It is well known by now that the professoriate at many colleges and universities, particularly the more elite ones, is dominated by politically liberal faculty. American higher education needs ideological diversity in classrooms, particularly in those that touch on political and social issues. Disciplines like sociology, history, political science, literature, and philosophy have been increasingly shaped by progressive, intellectual currents over the last several years. Conservative students often avoid such courses because they feel they will be called out on their views. On many campuses, there are no conservative professors in the social sciences and humanities.
Indeed, many classrooms in these subjects are “homogenous islands.” In a recent study published by the National Association of Scholars, “Homogenous: The Political Affiliation of Elite, Liberal Arts Faculty,” Michal Langbert states that such homogeneity of viewpoint may well bias research and teaching, constrict intellectual discussion within the faculty, and deprive students of diverse viewpoints.
In his new book, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses, Michael Roth, the President of Wesleyan College, has made an appeal for heterodoxy of campus viewpoints, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. As he says, “We need an affirmative action program for ideas emerging from conservative and religious traditions.”
The situation at Washington and Lee does not seem to be as dire as at some schools, but it is undoubtedly true that the faculty is more politically liberal than at any point in the past, that many conservative professors and students feel like outsiders and are not as willing to express their points of view, and that many of the liberal faculty members have played an outsized role in the controversies and crises of the last few years. The vote of 79% of the faculty to change the name of the university is a strong indication of the left-leaning propensities of that group.
In its new strategic plan of spring, 2018, the university states that “we are . . . diverse in our thinking.” Some might argue this point, but it is good that the university then states that “we will sustain our intellectual diversity.” We are not sure whether intellectual diversity is the same as ideological diversity, but we believe these two terms are undoubtedly linked. We are also not sure whether intellectual/ideological diversity needs to be “sustained” or “re-invigorated,” but we agree that intellectual/ideological diversity should be the mark of a vibrant educational environment.
How can greater ideological diversity be achieved within the Washington and Lee faculty? One place to begin would be a clear statement by the administration regarding the value of ideological diversity. A model for this would be the statement of “Diversity and Mission . . .” by Claremont McKenna College, which declares that “It [the college] should maintain its historic practice of hiring faculty members who represent a broad spectrum of political and academic philosophies.” An additional step would be to look at not only excellence in teaching and research but also ideological (political, religious, cultural, etc.) diversity when hiring new faculty. We do not wish to see this become the only factor which qualifies or disqualifies someone from being hired, but believe it could be considered as one factor among others.
A good model for achieving greater ideological diversity would be the Heterodox Academy. This is a non-partisan collaborative of more than 3,000 professors, administrators, and graduate students committed to enhancing the quality and impact of research-and improving education- by promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher- learning. Each member of the academy endorses the following statement:
I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic fields and universities lack sufficient viewpoint diversity. I support viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement in my academic field, my institution, my department, and my classroom.
The Heterodox Academy has an impressive Board and Advisory Committee, and its Executive Director is Debra Mashek, who previously was a Professor of Psychology at Harvey Mudd College. The members come from a variety of schools including, but not limited to, the University of Chicago, NYU, Sarah Lawrence, University of Michigan, University of California-Berkeley, Stanford, Bucknell, Dartmouth, Davidson, M.I.T., Columbia, Yale, Harvard, University of Virginia, William and Mary, and Duke. Several schools have more than one member including UVA, W&M, Duke, and a number of the Ivies. In looking over the first 1,000 of their over 3,000 members, I could not find one person from Washington and Lee.
We do not wish to see the ousting of liberal faculty, or any attempt to silence them. We believe in absolute freedom of expression and speech for all. However, we would like to see greater ideological diversity within the faculty and do believe that there are ways that this can be developed. Recently, the Regents of the University of Colorado, a school which is known for its politically liberal culture both within the faculty and among the students, called for the university administration to undertake regular and detailed measurement of the political climate on campus. They also recommended the development of campus programs centered on conservative thought and culture, and examination of methods to promote the hiring of more conservative professors. They have suggested that one of the ways to accomplish this is to look for “diversity in scholarly work and research.” As one might imagine, this has created a degree of controversy at the University as has the recent hiring of a President who is considered by some to be too conservative in his thought and viewpoint. We are not suggesting that this approach should be the model for W&L, but the need for greater ideological diversity, particularly in the liberal arts, is something which the university should carefully consider.
Arizona State University recently established a School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership which promotes a conversation between conservatives and liberals and relies on a classical curriculum to achieve its objective. There are examples of similar initiatives at other colleges and universities.
Another approach developed at the University of Colorado would seem to present an opportunity for Washington and Lee. In 2013, a Conservative Thought and Policy Program was established as a part of the Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization. The purpose of the program is to encourage greater intellectual diversity and is totally supported by private funding. The program hires visiting scholars for a period of one to two years. These conservative professors teach classes in the curriculum and present lectures and lead symposia for the broader University of Colorado community. Another program which could serve as a model for Washington and Lee is the James Madison Program at Princeton University. The Generals Redoubt would be more than willing to work with the university in developing a similar program A program such as this could attract funding from a variety of sources such as the Generals Redoubt, the Institute For Honor, the Futch Forum, individual alums, and various foundations.
The Generals Redoubt does not believe that Washington and Lee should become a doctrinaire right-wing school or a doctrinaire left-wing school. What we wish to see is an open and free exchange of ideas between people of different political and social perspectives. One thing is certain- greater ideological diversity will only occur when there is a strong commitment from the President and administration to achieving this goal. Although we have seen and applaud the efforts of the administration to achieve greater ethnic and gender diversity, we have not seen any real efforts so far to achieve greater ideological diversity, either within the faculty or in programming. We have several ideas of how ideological diversity can be promoted, and would happily share these thoughts with the university.
Neely Young is vice president of The Generals Redoubt, a newly formed group of Washington & Lee University alumni. This essay was written for and distributed by The Generals Redoubt.There are currently no comments highlighted.