: I recently was invited by the Chancellor of my university, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, to address the Chancellor’s Diversity Council on the topic of “intellectual diversity,” or lack thereof, in academia. The Council consists of some two dozen members of the UMSL campus community, including deans, faculty members, administrators, and staff. It is chaired by the Chief Diversity Officer for the university, along with the Dean of the Honors College. The purpose of the Council is to serve as a sounding board for airing concerns about school climate and diversity. I presented the following remarks before the Council on November 8, 2013.  The aim of the meeting was to familiarize the Council members with the need for intellectual diversity. I was the only person invited to speak that day, and as far as I know, this was the first time this topic had been on the Council’s agenda.
 

I want to thank the Chancellor’s Diversity Council for the opportunity to address you on the subject of “intellectual diversity,” and I also want to thank Chancellor George for his sensitivity to this issue and willingness to include it in the diversity conversation.  I think it is fair to say that intellectual diversity is a problem on many university campuses, including to an extent at UMSL, although we are hardly the worst example; and, indeed, thanks to Chancellor George and others, we are better than most campuses. When I refer to the problem of “intellectual diversity,” I mean the lack of diversity of ideas – in particular, the dominance of liberal ideology and the marginalization of conservative ideology.

Let me preface my comments that I recognize the importance of “diversity” in terms of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, which is the usual way the term is used. Such diversity certainly enriches campus life. But arguably the most important type of diversity a university should promote, given its primary mission, is diversity of ideas. While racial, ethnic and gender diversity can contribute to that, it does not assure that, unless one wants to stereotype whole groups and suggest there is such a thing as a “black” or “female” or “Jewish” or “Muslim” point of view. The same can be said about social and economic diversity.  I would add that the more we stress and accommodate these various categorical groups, the more we risk devaluing the individual along with our common humanity.  

Why do I say there is a lack of intellectual diversity on American college campuses?  I am not the only one saying this; there are dozens of articles that have been written on this subject. There is much anecdotal as well as hard empirical evidence that there tends to be a liberal hegemony and orthodoxy that privileges liberal ideology in American academia, especially in the very departments and units that preach the most about the need for diversity—the humanities and social science departments, schools of education and social work, and others.  Of course, there are exceptions (for example, economics departments and business schools along with many of the hard sciences may be more pluralistic) but I am referring to the university as a whole.    

Let me briefly rattle off a few anecdotal examples of the problem found here at UMSL on our own campus, just to flesh out the point I am making:

  • Last spring there was a conference on reexamining “American Exceptionalism,” i.e., the notion that the United States is a special country that has had a special mission in the world. It was an excellent conference that brought world-class scholars to campus, except for the fact that only one side of the argument was presented—that the U.S. is unexceptional or, to the extent we are exceptional, we have been exceptionally bad. The opinions ranged from far left to, at best, centrist, with virtually no conservative perspective presented, even though there are several respected conservative scholars writing on this subject, including Robert Kagan, Thomas Sowell, John Kingdon, Victor Davis Hanson, Charles Murray, and Niall Ferguson. 
     
  • A few years ago, a fellow named Michael Podgursky, who was chair of the Economics department at UM-Columbia, applied for the Des Lee Endowed Professorship in Community Collaboration and Public Policy. He was a prominent national expert on K-12 school finance, but he did not have a prayer of being offered the position, since he was also well-known for his conservative views. The chair of my own department at the time could be heard at his job talk whispering that “he is one of those conservatives,” a view echoed by education school faculty and others who attended the talk. The person who did get the job is excellent and a great colleague in the political science department, but the point is that a subtle sort of “institutional liberalism” was operating to make it almost impossible for a conservative to get the position.  Indeed, any job candidate who gives a conservative talk at an interview in many departments takes a real risk of being tuned out and dismissed unfairly.
     
  • I have been faculty advisor for a faculty-student organization called the Political Science Academy for some 40 years. The PSA meets monthly at faculty homes to discuss the great issues of the day locally, nationally, and internationally. As faculty advisor, I try in consultation with students to identify topics of current interest and speakers who are experts, regardless of their political leanings. The vast majority of speakers we have had are liberals, mainly because we rely greatly on our UMSL political science faculty, most of whom lean in that direction. A couple years ago, on the rare occasion when we had a conservative speaker—Professor Lawrence White of the Economics department, discussing the housing bubble mess, the Lehman Brothers collapse, and the economic recession—I had colleagues ask me why I picked him to speak, suggesting he was biased. In all the years I asked liberal and even far-left speakers to speak, including a Marxist colleague who discussed Occupy Wall Street, I was never asked why I picked that person to give a talk.
     
