NOVAK: Higher ed is too far left

The academy overwhelmingly skews left and lacks intellectual diversity

In recent years, academic institutions and private sector businesses alike have begun to realize and pursue the tangible benefits associated with different types of diversity, as evidenced by the establishment of affirmative action programs in admissions and hiring. While higher education as a whole has made great strides in the right direction of increasing gender and ethnic diversity, it has been noticeably lacking in the promotion of ideological diversity. It’s clear there is a significant divide between the ideological preferences of the faculty and staff of leading universities and the ideological preferences of the nation as a whole. Specifically, many top institutions serve as deeply liberal enclaves, despite the fact that the country as a whole is relatively evenly divided between liberals and conservatives. Universities owe it to their respective communities to expose their students to a wide range of different convictions from across the ideological spectrum.

We, as a society, must ask ourselves what we value most in higher education. I would contend, like many others, that a university should do more than simply pass on information to each successive generation. Even more valuable than the academic tradition is the symbolic weight held by places of higher education as the point of convergence for a wide array of people from different walks of life. At its best, a university should be a cross-section of our society, bound together by the common pursuit of education and intellectual advancement. The intermingling of a widely diverse population is what makes universities so special.

First and foremost, it’s important to note I am in no way contending that conservatives have been subject to oppression in any significant way, and certainly not to the degree that has historically affected ethnic minorities and women. Affirmative action programs can, in some instances, serve primarily to correct this historical wrongdoing. In addition to that, however, they serve to acknowledge and promote the robust benefits provided by representation of minority groups and diversification of a population. In this sense, it’s logical to suggest that perhaps it is appropriate to adjust hiring practices such that the faculty at a university are more ideologically representative of the country as a whole.

At no time in history has it been more imperative that we promote ideological diversity on grounds, simply because at no time in history has it been easier to insulate ourselves from contrary opinions. Before, because the entirety of our socialization was done directly, face to face, it was impossible to merely avoid contrary opinions. With the advent of the Internet and social media, it has become almost irresistibly easy to simply unfollow the opposition, content to remain in an online ideological echo chamber. The Internet has certainly broadened people’s capability to seek out other perspectives, but we’ve come to see that people tend to leave this immense newfound power unused. Instead, people can easily self select their own online social circles, and entirely avoid interaction with opinions divergent from their own. This has undoubtedly had some hand in the increasing political polarization in the United States. When we no longer have to interact with those who hold opposing viewpoints, it becomes far too easy to demonize the opposition. When our beliefs and opinions aren’t challenged, society as a whole suffers. Universities are uniquely situated to remedy this kind of polarization and ignorance. Nowhere else is there such a healthy atmosphere for intellectual discourse and debate, where individuals can consider with great nuance their own opinions, as well as the opinions of others.

Much like the positive feedback loop of social media, where people selectively expose themselves to some opinions while blocking out others, leading to more polarization and in turn more selective exposure, academia too has fallen into a self-sustaining and expanding cycle of liberal dominance. As conservative candidates are passed up in favor of their liberal counterparts, their colleagues and students are deprived of moderating influences, which in turn leads to further polarization and further rejection of opposing viewpoints. Conservatives are excluded from the vast majority of academic circles, which consequently discourages other estranged conservatives from even pursuing professorships, tenure, and other coveted positions in academia. If we allow universities to continue to fall deeper into this cycle of homogeneity, we are depriving ourselves of the last, best bastion of open intellectual discourse.

By permitting group polarization and groupthink to overtake academia, we expose ourselves to a variety of dangers and inefficiencies. Chief among these is the creation of an ideological bubble, in which students and faculty are shielded from strong, competent counter arguments, ultimately weakening the vigor of debate and thought within. Additionally, there emerges the possibility of publishing subpar research without sufficient review, a problem easily solved by requiring scrutiny of research from a diverse range of critical viewpoints. Left unchecked, polarization and homogeneity in academia threatens to undermine the credibility and vitality of academia.

As it relates specifically to the University, because the commonwealth of Virginia does not require party registration, there’s no way to definitively determine the political and ideological breakdown of our faculty in the way other studies have. However, given the established trend, it’s probably relatively safe to assume that there is a pretty strong liberal majority among professors and administrators, albeit not necessarily as strong as the majorities in northeastern universities, if only as a result of simple geographic distribution. Anecdotally, most students would concur that there seems to be an imbalance in the ideological identifications of the faculty. It would be prudent on the part of the University to do everything in its power to address this disparity and affirm its commitment to the open discourse of ideas and the development of an ideologically inclusive, yet challenging, environment. Thomas Jefferson initially designed his academical village to promote and encourage intellectual discussion and the free exchange of ideas between students and faculty alike, and the University must strive to continue this tradition.

Ideally, a university would serve as a microcosm of society as a whole, where values, opinions and ideologies are constantly examined, debated and reevaluated. While in recent years we have made significant advances in increasing some types of diversity, others have fallen by the wayside. Society as a whole loses out when people’s ideologies are not sufficiently challenged, and the dearth of conservative viewpoints on campuses across the country represent an unfortunate trend toward the ease of homogeneity in ideology, and away from the sharpening influence of open discourse. Every institution of higher education should strive to foster diversity of all kinds, and the promotion of a wide, inclusive variety of ideologies in the faculty should be an integral part of this mission.

Brendan Novak is a Viewpoint writer.

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