This is the fifth and final installment of 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.
College campuses are too often marked by “the dominance of conformity,” with few conservative or libertarian scholars and teachers. This is not due so much to overt hostility to conservatives as to methodological trends in the social sciences that have had the unintended consequence of discouraging conservatives from pursuing academic careers and research agendas, as analyzed in previous posts in this series (here, here, here, and here).
The need to increase intellectual diversity on campus has become a platitude, even among many left-leaning campus leaders, but concrete ideas for doing so are few. In practice, “intellectual diversity” mostly means ideological diversity, but even if universities didn’t seem to be so allergic to consciously hiring conservative faculty (a non-starter for a number of reasons found in my previous articles), there is a supply problem: there aren’t enough conservative academics available to go around.
But there are ways universities can spur a more robust exchange of viewpoints on campus. Here are five ideas universities might consider:
Princeton University’s course “The Examined Life” is a model schools might imitate. The course is team-taught by Professors Robert P. George and Cornel West. George is one of the most prominent conservative academics today, and West is an equally well-known progressive who chaired the Black Studies department at Princeton. The class is a “great books”-style seminar in which George and West each choose half the reading list, and which brings to the same classroom conservative students and left-leaning students and offers a stimulating divergence of perspectives on classic texts—a genuine exercise in teaching students how to think rather than what to think.
The George-West combination may not be easily replicated, and it originated serendipitously. George and West first met during an interview West conducted with George for a student journal in 2004 that spilled over into several hours of vigorous argument between the pair afterward. West and George began meeting regularly to continue their arguments, which ultimately led to the idea of teaching a seminar together. Such a collaboration will not likely work simply by finding a left-leaning and right-leaning faculty member and pushing them together in a classroom. One key lesson from the George-West collaboration is that the pair share a similar philosophy of classroom teaching, and are genuinely fond of each other despite their divergent perspectives, which is not something that can be taken for granted. But if such a match can be found, a university will have a treasure on its hands. The George-West course is always heavily oversubscribed when it is offered, and students of all persuasions rave about it. It has been such a success that they visit other campuses—including American University, Auburn University, Brandeis University, and many others—for public conversations, where students find an inspiring model of respectful discourse in spite of principled disagreements.
A variation in the West-George collaboration can be found at the Claremont Colleges, where left-leaning Pitzer College Professor Phil Zuckerman teamed up with right-leaning Claremont McKenna College Professor Jon Shields for a course entitled “The University Blacklist,” which takes up the most highly controversial books from both left and right. The 11-book reading list includes Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos, Coming Apart by Charles Murray, The War on Cops by Heather Mac Donald, Gaza in Crisis by Noam Chomsky, Who Stole Feminism? by Christina Hoff Sommers, Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis, and Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A panelist for BPC’s Constitution Day 2019 event, “Changing Campus Culture: Student Leaders on Free Expression,” took the class and provides her insights about how the experience expanded her intellectual understanding here.
Of course, in these days of tight budgets, it may be a stretch to pay two faculty for a single teaching station. One budget-conscious suggestion that emerged at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s recent conference of academic leaders at Florida Atlantic University: rather than pair faculty for an entire course, invite faculty with different viewpoints to team-teach just a few class meetings within a course. As with the George-West model, keeping the pairings over several semesters deepens the faculty members’ classroom rapport.
A non-ideological variation of the West-George collaboration is found at the University of Oklahoma, where Professor Wilfred McClay, a historian, teamed up with Professor and Provost Kyle Harper, a classicist, to offer a course that replicates W.H. Auden’s famous “Fate and the Individual in European Literature” course, which Auden offered at the University of Michigan in 1941. This demanding course requires 6,000 pages of reading, from Dante to Margaret Mead. Despite advertising it as “the hardest class you will ever take,” the course filled up in minutes when registration opened.
Another refinement of this idea may be a team-taught class that crosses disciplines, such as a course on economic history that pairs an economist and an anthropologist, or a course on American culture that pairs a sociologist and a historian.
Many colleges and universities have a single common reading assigned to all incoming students that is designed to provide a shared educational experience and platform for discussion among new students. Quite aside from the controversy about whether most common reading assignments skew to the left, colleges might want to rethink two aspects of the common reading practice.
First, they tend to be recent best-selling books (about half of assigned books, according to a study by the National Association of Scholars, were published in the last decade) rather than genuine classics. Second, one might question whether picking a single book is suitable for a student body that is prized above all for its diversity, not to mention that students headed for STEM majors or other disciplines outside of the humanities or core social sciences may find little interest in a single common reading.
Schools might find ways to offer incoming students a choice of readings that reflects both their diversity of background and personal interests. Multiple offerings could also allow for broader viewpoint diversity and academic interests. Such a list could include fiction and non-fiction offerings, and a choice from each continent, for example Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or any of Shusaku Endo’s novels. Perhaps some non-fiction works could be paired to provide genuine multicultural comparison, such as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics alongside the Analects of Confucius, or the Upanishads alongside Homer. Students intending to study in the sciences might be offered Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics or Albert Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions. Here’s another out-of-the-box idea: after a list of 10 or 15 books is chosen, assign them to incoming students randomly.
Common readings are usually chosen by a faculty committee, and no faculty committee will be able to come up with a list of 10 or 15 books very easily. Think instead about asking 15 departments to select one book that will go on the common reading list, with the 15 departments chosen by lot each year. Here’s another possible angle: ask the senior class to help select a common reading title. I’ll bet they come up with very different ideas than the current faculty committee process.
The National Association of Scholars study offers its own 12 tips for diversifying the common reading list here.
Colleges and universities compete fiercely with one another not just on the sports field, but for student enrollment, star faculty, research prestige, publicity, and the like. But there is not much intellectual competition within campuses. Partly this reflects the tendency of individual disciplines to resemble one another, and very few colleges or departments want to be the first mover with anything outside the current conventions—both methodological and ideological.
One way around these conventional ruts is to encourage semi-independent research institutes or schools that offer a wholly different ideology and methodology. The most prominent examples are the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton, or the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. Both offer a methodological approach and rival courses to the regular political science and economics departments.
The fact that both attract faculty friction is something a university administration should embrace. If some faculty aren’t upset at proposed changes, the campus isn’t challenging itself enough. A century ago, the Cambridge classicist F.M. Cornford put his finger on the problem when he wrote that the first rule of faculty governance is “nothing should ever be done for the first time.”
Returning to the first point, the scarcity of qualified conservative faculty or future faculty in the graduate pipeline make it impractical for many colleges to seek out conservative faculty deliberately. But, a college truly interested in viewpoint diversity would look at inviting well-established faculty members to spend a year at their campus.
The University of Colorado, Boulder established such a program with its Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy, where it has been generally judged a success as well as a huge fundraising boon to the university, with nearly $20 million raised to date to expand events and guest lectures connected to the visiting scholar program (note: I was the program’s inaugural visiting scholar in 2013–14).
Development offices at most colleges would see it as a great opportunity to gain new donations from disaffected alumni, such that a visiting faculty program would be purely additive to any department that hosted a visiting professor, costing the host departments nothing. Donors may realize too that a visiting faculty program or endowing a visiting faculty chair would be a creative way to fulfill their philanthropic aims.