Education

New England’s Hallowed Halls, Crumbling

Campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
The region’s colleges and universities are at the bottom when it comes to diversity of thought.

It is hard to think about New England without its colleges. Numerous schools in the region predate the founding of the United States, and many towns such as Middlebury are so intimately linked to their local school historically, culturally, and economically that it would be hard to think of New England without its politically progressive, prestigious institutions of higher education.

It is thus understandable that New Englanders may be upset over a new ranking series that places many New England schools at the bottom of a list.

The offending list is the Heterodox Academy’s new ranking of 200 schools created to measure how much viewpoint diversity one can expect to find on a particular campus. The assessment takes into account a number of factors pertaining to free speech and viewpoint diversity — including the Intercollegiate Studies Institute ratings of campus culture and whether or not the school has endorsed the Chicago Principles on free expression.

At a time when the diversity of ideas — and notably conservative thought — is diminishing on college campuses nationwide, this new classification of schools is important. It answers questions such as, Is the school a place where students are likely to encounter a variety of views on politically and socioeconomically controversial topics? And: Has the school created and fostered an environment where students who do not hold the dominant political viewpoint are afraid to speak up?

The ranking has revealed that New England is by far the worst region of the country, especially for liberal-arts colleges, when it comes to campuses that support and maintain viewpoint diversity. With Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Tufts on the university side and Williams, Wesleyan, Smith, Amherst, and Mount Holyoke on the liberal-arts college side, these schools reflect the politics of the region and were all at the bottom of the rankings in terms of viewpoint diversity. This could well be the first time that these esteemed institutions have found themselves at the bottom of national rankings that are so crucial to the very mission of higher education.

Schools in the Upper Midwest and along the West Coast are the next-worst in the rankings. Schools in the South and the Midwest are the least closed in terms of viewpoint diversity, with William and Mary, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and the University of Florida leading the charge toward being least closed. Of course, these are broad general strokes that represent general trends. For instance, the Claremont Colleges were among the most highly ranked schools in terms of prompting viewpoint diversity despite being close to the West Coast and surrounded by other schools that were struggling to promoting a real diversity of ideas on campus.

It might be easy to dismiss these findings as being imperfect or simply a one-off study, but they confirm my previous work, in which I revealed that our nation’s college and university faculties have moved sharply to the Left over the past decade and that the liberal shift among professors was more extreme in particular places.

In New England, the proportion of liberal-identifying faculty is far greater (28 to 1) than anywhere else in the county.

Regionally, these differences were even more pronounced in New England, with the proportion of liberal-identifying faculty being far greater (28 to 1) than anywhere in the county. New England has long viewed its progressive and social-justice leanings as part of its historical fabric, and the ideological preferences of those teaching in its institutions certainly reflect that. Moreover, raw percentages of professors on the West Coast and in the upper Midwest were also more liberal than their counterparts in the Southwest and the South.

Taken together, these studies should give pause to New Englanders and anyone else interested in education, civic life, and questions of innovation and social progress. Students — current, future, and former — along with parents, trustees, and those in the community, should demand that institutions of higher education recommit themselves to the free exchange of a multiplicity of ideas. Viewpoint diversity is what drives progress on countless fronts, and it can help forestall the almost weekly nationwide blowups over speech and ideas.

This message is beginning to resonate. Wesleyan president Michael Roth, in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, recently acknowledged the problem and proposed aggressive action to “create deeper intellectual and political diversity,” because many, often conservative, ideas “seldom get the sustained, scholarly attention that they deserve.” While Roth was short on specifics, his message suggests that the Connecticut college president finally sees that there is a real problem, and he may push Wesleyan to move in the right direction.

New Englanders have a long and storied tradition of localism and a fierce ability to solve problems. It’s time for them to demand more diversity of ideas on their hallowed quads and campuses.

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