Published February 12, 2019
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.