Opinion: Daily Journal

N.C. State making little effort to promote viewpoint heterogeneity  

Like just about every university and college these days, mine — N.C. State University — spends millions each year on a sprawling bureaucracy advocating racial, gender, and other types of “cultural” diversity.   

A university should be a marketplace of ideas to be discovered, understood, analyzed, and debated. Students and research produced should be rigorous, judicious, and worldly. A public university where taxpayers, parents, and students pay well more than 50 percent of the nearly $1.5 billion annual tab should reflect the values of its stakeholders. But N.C. State’s leadership, despite asserting “cultural” and “intellectual” diversity are equivalent, has made no real purposive or direct effort to promote viewpoint heterogeneity on its campus.  

In October I fielded an Internet survey of students enrolled in our introductory American government classes. The goal was to understand a little more about the state of the school’s intellectual diversity. I got 200 responses. The results were interesting and more than a little disheartening.   

Students in the survey were, by broader standards, left-of-center — 44 percent affiliated as “Democrat” and about one-third considered themselves “conservative or libertarian” when characterizing their ideology. Yet they perceived the faculty as more extreme. Only 8 percent of respondents believed most of their professors were to the “right” of them personally, and 49 percent said they were to their “left” — the remainder believing instructors were either generally the same or distributed equally to their left and right. It’s not surprising conservative and Republican students felt the most “uncomfortable” voicing their opinions. For example: 41 percent of Republicans said they would be “extremely,” “moderately,” or “slightly” uncomfortable discussing the House Bill 2 “bathroom bill” in class, and 14 percent of Democrats responded this way.         

The survey suggests the source of this discomfort. Respondents were more concerned about how their classmates and professors would respond to their attitudes than their views being circulated on social media and getting them in hot water with university administrators. It seems classroom dynamics, not the wider world, influence what students say and hear from peers in their courses. 

Other data reveal more serious and plausibly intimidatory and discriminatory effects.  Unfortunately, there just weren’t enough minority students in the sample to do any meaningful analysis on race, but 53 percent of participants were women. In my study, 16 percent of respondents said they were treated “badly or unfairly” on campus because of their sex or gender “every day,” “more than once a week,” or “every few weeks.” This compares to 23.5 percent who chose the same responses when asked about their political views — these students were mainly, although not exclusively, conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans.  A quarter of women said they received bad or unfair treatment regularly because of their sex or gender.  Nearly as many — 19 percent — said they did so as a result of their political views. 

I’m in no way suggesting students’ experiences at N.C. State as a result of their politics are comparable with sexual harassment, let alone anything as heinous as sexual assault — and public data show the university does have to deal with serious incidents of sexual violence. But, according to this survey at least, anyone claiming systematic and continual unfair treatment of female students on campus must recognize classmates face regular challenges because of their political views.   

I think it’s reasonable to say the survey uncovers material negative consequences of the climate on campus. A sizeable minority of students, generally with right-of-center opinions, feel they get treated unjustly as a result of their views on a frequent basis.        

It’s not as though the students don’t want intellectual diversity. The 2015 N.C. State “Campus Climate” survey reported about 84 percent of undergraduates “agreed” or “strongly agreed” “fostering intellectual diversity should be a key goal.” That was 10 percentage points higher than the proportion that agreed with the statement “enhancing students’ ability to participate effectively in a multicultural society should be a part of the university’s mission.”  

UNC system leaders must expressly recognize broad inquiry and freewheeling debate are central features of the kind of education they say they want and encourage practices for admissions, hiring, curricula, and speakers who promote intellectual heterogeneity. Formally broadening the mission of existing diversity operations would help, too. As currently constituted, they enforce conformity yet don’t cultivate debate and the exploration of different ideas.   

Let’s start investing in what the American Association for the Advancement of Science believes to be the true meaning of a liberal education — a mode of learning that “produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds.” 

 Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.