  • Then there was the “White Privilege” conference sponsored by the College of Education a few years ago. I thought we were not supposed to use offensive “hate speech” on campus, but it seems ok to use such stereotypical, inflammatory phrases as “white privilege.”  Likewise, it was ok for the school of education awhile back, following the lead of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, to list a “social justice disposition” as something expected, if not required, of all graduating education students. One can only imagine the howls from the University Senate if the Business School tried to get away with insisting on a “capitalist disposition” as a graduation requirement for a business degree. The double standard on these sorts of issues is palpable.
     
  • The bottom line is that, if one is to the right of Nancy Pelosi or Ted Kennedy, one is often considered a “right-winger” on this campus and most campuses. In my own case, I have frequently been portrayed as such in the Current campus newspaper and other venues, and perhaps I am perceived that way in this room, even though I am liberal enough to have been named in 1995 by the St Louis chapter of the United Nations Association, on the 50th anniversary of the UN, as one of fifty St. Louisans who “have devoted their lives personally and professionally to global peace and justice.”  Only in academia are people like me considered right-wingers. Larry Summers discovered the same fact at Harvard.

I could go on and on, but I will stop. These are not isolated examples of the problem. Several empirical studies have been published that document the pattern nationwide. I would be happy to give you the citations and the articles themselves if you like. I’ll just cite a few statistics drawn from these studies, which have been reported not only by conservative commentators but liberal commentators as well. In fact, the statistics are widely accepted and unchallenged; the only question is what to make of the statistics.   

In the July 2012 issue of PS, a publication of the American Political Science Association, two authors capture the situation when they state:

Parents who send their freshmen off to college can find comfort in knowing that their children will be exposed to all manner of experiences and viewpoints—except conservative or libertarian ideas. In much of American higher education, conservative professors have long been an endangered species. For example in the edited volume The Politically Correct University, Dan Klein and Carlotta Stern sum up results from numerous surveys showing that even in the most ‘conservative’ disciplines liberals outnumber conservatives by wide margins. Democrats and Marxists outnumber Republicans and libertarians by 3 to 1 in economics, more than 5 to 1 in political science, 10 to 1 or more in history and English, and well over 20 to 1 in anthropology and sociology.1

Jonathan Zimmerman of NYU, a self-described “devout Democrat,” in an article entitled “US Colleges Need Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors,” adds that at the 8 Ivy League colleges, 96 percent of the faculty who made campaign donations in the 2012 presidential election gave to President Obama. At Brown, for example, 129 faculty members gave to Obama and just one donated to Romney.  He says it is not just an Ivy League thing – at the University of Wisconsin, only 4 percent of faculty donations since 2011 have gone to Republicans.2

Now, I am not in favor of affirmative action for conservative professors.  I do not like bean-counting in general, but especially when it comes to establishing quotas to make sure we have x number of professors with one viewpoint as opposed to another viewpoint.  Nobody should be bringing their personal political agendas into the classroom anyway, whether left or right. Scholarship and teaching both suffer when professors are not forced, along with their students, to confront competing ideas.  I simply want us to be more sensitive to this issue, and to include it in the “diversity” project. I will conclude with two of my favorite quotes that make the case for intellectual diversity. First, from an anonymous source, is the best definition of education I have ever heard – “getting students to learn to cope with ambiguity.” Second is the quote from the philosopher David Hume – “truth emerges from debate among friends.”  We are less likely to expose students to ambiguity, to debate, and ultimately to truth, when we do not insure that they are exposed to a wide range of viewpoints on campus.  

NOTES:

1.       Robert Maranto and Matthew Woessner, “Diversifying the Academy: How Conservative Academics Can Thrive in Liberal Academia,” PS (July 2012): 469-470.

2.       Jonathan Zimmerman, “US Colleges Need Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors,” Christian Science Monitor, December 13, 2012.

 

Image: Pexels, Public Domain

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