At a Time of Campus Polarization, Can ‘Viewpoint Diversity’ Efforts Help?

Higher Education

At a Time of Campus Polarization, Can ‘Viewpoint Diversity’ Efforts Help?

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 1, 2019

At a Time of Campus Polarization, Can ‘Viewpoint Diversity’ Efforts Help?
Debra Mashek, executive director of Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan nonprofit started by professors to encourage things like viewpoint diversity, speaking at the group's conference last month.

This article is part of the guide: EdSurge Live: A Town-Hall Style Video Forum.

There’s a growing call for diversity on campus. And it’s not all about demographics—there’s a new push toward making classrooms inviting to a diversity of political viewpoints.

Some professors and campuses are now working to encourage more open dialogue in class, in scholarship and in campus discussions. They’re doing things like asking students to take online trainings that encourage them to seek out diverse perspectives. But in today’s highly polarized political climate, campus debates sometimes turn ugly, posing challenges for college administrators and professors.

What can colleges and professors do to address the issue of viewpoint diversity?

Last week we addressed the issue on our monthly online discussion series, EdSurge Live. Our guest was Debra Mashek, executive director of Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan nonprofit started by professors to encourage things like viewpoint diversity, constructive disagreement and a concept they call “open inquiry.” During the conversation, Mashek touched on free speech and academic freedom, why some professors feel like they’re walking on eggshells and how to combat what one audience member called “thought policing” on campus.

Listen to the conversation here, or read highlights below, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: I first heard of Heterodox Academy when a professor told me about a time that he was criticized for being too liberal in an online video he made. He then found Heterodox Academy, which he saw as a resource on whether he was inadvertently drowning out or ignoring certain points of view in his classroom. Is that typical of how professors find you, and how many members do you have these days?

Debra Mashek: It’s a great question. So like you said, we’re nonpartisan, nonprofit, and even though the origin story absolutely includes a lot about looking for political diversity in the classroom and on campuses, we've really broadened our thinking about that. It's not just about political diversity, it's about diversity of thought and students and professors being able to ask questions and to research different areas without necessarily needing to march along in an orthodoxical way.

So it's true that often professors will find us if they're being called out or if they’re feeling like they’re starting to walk on eggshells. For some reason, that’s language that people use a lot. “There were questions I wanted to ask, or a research area that I was told I would never get published, even if the data were to support a particular conclusion.”

In terms of the membership, we're at 3,200 members, and those include professors, administrators, staff and graduate students who anticipate going into the professorate. People always ask about the ideological leanings of our members. I think it's 17 percent of our members who identify as left-leaning, 17 percent who identify as right-leaning, and a whole bunch of us who I dare say are somewhere in the middle or you can't put us in a bucket.

There’s a growing critique that there’s a liberal bias in higher education. What is your response to that?

If you look at some of the recent Pew data, there's this incredibly distrust of the public of higher ed, and it feeds into this narrative that professors are indoctrinating students. Certainly if you look at it, there are these voter registration studies that show, overwhelmingly, professors do identify with the left and with Democrats. But it's not like you can't possibly find any conservatives. The way we like to think about it is that this is not a left issue or a right issue, this is about what is in the best interest of our students in terms of creating new knowledge to solve the world’s toughest problems.

What were some of the themes from your recent annual conference?

We really wanted to tackle head-on some of the key questions and the key considerations that are on our minds as we work to re-center open inquiry as the cornerstone of the academy. And one is, “What is the relationship between viewpoint diversity and other forms of diversity?”

One narrative says that if you are for viewpoint diversity, it means that you are against other forms of diversity, demographic diversity. We certainly don't see it that way, and so we were excited to hear panelists reflect on that.

Could you say a little more about this criticism of promoting viewpoint diversity?

The logic of the critique tends to go: If you're for viewpoint diversity, it must mean you also think all viewpoints are created equal, which also must mean you think anybody should be able to say anything they want at any time without concern for the mode of engagement or the quality of evidence, which also must mean that you have no appreciation for the disproportionate burden that some members of our communities bear for the consequences of certain ideas.

Our position is that, of course mode of engagement matters. Of course tone and engaging people respectfully matters. The other piece of that, which, actually is the second big question we wanted to center at the conference, is:, Which viewpoints actually gain access onto our campuses and into our classrooms, who makes that decision, and how do they do it?

So if you believe, which we don't, that all viewpoints are created equal, that becomes a really difficult question. If, on the other hand, you believe that viewpoints can actually help us discern truth, advance knowledge, help us improve this human condition, help us interrogate and understand the nuances of our social or aesthetic and our cultural world, then it starts to simplify a little bit.

I notice when you said “open inquiry,” you didn't say “free speech.” What would you say is the distinction, if there is any difference between those two ideas?

It's a great question. And then we should also be asking, how about academic freedom? Because these are all kind of in the same soup together.

We see open inquiry as about advancing knowledge, advancing understanding, exposing falsehoods. Freedom of speech is also very important in a democratic society on campus, and it feeds into all those things. But I can say something totally outlandish, and that's a free speech right I have. I don't know that my outlandish claims necessarily help advance understanding, or exposing falsehoods. So we see free speech as helping open inquiry, but it's not one in the same.

With as much polarization as we’ve had in the last few years and a growing number of controversies on campuses when speakers are disinvited or protested, it seems like this has really become a live issue in a way that it hadn’t when you started your group.

I conducted a listening tour and had the chance to sit down with 22 college presidents and I asked them, “What is this actually like for you on the ground? What are your questions, your concerns?”

