America’s colleges and universities lack intellectual diversity. Knowledge advances through debate, yet our universities are dominated by an intellectual monoculture, while public-policy debates common to society at large are scarcely to be found in the halls of the academy.
This problem can be addressed in a way that respects academic freedom. Colleges help prepare students for citizenship, in part by exposing them to outside speakers, panel discussions, and debates that explore the public-policy disputes of the day. Action can be taken to ensure that our universities allow students to consider a wide range of perspectives on controversial public issues, without interfering with the classroom. This will not only advance knowledge; it will shore up our tenuous civil peace in an era when America’s sense of shared nationhood is threatened by political polarization.
Alarming campus shout-downs of visiting speakers are part of a broader problem. The real targets of those shout-downs are not the speakers, who leave campus and go on with their own lives, but the faculty and students who remain. The shouters implicitly say, “If we can silence this visiting speaker, think what we can do to you if you get out of line.” The result is a campus culture of self-censorship in which controversy is avoided and debate disappears. Shout-downs both reflect and reinforce the underlying intellectual monoculture. Restoring a culture of respectful discussion and debate will thus bolster civility, safeguard liberty, strengthen citizenship, and deepen knowledge.
The proposal I present here expands upon an idea first suggested by George La Noue, professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. La Noue develops this idea and presents the research behind it in his forthcoming book with Carolina Academic Press, Silenced Stages: The Loss of Academic Freedom and Campus Policy Debates.
While the model legislation I present here can be applied by state legislatures to public university systems, it is also perfectly possible for college or university trustees at public or private institutions to adopt this proposal on their own.
The idea is simple. Universities can be directed to establish an Office of Public Policy Events (or to assign its duties to an existing administrative office). The new office would have two key responsibilities. First, the office should arrange for debates, panel discussions, and individual lectures from a wide diversity of viewpoints on current public-policy disputes. Participants should be drawn from across the political spectrum, but the office should give particular attention to inviting speakers who hold viewpoints otherwise poorly represented on campus. Second, the office should compile and make public a list not only of the events that it sponsors, but of all events related to public affairs on the campus as a whole. Any debate, policy forum, or individual speaking event open to the entire campus community should be included on the list, with the topic, event title, participants, affiliations, and sponsorship noted. The result will be a yearly event calendar from which the extent and breadth of public-affairs debate on campus will be evident to both the university community and the general public.
La Noue researched this issue by investigating on-campus policy debates, and forums where divergent viewpoints were presented, in 24 areas of national policy, including income inequality, LGBT issues, regulatory policy, U.S. role in the Middle East, criminal justice, electoral politics, and gun policies, among others. He accessed campus calendars for 2014 and 2015 in a stratified national sample of 97 universities and colleges and 28 law schools enrolling 991,802 students annually. La Noue concludes that: “For most students in American higher education, the opportunity to hear on-campus debates about important public policy issues does not exist.” A few elite universities and law schools were somewhat better at sponsoring policy debates than the great majority of other schools, but although environmental and health policy were frequent topics, “immigration, abortion, government financing, international trade, speech, sexual assault, affirmative action, and even gun policies were almost never debated publicly on campus in 2014 and 2015.”
Consider Middlebury College where, famously, Charles Murray was shouted down in 2017, and his faculty host, Allison Stanger, was assaulted. La Noue points out that, according to its 2014 and 2015 calendars, Middlebury sponsored no policy debates, only one forum with divergent policy viewpoints, and four forums that may or may not have included significant viewpoint diversity. This prompts La Noue to ask whether the Middlebury administration helped perpetuate the atmosphere of ideological homogeneity that contributed to the Murray fiasco.
La Noue’s research focuses on debates, and forums that present divergent perspectives, rather than on individual speakers. We have good reason to suspect that there is little intellectual diversity in speaker invitations as well. From time to time the website Campus Reform publishes surveys of invited speakers for campuses that make records available. These reports show that conservative speakers on campus are greatly outnumbered by speakers on the Left. Requiring colleges and universities to keep a record of public-affairs related events would improve our ability to assess this issue, and would encourage universities to sponsor more debates, panels, and individual lectures from diverse perspectives.
This proposal raises a number of legitimate questions that I will address in turn: 1) Why should state legislatures take action on this issue? 2) Why add another administrative office when the growth of campus bureaucracy is already out of control? 3) Will this idea actually succeed in expanding intellectual diversity on campus, or will administrators, faculty, and students find a way to subvert its intent?
If the campus marketplace of ideas was functioning properly, legislative adoption of this proposal would be unnecessary. In that case, an intellectually diverse faculty committed to wide-ranging debate would already be inviting representatives from all sides of contested public-policy issues to campus. The reason nothing of the sort is happening is that a politically one-sided professorate is reluctant to expose students to competing perspectives. Nor will this situation change in the foreseeable future.
The tenure system ensures that a narrow status quo will continue, since the tenure process has been abused to create an unbreakable intellectual monopoly. The diversity of public views is no longer even fairly presented on campus, much less discussed. Self-censorship and timidity reign in place of fearlessness.
This is true for administrators as well as faculty. While administrators are as ideologically one-sided as faculty, other factors are at work in their case. According to La Noue, administrators have become risk averse. They prefer campus tranquility even at the cost of avoiding normal debate, and therefore hesitate to cross campus groups that seek to control permissible speech. Shout-downs have intimidated administrators who might otherwise have sponsored events promoting robust exchange of opinion.
