Higher Education Needs More Diversity

(Photo: David Hsu/Dreamstime)
Learning with, and from, people who don’t agree with you is a vital part of college life.

While seemingly obsessed with promoting diversity based on gender, orientation, ethnicity, and (belatedly) class, the liberal establishment is far less concerned with ideological diversity. Liberals routinely deny or dismiss as irrelevant the underrepresentation of conservatives in the media, Hollywood, and higher education. My goal is not affirmative action for conservatives in these professions (along with quotas for liberals in the hierarchy of the military, financial institutions, and churches). However, I do believe the current imbalance is bad for universities, liberal students, and conservatives.

There is certainly a natural tendency for individuals to shift their political self-identification during different stages of life, so it is neither surprising nor a recent phenomenon that more university students identify as liberal than as conservative. Winston Churchill is credited for popularizing the sentiment that the young who are not liberal have no heart, while the old who are not conservative have no head. However, it is also true, as documented by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, that since I went to college in the late 1980s, university professors have gone from being about twice as likely to be liberal rather than conservative to being five times as likely. And the numbers are even more lopsided within the humanities. (Interestingly, today’s students, as pointed out by the Washington Post, are also more likely to be liberal, and tend to become even more liberal while in college, but less so than their professors.)

This liberal bias in the academy is bad for universities. The Pew Research Center released survey data this summer showing that, unlike last year, a majority of Republicans now view universities as having a negative effect on the country. The fact that liberal Democrats have a negative view of churches, and that the public has a negative view of the national media, seems less surprising than this negative shift among conservatives regarding higher education.

It is tempting to believe this is simply a matter of conservatives’ not liking liberals who scorn them and look down on them. Many years ago, when I asked Larry Summers, then president of Harvard University, why conservative students were underrepresented on his campus, he was honest enough to reply that Evangelical Christian parents were less likely to want their children to attend Harvard, and that this was probably good for both the students and the institution. Ironic coming from the head of an institution founded to educate Christian clergy! (And as much as I disagreed with his views, I credit Dr. Summers for his honesty. During the same discussion, Ben Bradlee, longtime editor of the Washington Post, refused to concede that the Washington press corps was disproportionately liberal.)

Yet I believe that growing conservative antipathy towards higher education can be traced to several factors and is not simply a result of the overwhelming liberal bias amongst faculty, administrators, and students. For example, NYU’s Jonathan Haidt has argued that many universities are moving away from a search for truth and towards promoting their vision of social justice. The countless stories of campus debates about microaggressions surely strike conservatives as symptoms of an assault on traditional liberal values such as free speech by overly entitled and privileged students.

This growing partisan divide between liberal and conservative attitudes towards universities, is, I believe, more harmful than, for example, their differing views towards unions and banks. Back when the academy did not automatically suspect the writings of all dead European white men, students learned from the great liberal thinker John Stuart Mill about the importance of free debate and the marketplace of ideas. Trying to persuade others of our core beliefs is good for them, but also good for us. Being exposed to different ideas and first principles, articulated by their most coherent and articulate adherents, is one of the great benefits of going to college.

It is easy, and condescending, for partisans on both sides to construct straw-man arguments for their opponents and then smugly demolish them.

As a conservative Republican and evangelical Catholic, attending very liberal schools, I was almost always in the minority at college and graduate school. Yet I did not see myself as a victim discriminated against for my views. I graduated more confident in the beliefs I retained, knowing what I believed and why I believed it. I changed my views in some areas, and changed the views of others at times. Students of my generation with left-of-center views could spend four years at college without being similarly challenged for believing in affirmative action, multiculturalism, gun control, pro-choice legislation, and an expanded welfare state. Many liberal students surely engaged in critical thinking and questioning, but their views were considered informed a priori and were less likely to be seriously attacked by other students in dorm rooms or by professors in classroom discussions.

For today’s students, who come to campus already believing in inherent bias, systemic racism, gender fluidity, and the need for drastic government action to mitigate global warming, I would argue they are better served by being forced to consider the world from the perspective of smart professors and students who disagree with them. (I would make the same point about conservative students who believe in free markets, Western civilization, and intelligent design, but I don’t suspect most professors need encouragement to challenge these views!) It is easy, and condescending, for partisans on both sides to construct straw-man arguments for their opponents and then smugly demolish them. Education systems play an important role in free societies by sharpening in citizens the critical-thinking skills they need to govern themselves. Part of the maturing and learning process has been for students to learn humility about their ability to comprehend the world, openness to new facts and arguments, and genuine respect for others with diametrically opposing views. Unfortunately, the modern university experience seems more likely to confirm in students their preexisting biases and healthy egos.

I write as both a committed conservative and one who believes in the value of higher education. I have served on the board of a private university and was president of a public university system. Even more important, I have been hearing about the value of higher education from a young age. My father, one of nine, was the first and only one in his family to get past the fifth grade. His engineering degree led to opportunities for my brother and me that would have been otherwise unimaginable. I don’t have to rely only on the studies documenting the positive impact of higher education on individuals and society; I have witnessed the transformation firsthand.

I write not because I think higher education is a lost cause or to caricature the academy. I write because I want my children one day to enjoy the same intellectual rigor and robust debate that their grandfather found so many decades ago. The temptation is for conservatives to withdraw to or create their own campuses or pursue other forms of credentialing and education, while universities become even more monolithic. Yet my own experiences speaking on a range of college campuses have been generally positive, and many liberal students seem genuinely interested in a more open, diverse, and challenging learning environment. I most recently participated in a debate on a single-payer health-care system at Yale University and was impressed with the sincerity, intelligence, and decorum of the students.

The first step is for tenure and admissions committees to be self-aware and realize that censuring sloppy thinking, not divergent views, is their proper role. Professors can encourage more readings, speakers, and assignments that challenge the dominant liberal orthodoxy on campus. They can look to the University of Chicago’s defense of free speech and rejection of safe spaces as a role model and for encouragement. We must reject the ideological litmus tests used to enforce liberal orthodoxy, even when repositioned in the service of diversity, and should rather reward universities willing to prioritize the marketplace of ideas in the pursuit of truth with our dollars, children, praise, and support. Our goal must be correcting the process of campus debate and instruction, not achieving a specific outcome of faculty and student political affiliation.

Yet I am not confident that we will correct what ails higher education in isolation. The liberal conformity within higher education, and the censuring forces of political correctness, are no longer limited to the academic world. In this era of growing polarization and ideological self-segregation, it is tempting to live, work, and play with those who think like we do. Thanks to technological advances, it is now easier than ever before to worship, obtain one’s news, share one’s views, recreate, and otherwise interact only with those who have similar worldviews. Yet the act of trying to persuade others, as opposed to merely preaching to the choir, makes us less likely to spiral into extremism, offers the opportunity for producing converts, might cause us to reexamine and enhance our own beliefs, and will allow us to cherish even more dearly those views that endure. We conservatives should welcome such a debate with the confidence of our timeless convictions.


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— Bobby Jindal is a former governor of Louisiana.


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