The Costs of Ideological Uniformity in Academics

I attended an excellent conference last Friday at Princeton on political diversity in the academy. It was convened by Robert George and Stephen Macedo of the Princeton Department of Politics and attended by the President of Princeton, Chris Eisgruber. Surveys clearly show that there is a substantial lack of ideological diversity at most universities, particularly in the humanities and social sciences where it matters most. What was most interesting was the discussion of the problems that ideological uniformity creates. I came away more persuaded than ever that four difficulties in particular are severe.

First, ideological uniformity can impede the university’s truth seeking mission. Truth emerges from a variety of perspectives. When the academy is tilted far to the left, left-liberal arguments receive much less scrutiny than those on the right. One participant noted that during his career he had made some arguments that appealed to the left and some that appealed to the right, but the latter got a lot more criticism. Confrontation between opposing views is to be welcomed, because it will sharpen arguments and modify positions. In law dissents improve the reasoning of the majority’s position, even if they do not change the result, as sometimes they do. And in the academy, reasons as much as results are the object of inquiry. Particularly in subjects with normative dimension, the absence of voices on the right dulls the dialectic.

Of course, the academy should set boundaries. According to professional norms of a discipline, not all dissent is reasonable. But setting boundaries brings us to yet another problem of ideological uniformity. Even professionals can establish boundaries in the wrong place because of ideological interests. The wrongly situated boundary becomes a moat against arguments that need hearing. And even sincere professionals may be too myopic to set boundaries sufficiently distant from the positions they personally believe reasonable.

Third, universities do not only seek truth but determine which truths deserve institutional focus. And decisions about what are the important truths in the humanities and social sciences can become ideologically inflected. For instance, in law the right would be far more interested in natural law than the left and not surprisingly, research into natural law is a neglected field in most law schools. The left-liberalism of the academy thus skews the subjects of conversation as well as their content.

Fourth, uniformity feeds on itself and leads to distrust by those outside the academy. As I have described before, the honors the academy distributes skew strongly to left. When universities take institutional positions, as when Northwestern and others endorsed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the positions also lean left. This kind of signaling makes people outside the academy less likely to believe academic views because they may rationally fear that the views, like the honors and institutional positions, are ideologically driven. And institutions are much more likely to behave ideologically when their most important stakeholders—the faculty—largely inhabit one side of the ideological spectrum. Thus, ideological uniformity undermines the university’s truth dissemination mission as well as its truth seeking one.

In a subsequent post, I will discuss what can be done about the ideological imbalance.