Higher Education Has a Viewpoint Diversity Problem. Here’s How to Respond. | Opinion

In 2002, writer David Horowitz proposed an Academic Bill of Rights to ensure viewpoint diversity in U.S. higher education. The proposal was criticized for not respecting the autonomy and scholarly standards of academic disciplines, and for attempting to force change from the top down.

The critics had a point, but I think his diagnosis of the problem was correct: Higher education struggles with respect for appropriate forms of viewpoint diversity.

For example, the imbalance in faculty political commitments has only grown in the intervening decades: By one measure, the liberal-to-conservative ratio of faculty in American universities increased from 2:1 in 1989 to 5:1 in 2017. According to a 2023 survey by The Crimson, among Harvard faculty, it now appears to stand at roughly 26:1.

If this lack of viewpoint diversity were simply due to the steady conquest of ignorance by knowledge, this would be worth celebrating. The reality, however, is that ideological or political homogeneity often just inhibits the pursuit of truth, sometimes causing entire areas of inquiry to be neglected. This hinders universities’ missions of generating, preserving, and transmitting knowledge and preparing students for democratic citizenship.

As John Stuart Mill argued in “On Liberty,” ignoring alternative viewpoints compromises our capacity to pursue truth, to understand other perspectives, to realize when we are wrong, and even to adequately defend our positions when right. Lack of intellectual diversity among faculty (and administrators) might also render open student discourse increasingly difficult as indeed we experience at Harvard.

How do we explain the lack of intellectual diversity among faculty?

A central explanation may concern the research areas in which departments choose to hire. For example, in my own discipline of public health, I believe there would be opposition to faculty searches for experts on the relations between religion and health or marriage and health despite empirical evidence indicating their importance.

For many, the topics seem too closely associated with traditional values. I would imagine similar dynamics are at play in many disciplines. As the ideological perspectives become more homogeneous, the topics considered important narrow, further reinforcing lack of intellectual diversity. It’s a vicious cycle.

I don’t believe universities should implement new quotas targeting ideological diversity, but I do think they should self-consciously diversify the research areas they target in faculty searches. I would put forward the following principle as one consideration, among many, that departments should weigh in faculty hiring:

When a research area requires attention to viewpoints that are held by a large portion of the population and that exert significant influence on policy or society, it would be advantageous to have someone on faculty who either holds the view or conducts research on those who do.

More specifically, when such viewpoints concern values, or concern matters on which there is not scholarly consensus, it would be advantageous to have a faculty member who holds the view; in contrast, when there is evidence-based scholarly consensus that the relevant view is false, it would be advantageous to have someone who studies those who hold that view.

Universities should thus try particularly hard to hire faculty who hold disfavored or controversial views when those views are held by a large portion of the population, have not been clearly refuted, and influence culture and policy.

Application of this principle to topics and viewpoints that are currently underrepresented in academic work would both preserve disciplinary autonomy and scholarly standards and also increase viewpoint diversity in ways that enhance the pursuit of knowledge.

If this principle were applied consistently, I could imagine faculty searches being conducted in sociology or in public health on marriage and health; in psychology, on character and virtue assessment; in philosophy, on Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy (not just theology) continues to exert major influence on the Catholic Church and its 1.4 billion adherents. More controversially, a school of public health might consider hiring a pro-life scholar of women’s health.

Hires in these often-neglected areas would increase the political, intellectual, and religious diversity of the faculty. Adding scholars with different perspectives might allow us to find some common ground on divisive issues. It would certainly improve the quality of argument and scholarship on both sides.

That many would consider such a proposal objectionable may itself be evidence that ideological factors often drive faculty hiring.

To be clear, not all widely held viewpoints deserve equal consideration under this principle. Many believe in alien UFOs, but this does not exert major policy influence. While numerous Americans embrace young-earth creationist views, which exert some societal influence, there is scholarly consensus against the position. However, having a scholar who studies those holding such views would likely give a department a strong advantage in the transmission of knowledge.

Greater viewpoint diversity would produce a host of positive follow-on effects. It would reshape what are central versus fringe topics within a discipline, and editorial willingness to publish on them in high-ranked journals. This may in turn affect who is hired and promoted.

Likewise, a lack of viewpoint diversity among faculty also affects graduate students. It is difficult for graduate students to study certain topics if they can’t find faculty to advise them. Without faculty interested in unfashionable topics, prospective students may decide it isn’t worth applying or may face rejection for lack of advisors. In turn, the absence of graduate students studying these subjects reinforces a perception that departments don’t need to hire in these areas.

Expanded viewpoint diversity would ultimately serve the University’s pursuit of Veritas, in helping us refine, strengthen, correct, and appropriately situate our arguments, as we encounter those with whom we disagree.

Harvard scholars and leadership would do well to recall Richard Feynman’s wise words: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Tyler J. VanderWeele is the John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology.

His piece is part of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard’s column, which runs bi-weekly on Mondays and pairs faculty members to write contrasting perspectives on a single theme. Read the companion to VanderWeele’s piece here.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *