Going to college is a critical step on the path to adulthood for many young people. In the ideal scenario, the college campus exposes students to new experiences, different ways of thinking, and opposing viewpoints. Through examining facts from various perspectives, students learn to formulate their own ideas and opinions.
Unfortunately, this is not the reality on many college campuses today. Intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas are in jeopardy, thanks to the overwhelming dominance of a left-of-center ideology on campus.
At the most fundamental level, there is a tremendous skew in political preference among faculty within our nation’s institutions of higher learning. A recent study by Mitchell Langbert of Brooklyn College, which analyzed the political party affiliations of 8,688 professors from more than 50 of the top liberal arts colleges in the U.S., found that there are more than 10 times as many registered Democrats teaching today as Republicans.
Given these lopsided numbers, it’s no surprise that another study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education showed that more than half of students surveyed resisted “sharing an idea or opinion in class at some point since beginning college.” That same study revealed that nearly one-third of students have self-censored in class “because they thought their words might be considered offensive to their peers.”
These statistics point to an alarming truth, in which the overwhelming liberal bent of many professors and students stymies the free exchange of ideas and the search for truth. Conservative-minded students, many of whom may self-censor to avoid rocking the boat, are unable to contribute to meaningful class discussions.
Meanwhile, liberal-leaning students lose out, because constructive dialogue between opposing sides is shut down. This creates an echo chamber of sorts, where presently held beliefs are reinforced and entrenched — defeating the purpose of higher education in the first place.
I see evidence of this each summer at the programs we sponsor at The Fund for American Studies. We host college students from more than 200 college and university campuses in programs in Washington, D.C., including a number of cadets from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Students come to us from a diverse range of backgrounds, including race, gender and ethnicity, but also ideology and political affiliation. I routinely have students tell me that we expose them to ideas they have never heard, including the importance of incentives in economics, that poverty in the world is actually rapidly declining, that markets are a more efficient allocator of scarce resources than government, and that the American dream is not dead.
Sadly, our experience reinforces the sense that college campuses have begun to mirror other parts of American society in falling into a “call-out” culture, where those speaking in favor of ideas not seen as “acceptable” are socially marginalized. In this system, individuals who share unpopular beliefs are singled out and often publicly shamed for their beliefs. And social media makes the problem worse.
These are troubling developments for the college experience. Unfortunately, the higher education establishment has done little to recognize or combat these systemic issues. However, one institution trying to create a more balanced and healthier environment on campus is the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Last month, UC-Boulder announced that Colleen Sheehan, a professor of political science at Villanova, would be the university’s newest visiting scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy for the next academic year. The program — part of the university’s Center for Western Civilization, Thought & Policy, which is entering its seventh year — aims to promote intellectual diversity on campus through a dedicated faculty position that recognizes the importance and relevance of conservative ideas.
This is an important first step toward promoting a rebalancing of intellectual diversity in higher education, and we should commend UC-Boulder for courageously going against the tide. But the mere need for a specific faculty position for the study of conservative ideas shows the scope of the issue at hand. To truly tackle this problem, more universities must join UC-Boulder in promoting free speech and open exchange of ideas on campus.
We must see more university-sanctioned debates between groups with different beliefs, a wider range of speakers invited to campus, and, yes, more study of conservative ideas, leveling the playing field with the leftist ideas that are so dominant in today’s social sciences and humanities. By taking on this challenge and implementing these reforms, the American system of higher education can once again promote the free exchange of ideas to foster an environment ripe for the cultivation of knowledge.
Roger Ream is the president of The Fund for American Studies (TFAS), a nonprofit educational organization.