People are worried about it. There's a bit of a tone shift from what I heard even a year ago. where, rather than looking for "How can we react if something goes wrong?’ [leaders are asking] ‘How can we be proactive?’ [They’re asking] How can we be talking about the values of open inquiry and viewpoint diversity as they support and align with our mission and our institutional values, our institutional histories? So that's been really amazing to see because administrators and professors are looking to reclaim that process of questioning and letting ideas collide in that crucible of, “This is the academy, this is where people come to engage each other, to have their minds expanded and the possibilities opened.”

What advice do you have for professors or leaders at a college who might feel they are walking on eggshells talking about some controversial topics?

It’s also happening in our faculty meetings and in our department meetings. It’s professors feeling like,”"Oh, gosh, what if I slip up and say the wrong word? Is someone videoing this? Will it show up on social media?”

First of all, you should join Heterodox Academy. It’s totally free. It’s a short application, and then we send it off to our membership committee, who takes a look at it. It’s about creating a community and finding other people to brainstorm with.

This next piece of advice is coming from my background as a relationships researcher, but think about your relationship with your students and your colleagues. Be a little bit vulnerable in expressing that, “This is a difficult conversation for me to have. Here’s why I'm going to do it. Let’s be generous and give each other the benefit of the doubt. I want to invite everybody in to share it.” Showing some vulnerability can help, and also show that you’re human.

Can you give us an example of how an individual campus or professor had a situation and was able to deal with it through some strategy?

One example comes to mind where the situation in the class started to get really hot. Some students were reacting to a word choice that another student had said. The professor was tuned-in enough to realize it and said, “Hey, it looks like this conversation is starting to activate some emotions. I want to remind us that our purpose here, right now, is to understand this thing. That doesn't mean we can’t have emotion but let's all take one minute and just put our heads down and write what you're thinking and feeling right now and set your intentions for how you’re going to engage for the rest of this class session.”

It sounds very basic: Give everyone a breather, but it helps. We all need more emotion words in our world.

[Audience question] A professor of American politics at Gallaudet University, which is the only college in the world for deaf and hard of hearing students, says he’s working on starting a center for democracy, debate and viewpoint diversity, and his question is, “What is Heterodox Academy's commitment to ensuring that deaf people will have access to your podcasts, workshops, conferences, and videos in the future?”

We're not doing great on that front right now. So it’s something I would like to improve on. Honestly, it’s not something I know how to do, so I need to educate myself there, to make sure that our materials are available. I would welcome a collaborator on that front but certainly I’d like to learn more about the center too.

[Audience question] I'm in rhetoric and composition. And lately it seems like it's less about rhetoric and audience consideration and more about identity, decolonization and social activism. What I see here is that we’re no longer academics doing social justice work, we’re social justice activists doing academia. It's the other way around now. And I’m wondering, can we strike a balance between academia and activism in healthy ways, or should we at all? Should we step away from activism and get back into intellectual inquiry—the academic work we're supposed to be doing?

If we're being honest with ourselves, all of us have just a sliver of truth. It’s classic viewpoint epistemology, where all of us are situated knowers and all knowledge is situated. If that's the case, then how do we create scholarship and disciplines that don’t already assume we know the right answer? That is part of what I worry about regarding activism, because it almost sounds like we already know what the end goal should be or what the desired situation is.

I would like to think that all questions are fair game—that we use the conventions of our discipline and whatever evidence an argument looks like. I’d be curious in your field how this actually unfolds. But we’ve got, within our disciplines, these practices and habits of mind that are valued, and this mode of engagement that is valued, and I know that differs a little bit by discipline, but how do we both honor that and allow for a lot of different questions and allow for the fact that none of us can know everything about everything.

Can you give an example in your experience?

Audience Member: Well, there's a lot of social media mobbing around people who aren't toeing the line regarding race and gender. They were being effectively silenced, and they’re basically being bullied, cyberbullied, via email listservs—which is my experience. [I was] critiquing anti-racist methodologies, not anti-racism. I’m black, so that's silly [that I would be anti-black], right? But when critiquing the particular methodologies, I was attacked—relatively viciously.

I’m curious, do you have a cadre of colleagues where you're having these more honest conversations outside the main listserv?

Audience Member: On other social media platforms, mostly Facebook, there aren’t very many people willing to speak up. The eggshells are real. And from back-channel conversations I hear, there are many people who agree with my viewpoints and want to express themselves, but they can’t. They’re afraid. I mean, there’s some serious thought policing going on here.

It sounds like one of those situations where there is an orthodoxy, and if you step out of line from that orthodoxy, you’re going to be brought back into line. It would be incredibly risky to stand up in those situations. And one of the things we're going to start creating is a faculty version of the campus expression survey to try to get a sense of whether this is truly a majority perspective, or whether we’re dealing with a very powerful vocal minority.

My intuition is the same as yours. When I have conversations one-on-one with faculty, most people are saying, “Yeah, this has gone too far.” A lot of people are characterizing it as bullying, and when you look at a side-by-side comparison of how we define bullying for our children and what some of our colleagues are engaging in then how is this okay in a space where we’re supposedly interrogating ideas and trying to actually come closer to an understanding of our social and the nuances of this social aesthetic-cultural world?

I’ll say this to you, and to anyone else who's listening, that we welcome submissions to the blog, where people are unpacking what this means for our scholarship, for our teaching, so feel free to send us your writing as well.

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