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  • Writer's pictureCorey Lee Wilson

Challenges and Threats to Free Speech

What does the science of social psychology have to tell us about the current challenges and threats to free speech? A great deal, according to Dr. Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Haidt is one of three co-founders of Heterodox Academy (HxA) in 2015, an exciting new alliance of academics seeking to expand support for political diversity and highlight the challenges of ideological orthodoxy in higher education. ACTA’s The Forum sat down with Haidt and his team at Heterodox Academy to discuss this innovative organization’s approach to changing the culture in higher education and expanding viewpoint diversity:

The Heterodox Academy’s membership has grown to 3,200 plus “In the wake of the Middlebury protests and violence, we’re seeing a lot of liberal-left professors standing up against illiberal-left professors and students,” Haidt says. Less than a fifth of the organization’s members identify as “right/conservative;” most are centrists, liberals, or progressives.

By giving more academic jobs and tenure to outspoken libertarians and conservatives seems like the most effective way to change the campus culture, if only by signaling to self-censoring students that dissent is acceptable.

The Problem: Orthodoxy in the Academy

The Forum: Freedom of expression and diversity of opinion are under attack on many college campuses. What prompted Heterodox Academy’s founding in this environment, and what do you hope to achieve?

Dr. Jonathan Haidt: In September 2015, a few weeks before the wave of student protests began, Heterodox Academy was founded to address a very specific problem: the loss of viewpoint diversity, especially political diversity, among the faculty in colleges and universities across America.

But as campus debate heated up in the fall of 2015, political passions rose and students who dissented from the prevailing orthodoxy found themselves increasingly under attack. Why should students feel like they cannot express themselves? Why should any subgroup of students be able to deem what is appropriate speech and which speaker is worthy of being heard? Are we engineering a climate where students will graduate without any exposure to contrasting viewpoints? What does that mean for businesses who hire grads unable to deal with those with whom they disagree politically?

A culture that will not tolerate divergence of opinion harms students, but academic research is also at risk when dominant theories and opinions no longer encounter counterclaims that test their validity.

The Heterodox Academy’s goal is to create a network of academic stakeholders united in their intent to see the university live up to its ideals of truth, civil disagreement, and intellectual discovery. We want administrators and professors to stand up for free speech and free inquiry. We envision a campus where ideas can be expressed, beliefs challenged and theories critically analyzed so as to help students develop a more comprehensive and valid understanding of varied social and political perspectives, freed from the fear of intimidation by peers.

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