Corey Lee Wilson
Viewpoint Diversity on Campus is Essential
Viewpoint diversity refers to the state of a community or group in which members approach questions or problems from multiple perspectives. When a community is marked by intellectual humility, empathy, trust, and curiosity, viewpoint diversity gives rise to engaged and civil debate, constructive disagreement, and shared progress towards truth. Viewpoint diversity enables colleges and universities to realize their twin goals of producing the best research and providing the best education.
As citizens who are counting on students’ and researchers’ future contributions to our shared social, civic, moral, and scientific endeavors, we all suffer when orthodoxies distort and limit understanding of the social, aesthetic, and natural world—or when institutions of higher learning are unable to draw in perspectives from the whole of society. To help solve this problem we need heterodox academies.
To make headway on solving the world’s most complex problems, scholars and policy makers must deploy the best ideas. This typically requires consulting a wide range of perspectives.
While a community of inquiry defined by intellectual humility, curiosity, empathy, and trust may hold many beliefs in common, few ideas will be beyond discussion, revision, or good-faith debate.
The Surest Sign of an Unhealthy Scholarly Culture is the Presence of Orthodoxy
Orthodoxies are most readily apparent when people fear shame, ostracism, or any other form of social or professional retaliation for questioning or challenging a commonly held idea.
The best way to defend against orthodoxies—or to neutralize them—is to foster commitment to open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement. When these elements are missing, orthodoxies can take root and thrive.
Viewpoint diversity occurs when members of a group or community approach problems or questions from a range of perspectives. Institutions of higher learning face several interrelated viewpoint diversity deficits including:
• Racial/Ethnic • Socioeconomic • Geographical • Religious • Political • And in many fields, Gender
Academic freedom demanded a respect for a diversity of views. During the Vietnam War years, college campuses were alive with debates about the war and a host of other subjects. There was no effort to silence diverse points of view.
Per Haidt, the future of liberal democracy depends in no small measure on empathy—the ability to humanize and understand others and tolerance. Students need to see those with whom they disagree politically as people—or else they risk alienating and demonizing the other side, which only leads to further conflict and highly-limited understanding.
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.
Viewpoint Diversity Deficits Can Lead to Intolerance
When environments lack sufficient viewpoint diversity, problematic assumptions can go unchallenged, promising ideas and methods can go underexplored, and it can be difficult to effectively understand or engage with others who have different backgrounds, priors, and commitments.
For instance, to the extent that institutions of higher learning lack viewpoint diversity (and are thus not representative of the broader societies in which they are embedded), scholars may struggle to communicate the value and relevance of their work to people outside the academy in an accessible and compelling way.
Well-intentioned social programs can fail in their stated aims—or even cause harm—when the people designing policies are too far removed from the populations their interventions are intended to serve. Meanwhile, young people from underrepresented groups may come to feel as though they don’t belong in the academy—and decline to apply to college, drop out midway through, or pursue non-academic paths if they push through to graduation.
In short, we would have reasons to recruit and retain a more diverse pool of faculty, staff, and students even if the lack of viewpoint diversity were purely the result of differences in interests and priorities among members of various groups.
However, we know that many disparities are also—at least in part—the result of a hostile atmosphere, discrimination, a lack of access or institutional dynamics that tend to privilege certain groups for reasons other than the quality of their research or ideas. It seems important to rectify these imbalances for moral as well as practical reasons.