Higher Education Watch
Academia Is Its Own Worst Enemy

The campaign for more intellectual diversity in higher education just got an eloquent and influential new champion: John Etchemendy, Stanford University’s provost from 2000 to 2017. In a recent speech to the elite university’s trustees, Etchemendy said that while many on campus perceive higher education to be under siege from right-wing populists, he believes that the greater danger is that academia destroys itself from the inside through its own stifling intellectual orthodoxies:

Over the years, I have watched a growing intolerance at universities in this country – not intolerance along racial or ethnic or gender lines – there, we have made laudable progress. Rather, a kind of intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for. It manifests itself in many ways: in the intellectual monocultures that have taken over certain disciplines; in the demands to disinvite speakers and outlaw groups whose views we find offensive; in constant calls for the university itself to take political stands. We decry certain news outlets as echo chambers, while we fail to notice the echo chamber we’ve built around ourselves.

This results in a kind of intellectual blindness that will, in the long run, be more damaging to universities than cuts in federal funding or ill-conceived constraints on immigration. It will be more damaging because we won’t even see it: We will write off those with opposing views as evil or ignorant or stupid, rather than as interlocutors worthy of consideration. We succumb to the all-purpose ad hominem because it is easier and more comforting than rational argument. But when we do, we abandon what is great about this institution we serve.

Over the course of Etchemendy’s career, academia has indeed become more of a monoculture, with the overall ratio of liberal to conservative faculty increasing from 2:1 in 1990 to 5:1 in 2014, and with conservatives virtually without representation at many elite social science and humanities departments (one study found that Democrats outnumber Republicans at top 40 history departments by a more than 33:1 margin). And there is no sign the trend is abating; younger American professors are even more uniformly liberal than the older cohort.

Etchemendy’s speech calls for efforts to bring in more faculty with heterodox views—not as a kind of spoils system for conservatives, but because a greater diversity of viewpoints is likely to increase the rigor of scholarship overall, no matter the viewpoint of the person conducting it:

We need to encourage real diversity of thought in the professoriate, and that will be even harder to achieve. It is hard for anyone to acknowledge high-quality work when that work is at odds, perhaps opposed, to one’s own deeply held beliefs. But we all need worthy opponents to challenge us in our search for truth. It is absolutely essential to the quality of our enterprise.

It is telling that Etchemendy chose to deliver this speech once his tenure as provost was over; perhaps he thought that it would generate too much political blowback if he was still Stanford’s number two administrator. Hopefully his fellow academics take note.

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