2019 Essay Contest Winner

Promoting Intellectual Diversity In the Ivory Tower

When ideas are banned, societies fall. Over the last century, higher education has abandoned its prior dedication to the marketplace of ideas, choosing instead to worship at the shrine of ideological purism. This shift away from intellectual diversity resulted in an entire generation who know only the lockstep monoculture of ‘safe spaces’ and thus suffer from a complete inability to listen to or understand any divergent viewpoint once they are out of the college cocoon and in the real world.

Within the Yale University mission statement is a line attributing its ability to train world-changing leaders to its dedication towards “free exchange of ideas.” Even a cursory examination of university charters and mission statements nationwide sufficiently illustrates that every bastion of higher education similarly affirms (at least in theory) this civic duty of higher education to expose students to diverse viewpoints. Logically following this presumed duty, we would expect that universities regularly hold policy debates and public forums for both students and professors to interact and hold civil conversations on a variety of topics. However, any examination of prevalence of free expression and diverse ideas (or rather, the lack thereof) on public universities shows how erroneous this assumption is. The marketplace and exchange of ideas is no longer encouraged – intellectual diversity is strangled, and great honor is awarded those who lead the charge. (Many are familiar with the 2015 public assault on Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis by a mob of angry students after he dared suggest Yale’s students be allowed to exercise freedom of speech and expression. Less widely known is that Yale awarded its prize for “exemplary leadership” to two of the students who screamed in Christakis’s face when he tried to discuss the importance of respecting differing opinions.) There is perhaps no more apt illustration of this pervasiveness than an inspection of the culture of law schools all across the nation. In the legal profession, the vast imbalance of faculty ideology has resulted in hostility against any non-mainstream opinions that free speech is silenced on the campuses of the very profession designed to encourage seeking out truth through the process of debate.

In 2015, Mark Yudoff, president emeritus of the University of California and former chancellor of the University of Texas, warned, “despite the hallowed traditions of academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, many campuses are hostile to genuine conversation and debate…Campuses are viewed as “safe” only if they are ideologically pure.” Such suppression of free speech regularly manifests itself in universities uninviting guest speakers who do not toe the desired political line – just this month, Grand Canyon University banned pundit Ben Shapiro from speaking on its campus. However, forbidding ideological diversity in the academy creates a problem far worse than merely boycotting a few conservative speakers. As students learn to blindly regurgitate only the approved rhetoric in frenzied 1984-esque chants, they lose all ability to think critically, compare conflicting ideas, or even entertain alternative viewpoints without turning violent.

Ideological purification and the inability to respect opposing views spills over from the campus into the rest of society, as made painfully clear with the recent confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Once professors repetitively drill into students’ minds that there is only one acceptable position on each of society’s pressing topics and all other opinions must be silenced, when those students encounter divergent ideas in the real world, they are completely unable to cope with the disagreement and lash out in vehement demands to silence what they deem to be hate-motivated opposition. The nation’s increasingly frayed political discourse traces directly back to the unidimensionality of college classrooms and the direct lack of formative examples of how to disagree well.

In short, today’s college students do not receive adequate exposure to civil dialogue and respectful competition of ideas. Stemming the tide and returning to a culture where people listen and respect diverging opinions require institutions of higher education to return to truly encouraging discourse and celebrating the free debate of ideas. Given the current state of higher education’s overwhelming one-dimensional faculty division along ideological lines, perhaps a celebration of competing ideas is too much to expect immediately. But the first step of this remedy comes requires universities reintroducing public debates and diverse discourse to college campuses.

After all, colleges are designed and (at least originally) intended to help prepare the youth of today into the citizens of tomorrow in two ways – both by imparting a tangible skill set relating to a future career and by preparing the students to successfully enter and interact with society post graduation. The hostile academic atmosphere which demands complete ideological purity while within the academy results in a massive disservice to students, who leave college and enter the workforce completely unable to cope with the sudden realization that there is, in fact, a mass of diverging and conflicting opinions sprinkled throughout the world. Lest our society morph any farther towards the world of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and being burning dissenters over the mainstream, colleges should now take steps to cultivating spirits of civility and respect.

When the first educational institutions were founded in this country, their founders were careful to avoid mimicking the religious homogeneity of the (bitterly divided) Catholic and Protestant colleges in Europe. In America, public campus debates on a variety of topics dominated the educational arena. Sometimes these debates features traveling lecturers or local experts, but often they starred prominent faculty who battled out their personal beliefs in a civil and respectful manner. Professors, already playing the role of mentors, commanded students’ respect and offered the perfect demonstration of how competent professionals can discuss and disagree on important issues while avoiding violent outbursts and maintaining civility.

