Opinion: Daily Journal

Where’s the Intellectual Diversity?

(CJ file photo)
(CJ file photo)

I thought the response to this fall’s “cultural diversity” rallies on college campuses said a great deal about the priorities of American university leaders. For the most part, administrators barely engaged protesters, instead reflexively pledging policy changes and significant resources — $50 million in the case of some Ivy League institutions — to meet wide-ranging demands.

In doing so, they revealed a continuing myopia. So long as the faculty and student body look heterogeneous, furthering intellectual diversity by promoting a wide variety of viewpoints about politics, history, literature, and the many other disciplines usually taught at college does not seem to matter.

N.C. State University, where I have taught for the past 20 years, provides a modest example. It has a few stated core values, including “respect for cultural and intellectual diversity,” but does not consider them equivalents.

Along with others, I have raised private funds — for outside speakers, faculty and student research, and undergraduate seminars and reading groups — that have the effect of both elevating and sometimes, by bringing conservative voices and ideas to campus, variegating the intellectual climate.

Yet whereas the university devotes significant resources to administrative units, events, and even faculty lines to fulfill its commitment to cultural diversity, beyond providing a small budget for registered student groups I’m hard-pressed to identify state-funded investment of the intellectual kind.

In response to a tasteless off-campus student party this fall, Chancellor Randy Woodson has pledged to do more for diversity, including making members of possibly the most racially sensitive occupational class in America more “culturally competent.”

Intellectual diversity is critically important at a public university, for many reasons. North Carolina taxpayers provide over a fourth of UNC system funding and most of its students. It is reasonable for them to expect faculty views and curricula to reflect broadly their values and understanding of what is important for a young person to know.

Surveys repeatedly reveal professors to be overwhelmingly from the political left, however. And even if instructors can be unbiased in the classroom, their political attitudes drive professional interests. Liberal faculty in the social sciences and humanities have moved away from the traditional core and its comprehensive curriculum and focused intensely on matters like gender, race, and postmodernism.

The political imbalance among faculty also plays an important role in the erosion of public trust in the academy. A 2006 study from the American Association of University Professors found that 37.5 percent of Americans believed ideological bias in the classroom to be a “very serious problem.”

In the decade since, a UCLA survey estimates the number of professors who characterize themselves as “far left” or “liberal” has increased by about 7 percentage points. Political science colleagues complain constantly that their work does not influence public attitudes. They cannot understand why their scientific findings are ignored.

It’s simple, I tell them. Many people just don’t believe the source is impartial.

The fixation on cultural diversity has had a chilling effect on intellectual diversity. As the fall’s events demonstrated, the most vocal proponents of cultural diversity have a deep intolerance of those who do not think like they do.

I am grateful not to have experienced interference in my classroom or research. Still, other conservatives, particularly those who are not senior tenured professors like me, tend to keep a low profile. Anyone with ambition to graduate with good grades or move up the faculty ranks would be foolish not to.

Intellectual diversity is validated by the research touted by the cultural diversity movement. Studies have found a demographically heterogeneous campus benefits everyone because it exposes faculty and students to an array of views generated by varied life experiences.

So it turns out cultural diversity is really the means to an end that is intellectual diversity. Given the natural richness of American society, it’s a result that does not need the kind of extensive administrative engineering currently practiced by university leaders.

Intellectual diversity does not want to go to war with cultural diversity. Its proponents do not want an anodyne campus where courses, faculty, and visiting speakers are heavily regulated to ensure political balance.

We have a strong commitment to both academic freedom and accountability. But we want administrators to recognize both the social biases that hurt students of certain backgrounds and the growing biases within their institutions that stunt intellectual inquiry, sterilize campus life, devalue research and diplomas, and deprive the public of the kinds of places they want to send their offspring.

More tangibly, intellectual diversity would be furthered by concerted efforts to ensure a truly meritocratic campus — such as ensuring transparent and evenly applied student admissions along with faculty hiring and promotion.

It also would be assisted by adopting the University of Chicago’s “Principles of Free Expression” and the robust embrace of the First Amendment that comes with them.

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.