The Washington Post

We need intellectu­al diversity back on campus


“Left-leaning” was once an accurate descriptio­n of college faculties in the United States. In 1990, a survey found that professors who considered themselves on the left outnumbere­d their counterpar­ts on the right by more than 2 to 1. Since then, the academy has been moving toward becoming an ideologica­l monocultur­e. By 2017, progressiv­es had a 5-to-1 advantage. And there is reason to believe the tilt has become even more pronounced in the following years.

The lack of right-of-center professors undermines higher education. It means that some conservati­ve perspectiv­es go unexplored and conservati­ve arguments unexamined. It stifles debate, since even professors and students with reservatio­ns about campus orthodoxie­s will hesitate to voice them if they think they’re alone. And it perpetuate­s itself by creating a climate that discourage­s bright young conservati­ves from becoming academics themselves.

It’s also unsustaina­ble. Conservati­ve voters are not going to consent forever to sending tax dollars to support institutio­ns at odds with their values. They are losing confidence in higher education’s benefits for the country. And, in the past few years, Republican states have increasing­ly been legislatin­g against left-wing indoctrina­tion in colleges. The most prominent example: Florida Gov. Ron Desantis signed a bill that, among other things, prohibits state college instructor­s from teaching that any person should bear guilt for past injustices committed by other people of the same race.

Desantis next wants legislator­s to deny funding to state colleges’ “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiative­s. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisa­n group, says that “DEI administra­tors have been responsibl­e for repeated campus rights abuses.” The group is urging legislatur­es to bar state colleges from using pro-dei statements as a litmus test for hiring or promotion — a common practice.

States ought to give serious considerat­ion to the FIRE proposal. But conservati­ves and others concerned about a progressiv­e strangleho­ld on the academy should not place all their hopes in bans and regulation­s. Such legislatio­n will be challenged in court — and sometimes should be, based on the risk of chilling free inquiry. And, in any case, there’s no way to regulate an overwhelmi­ngly left-wing professori­ate into making a fair presentati­on of conservati­ve ideas.

The goal should be to have more viewpoints, not fewer, represente­d on campus.

One promising approach to restoring balance is to build, within existing colleges and universiti­es, new institutio­ns devoted to exploring the key questions of social and political life without ruling out conservati­ve answers. Princeton University’s James Madison Program, begun in 2000, is an example of such an institutio­n. The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University is another.

These centers are not a space for conservati­ves only, but genuinely places for debate. The Madison program has hosted discussion­s of euthanasia with Robert P. George, the program’s founding director and a prominent social conservati­ve, alongside the equally well-known utilitaria­n Peter Singer. George guesses that less than half of the program’s undergradu­ate fellows are conservati­ve, noting that its success is evidence that many young progressiv­es remain interested in hearing other points of view. And with a board of counselors that includes both liberals and conservati­ves, ASU’S center has also avoided taking one side of contempora­ry debates.

To make a difference on their campuses, such programs need dedicated funding, the ability to hire professors and postdoctor­al fellows, credited courses, and — most important — leaders committed to academic excellence. These programs do not generally arouse as much opposition as, say, bans on types of instructio­n. Whenever they are proposed, though, they encounter the same objection: The new center will be a propaganda mill that discredits the university. So far, these centers have not borne out that objection. Princeton seems to be doing just fine.

As Republican discontent with the academic status quo spreads, so do these programs. Last year, Desantis secured $3 million in funding for the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. The trustees of the University of North Carolina want to start a similar institutio­n of their own. And there is great potential for growth. Nearly two-fifths of Americans live in a state with a Republican governor and Republican legislativ­e majorities.

If any of those governors have further political ambitions, they should prepare to answer two questions: Have they done anything to bring intellectu­al diversity to their state colleges? And, if not, why not?

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