These early American debates allowed students to consider a wide-range of conflicting ideas on the important topics of the day whether necessarily imposing such ideas through the classroom. Returning to such a practice of respectful debate in today’s educational climate would likewise demonstrate to students that the world isn’t actually a place where disagreement must be met with direct hostility and bitter polemics. Thus, returning to debates on college campuses would promote acceptance of intellectual diversity, which in turn helps strengthen civility, dispense knowledge, and generally safeguard our liberty of freedom of thought and expression.

The immediate impediment to implanting such public debates on university campuses is, again, the enormous ideological disparity in faculty and administrators. Other than the mere difficulty in finding qualified professors of a non-mainstream persuasion, most universities demonstrate complete indifference to holding public campus debates (as demonstrated by their continual failure to hold such debates.) However, the framework to incentivizing promotion of civil discourse already exists, lying cleanly within the scope of higher education funding.

Although the decision to tie federal funding of higher education to diversity standards remains a somewhat dubious choice, today’s colleges and universities unquestionably tout the importance of considering modern issues from a diversity of viewpoints (see again the Yale Mission Statement and similar charters). However, for some reason, this espousal of “diversity” continues to manifest with ethnic and gender demographic diversity only. Little to no thought is given to the embodiment of true intellectual diversity within the academy. Yet the American people who comprise the society that these students will one day be entering have a keen vested interest in ensuring adequate intellectual diversity on campuses, and the legislatures therefore have a vested interest in tying intellectual diversity (and by continuance, the promulgation of public debates) to higher education funding. Congress already requires colleges receiving federal grants for areas such as African Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Latin American Studies, et cetera, to organize public forums for the discussion of cultural and policy issues from these diverse viewpoints. Following this precedent, colleges could easily be required to schedule a number of public forums or debates each year for whatever hot-button topics are the forefront of society’s consciousness in that moment.

Obviously, any measure requiring or compelling any action at all must be taken with extreme caution and deference to the constitutional limitations guarding against government overreach. However, Dr. George La Noue of the University of Maryland, a leading scholar on the issue of intellectual diversity, has outlined one such working proposal that offers safeguards for all relevant interests in his recent paper The Decline of Freedom of Speech and Policy Debates on Campus and his forthcoming book on the same topic. First, universities would be directed to establish an Office of Public Policy Events (comparable to a university’s Office of Diversity) or else assign the relevant duties to an existing office. Second, the office would schedule (at least) a set number of public debates, forums, and lectures on public policy and societal interest issues of current importance, with particular prominence given to viewpoints otherwise underrepresented in the university’s faculty. In fact, the National Association of Scholars has repeatedly called for a legislative measure resembling this proposal, which would be called the Campus Intellectual Diversity Act.

On first glance, such a proposal runs against the underlying principles and goals of the very conservative groups who argue for the need of intellectual diversity in the first place. Why establish another bureaucratic office in higher education when university administrations already run out of control, and why create any standards by which the government oversees the ideological discussions occurring within the sphere of education? The proposal seems counterintuitive to the foundation doctrines underpinning the very competition of ideas philosophy.

However, today’s college campuses do not serve as a place for true competition of ideas. There is no laissez-faire market for differing ideologies or opinions – in essence, higher education operates as an impenetrable monopoly with a stranglehold on ideological discourse, demanding the homogenous obedience of an entire generation. If the colleges operated the marketplace of ideas effectively and efficiently – if an intellectually diverse faculty promoted a variety of viewpoints within the university and naturally organized civil debates of prominent issues – any legislative action on this issue would be completely unnecessary. Yet as painfully demonstrated by the increasing intolerance of students coming from the paragon of higher education into society, our colleges and universities no longer operate in this way. Therefore, just as government may break up corporate monopolies and revive the competitive marketplace, it is no overreach for a representative legislature to loosen the stranglehold of the academic monopoly and ensure that the marketplace of ideas remains alive.

Additionally, this proposal would in no way interfere with the behavior of professors or what opinions they present in their classrooms; educational independence and faculty autonomy remain fully intact. Indeed, this simple requirement to hold regular debates most closely resembles the effective programs held by the Federalist Society at the Antonin Scalia Law School (where I attend) and other law schools around the nation. Periodically, professors with diverging opinion hold a public debate of their preferred positions (such as, whether strict liability or negligence functions as the better tort regime, or whether statues should be interpreted according to a plain text meaning or the legislative history). The professors remain cordial and respectful throughout the discussion, the students are exposed to new ideas and new approaches to the difficult issues of the professions, and at the end of the day all parties return to their previous paths with a little bit more knowledge and awareness of how other people think and reason.

To repair the fraying fabric of societal discourse, it is essential to duplicate this process in universities across the nation. Though the Federalist Society and similar organizations have accomplished yeoman’s work at all levels, far too many colleges continue to silence ideological expression and limit students from understanding civil disagreement. Universities must now return to their role as centers of public discourse, and the first step forward is to resurrect faculty-led college debates and directly provide students with examples of how to engage in civil and healthy competition of ideas.