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The Methodological Connection to the Campus Climate (Part 4): Have Universities Passed a Conformity Tipping Point?

The Brief

This is the fourth in a series of articles from BPC Fellow Steven F. Hayward on the decline of intellectual diversity among higher education faculty. The opinions expressed reflect those of the author and not necessarily those of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

How big of a problem is ideological homogeneity and political conformity on college campuses? When do the self-reinforcing feedback loops of campus culture become debilitating to free expression and stifle open academic inquiry? Is there reason to think American campuses have reached or passed a tipping point in the last decade, and entered a new phase that verges on anti-intellectualism?

These inherently contentious questions are not new, nor are the underlying conditions that give rise to them. Complaints about the lopsided liberalism of American colleges go back at least to the 1930s, when Bennington College produced a survey that found conservative students felt isolated from the dominant campus culture, and no modern history of higher education is complete without at least a glancing reference to William F. Buckley Jr.’s debut 1951 book, God and Man at Yale, a jeremiad against what he perceived to be the anti-religious and anti-capitalist dogma of Yale.

Thus, to point out that colleges have always been predominantly liberal is not exactly a man-bites-dog news flash. However, the disruption of higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic will surely shake up the institution, and, as campuses adapt to new realities, there may be opportunities to address the lack of ideological diversity—we should hope that as colleges adapt, they keep this issue in view.

In aiming for greater ideological balance, one might concede that perhaps colleges should be left-leaning, even radical, to some extent. The traditional conservative view that colleges and universities should be the repositories and intergenerational transmission belts for our civilization is only partly true or meritorious. The medieval university can be said to have originated in the need for an intellectual institution that could work out serious difficulties in our guiding ideas—think of Thomas Aquinas synthesizing pagan Aristotelianism with post-Roman Christianity at the University of Paris.

To the extent that constant reform is a central part of human progress, universities are the indispensable institutions for challenging the status quo, even if, as at Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, many of the ideas generated in universities don’t work. Universities are supposed to be the congenial home of the nonconformist, the free-thinker, the innovator.

There are reasons to wonder whether at some point the increasing ideological conformity on campuses has the paradoxical effect of making our colleges less dynamically radical; in fact, it may make them downright reactionary in the plain sense of that term. The data showing a decline in the ideological diversity of university faculties over the last 25 years ought to worry us because of an underappreciated tendency of “groupthink” to make “in-groups” more extreme.

This is the thesis raised in Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein’s recent book Conformity: The Power of Social Influences, which explores how the phenomenon of “social cascades” among self-isolated, like-minded groups leads to increased polarization, the hardening of extreme viewpoints, and the degradation of deliberation. The book collects and builds on several previous articles on this subject. In his book, Sunstein does not apply his thesis to college campuses (except for a brief discussion of race-based affirmative action admissions for law schools), favoring instead examples in the legal world and social psychology field experiments. The ideological trends evident on college campuses would seem to offer ideal case studies of the kind of conformity Sunstein studies, and it suggests both the importance of addressing ideological homogeneity and at least one path to doing so.

In Sunstein’s review of the emerging literature on group polarization, there is the implication that “social homogeneity can be quite damaging to good deliberation. When people are hearing echoes of their own voices, the consequence may be far more than support and reinforcement. … [P]articular forms of homogeneity can be breeding grounds for unjustified extremism, even fanaticism.” This leads to “social cascades … The serious risk with social cascades … is that they lead to widespread errors, factual or otherwise.” Sunstein quotes social scientists who warn that “the social process is polluted by the dominance of conformity.” Swap out “academic process” and “academic homogeneity” for “social process” and “social homogeneity,” and you have an accurate description of the campus climate today.

There can’t be much doubt that Sunstein’s phrase “the dominance of conformity” has its effect both in the selection bias of individual disciplines and in the degradation of the classroom experience for students. Anecdotes of how deepening campus dogmatism is having a discernable effect in chilling classroom discussion are piling up. Indeed, the concern for growing self-censorship in the classroom was a prominent theme in the Bipartisan Policy Center’s recent convening at Florida Atlantic University in February this year. Carleton College professors Jeffrey Aaron Snyder and Anna Khalid, who are left-of-center themselves, last year wrote that the current campus climate leads to self-censorship, “whether that’s a professor quietly dropping a ‘controversial’ topic from a course syllabus or a student staying quiet to avoid censure from her peers.” Vicky Wilkins, Dean of American University’s School of Public Affairs, told the Washington Post recently, “Something that we’ve noticed with our students, especially over the past five years that I’ve been there, is this reluctance to get into tough conversations. …They would rather walk away from hard topics than to actually engage.”

The dominance of conformity likely accounts for a high degree of research topic selection bias in academic focus. In the quantitative social sciences, for example, there is abundant effort to measure racism and discrimination with elaborate statistical tests for implicit bias, unconscious racism, and other controversial social traits. There is almost no investigation of envy, the psychological trait long recognized as one of the “seven deadly sins,” counted as a factor in anti-social behavior. The investigation of envy was not missed by John Rawls, whose A Theory of Justice profoundly influenced contemporary social policy ideas, including policies to redistribute wealth. Rawls devoted many pages explaining how to understand and overcome “the problem of envy” as an obstacle to justice. The best book-length scholarly treatment of the subject, Helmut Schoeck’s Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, is more than 50 years old. Searching social science journals today turns up very little on the subject: The best—about the only—example I can find is Daniel Sznycer, et al., “Support for redistribution is shaped by compassion, envy, and self-interest, but not a taste for fairness,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences in 2017.

How ideological conformity intersects with the effect of the methodological trends analyzed in the previous installments in this series (here, here, and here) is hard to pin down. Hiring, promotion, and curriculum decisions are confidential and often idiosyncratic, making the possible role of ideological bias difficult to study objectively. But there is likely some amount of reciprocal influence between methodology and ideology that varies by discipline and subfield. As noted in the first installment of this series, sometimes job ads specify requirements that virtually guarantee an ideological slant. And some surveys find faculty admitting that ideological bias plays a role in their hiring preferences.

The sudden uncertainty about the immediate future of universities amidst the COVID-19 crisis might provide some opportunities for thinking about how to shake up campus cultures. A dean or department chair in the social sciences who wants to bring some viewpoint diversity to the faculty would want to search for rising graduate students and young academics who work within the current methodological conventions but who break from reinforcing the “dominance of conformity” by asking contrarian questions.

Examples include Zach Goldberg, an advanced graduate student at Georgia State, who has confounded much of the established narrative about race and the 2016 election with data-rich articles demonstrating possible alternative conclusions; or Musa al-Gharbi, a graduate student at Columbia University, who likewise challenges much of the conventional wisdom about race and voting behavior. Not to mention, al-Gharbi has also written that lack of ideological diversity is bad for social science, and for the left itself.

Universities don’t change course easily or quickly. For all their reputation as congenial homes for radicalism, in a certain way they are reactionary institutions. The University of California’s legendary president Clark Kerr once observed that “few institutions are so conservative as the universities about their own affairs while their members are so liberal about the affairs of others.” But a university that wants to shake up the status quo could start by snapping up promising heterodox academics.

Next in this series, I will share five ideas for expanding the diversity of thought on campus.

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