Is it a problem that only about 9 percent of professors at American colleges are conservative or that 39 percent of elite liberal art colleges have zero registered Republicans on their faculty? A growing number of commentators have argued that it is not. Perhaps, they suggest, colleges and universities are not hostile to conservativism, but rather conservative professors are underrepresented because they simply don’t produce ideas that are worthy of academic attention.
But such objections to increased viewpoint diversity are mistaken. What’s more, we have good reason to think that the teaching and research missions of higher educational institutions are better served when those institutions welcome dissenting opinions.
Some observers contend that higher education is by its very nature conservative. A recent article by sociology professor Victor Ray, for instance, argues that one “false premise that promoters of so-called diversity of thought rely upon is that conservative ideas are marginalized in higher education when, in fact, they are ubiquitous. Universities’ fights with graduate unions, the increasing reliance on contingent labor and the retreat from affirmative action are not symbols of a left victory in higher education. Rather, such trends point to the political dominance of conservative thought in higher education.”
The idea that higher education runs on conservative (or “neoliberal”) principles is a common one. Recently, Andrew Seal, an economics lecturer, claimed that “the bottom line has stitched the university into the fabric of capitalism; one can no longer evade capitalism’s influence merely by aspiring to ‘higher’ ideals.” Similarly, Jim Sleeper, writing in The New York Times, contended that “most university leaders serve not politically correct pieties but pressure to satisfy student ‘customers’ and to avoid negative publicity, liability and losses in ‘brand’ or ‘market share’ -- terms that belong in corporate suites but appear, increasingly, in deans’ offices.”
But we should not confuse the pursuit of broadly conservative policies by college administrations with the representation of conservative ideas among faculty members. That college administrations pursue policies that loosely coincide with conservative political principles doesn’t show that the academics at those colleges take conservatism seriously. Planned Parenthood has fought unionization efforts, but this fight hardly “points to the political dominance of conservative thought” at Planned Parenthood.
Indeed, conservative thought is significantly underrepresented among faculty. But we might ask, as University of Pennsylvania professor Sigal Ben-Porath does, “How does the possible lack of viewpoint diversity relate to the mission of the university to expand knowledge, and to educate students for their roles in the market and in democracy?” Here’s one reason why a lack of viewpoint diversity is troubling: such diversity can help produce novel solutions to (nonpolitical) problems, counteract confirmation bias and expand the range of topics researchers consider.
Viewpoint homogeneity is also a problem in the classroom, even if, as Ben-Porath has noted, it is rarely the case that “other views are not presented or are silenced” or that “professors preach their political ideology in class.” John Stuart Mill argues that it is not enough that someone “should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them.”
Empirical evidence substantiates Mill’s claim. To take one example, conservatives are better at spotting inconsistencies in claims made by liberals than by fellow conservatives, and vice versa. It’s clear how that tendency can undermine good-faith presentations of the ideas of the other side. Left-leaning instructors will more readily unearth the weaknesses of right-leaning arguments, just as right-leaning instructors will be more adept at poking holes in arguments from the left. So even if right-leaning authors appear on syllabi as frequently as left-leaning authors, students remain at risk of receiving an unbalanced presentation of the views.
Now consider arguments to the effect that conservativism is less suited to academe because many conservatives are uncomfortable that academics are accustomed to “not speaking with a single voice, but speaking in that irritating way that universities do: insisting on belief that is proportionate to evidence, and on standards of reasoning that are neither liberal nor conservative, but merely human,” or because there is a significant strand within conservatism “that scorns expertise in all forms and takes political positions that are only sustainable if one discounts both empirical evidence and rational argument,” or because it could just be the case that “liberals may be more interested in new ideas.” As Ray puts, it, another premise of viewpoint diversity advocates “that should be strongly questioned is the very idea that conservative thought is diverse. What is diverse about a body of thought reliably in support of a reactionary status quo?”
This argument faces at least two objections. First, the body of thought produced by Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Zora Neale Hurston, Elizabeth Anscombe, Thomas Sowell, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone is diverse and amounts to much more than a reactionary defense of the status quo. Indeed, as Musa al-Gharbi has emphasized to me, we ought to appreciate the wide variety of political causes supported by conservatives today on conservative grounds, such as reducing corporate power, instituting universal healthcare, reforming the criminal justice system, implementing environmental protections and many more. And here’s a lengthy list of conservative thinkers who stand opposed to the presidency of Donald Trump.
Second, even if the claim about the lack of ideological diversity within conservatism were accurate, it wouldn’t address the arguments offered on behalf of viewpoint diversity. These arguments do not claim that conservative thought is diverse but rather that academe isn’t ideologically diverse enough. By analogy, milk can contribute to a balanced breakfast even though all milk is pretty similar.
The irony of the backlash against viewpoint diversity is that it is itself evidence of the importance of viewpoint diversity. Exposure to ideas coming from people with other perspectives than our own can help us treat those ideas and people with greater charity and understanding. And that’s good for all of us.