With administrators and faculty averse to debate from across the political spectrum, it is up to trustees and legislators to step in. Certainly, college and university trustees could establish an office of Public Policy Events that would sponsor public policy debates and lectures from a wide range of perspectives and compile a public list of all such campus events. Indeed, at private universities, trustees are the only body that can adopt this proposal.
In the case of public universities, however, there are advantages to legislative action. Legislatures have greater independence from universities than trustees do, and are thus more likely to ensure that universities actually invite speakers and sponsor debates across the political spectrum. Legislatures exercise the power of the purse. If they authorize an office designed to broaden the range of campus speakers and public debates, yet the intellectual monoculture continues, reduction in university funding could result. Once the range of policy debate on campus is openly reported, the public will surely weigh in as well. In my view, the most likely path to reform is legislative action. After legislatively established Offices of Public Policy Events show success at public universities, the practice would likely spread to private colleges as well.
Conservatives rightly object to bureaucratic interference with the free market. Yet there is no free market of ideas in academia. On the contrary, tenure has been misused to consolidate the opposite, an intimidating and secure monopoly. Hence, an administrative office is a perfectly legitimate route to reform. Indeed, cases in which market mechanisms are specifically blocked are precisely where administrative action is required.
Moreover, this proposal does not require added bureaucratic personnel. The model bill allows trustees either to establish and staff an independent Office of Public Policy Events, or to assign its tasks to an existing administrative office. So, for example, trustees may create a dedicated Office of Public Policy Events on a state’s flagship campus, while assigning the same tasks to an existing Student Affairs office on other campuses. In some states, no new office may be established at all.
Will it work? Even if a legislature establishes an Office of Public Policy Events and charges it with staging debates, policy forums, and individual lectures from a wide range of perspectives — particularly those otherwise poorly represented on campus — won’t administrators and faculty simply continue to construct one-sided events?
Administrators at public universities take their relationships with the legislatures that authorize their funding very seriously. Once they are responsible for compiling and publishing a detailed public record of campus-policy events, it will be difficult to keep them one-sided, particularly in the face of an explicit legislative directive to the contrary. The existence of an office (or individual administrator) specifically responsible for promoting intellectual diversity in campus speaking events will make it especially difficult to avoid administrative accountability.
The American people have every right to be concerned about campus intellectual diversity, especially at publicly funded universities that educate citizens with a vast diversity of views on politics and policy. Nothing suggested here interferes with the conduct of professors in the classroom. Exposing citizens to a wide range of views through debates, policy forums, and lectures is part and parcel of a university’s mission, and a perfectly legitimate concern of the public and their elected representatives.
There is, in fact, a precedent of sorts for this proposal at the federal level. Many federal grants to colleges and universities require that recipients undertake “public outreach.” In the case of federal grants to programs of “area studies” under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, for example, Congress requires programs of Middle Eastern Studies, Latin American Studies, African Studies, etc. receiving federal grants to organize public forums on cultural and policy issues in these regions. Those programs are open to the university community and to the public at large. In keeping with this precedent, debates, forums, and lectures organized by the Office of Public Policy Events should be open to the university community and to the public, and publicly available videos of these events should be mounted online and preserved in university libraries.
Releasing information on the range of such programs will encourage accountability to the public by way of enrollment. Campuses that excel at sponsoring open debate and discussion on issues of wide concern will likely be favored by parents and students. So the reform suggested here will actually encourage market accountability, yet without traversing academic freedom.
Administrators will find it difficult to object to an office that promotes debate and discussion from diverse perspectives. Nevertheless, at least some administrators will likely resist a proposal that could turn them into targets of protests by the very groups they fear to cross. When administrators themselves invite speakers who run afoul of current campus orthodoxies, they will be subject to the ire of the vocal minority on campus that looks askance at free speech and open debate. It will be helpful in such cases to be able to say that wide-ranging debate is now mandated by state law. If administrators hold their ground and students come to tolerate and even relish honest debate and discussion of the issues that divide us, America will be on its way to a much-needed renaissance of freedom and civility.
Legislatures at their discretion can decide whether to include new funding for the administrative office in question or whether to instruct universities to finance the office out of existing funds. The new office will be more effective if it reports to one of the less-politicized divisions within the university administration, and this is provided for in the model bill.
Legislatures that adopt this proposal would be well-advised to consider adopting a companion campus free-speech bill based on the model published by Arizona’s Goldwater Institute (which I co-authored). The Goldwater proposal is the only model campus free-speech legislation that deals with the problem of shout-downs, which it deters through an interlocking system of discipline, education, and oversight. Deterring shout-downs will be particularly important once the number of invitations to speakers out of tune with current campus orthodoxies rises. The Goldwater model also establishes policies on access to speaking events that maximizes the freedom of students and campus visitors to speak and listen.
I have authored model state-level legislation along the lines described here and posted it at the website of the National Association of Scholars (NAS). The proposed Campus Intellectual Diversity Act can be found at this link. George La Noue’s research and recommendations, cited above, were first floated in the NAS’s journal, Academic Questions. La Noue and I are both NAS members and the NAS has strongly endorsed the model Campus Intellectual Diversity Act.
The disappearance of intellectual diversity on America’s college campuses is at the root of the campus free-speech crisis, and of America’s increasingly frayed political culture. The Campus Intellectual Diversity Act can help to solve these problems, while still respecting the independence of professors in the classroom.
Something to Consider
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