True Campus Diversity

Higher education in America, it is often observed, confronts serious challenges, even crises. True, many of the world’s leading research institutions are in the United States. And yet: Tuition-costs are soaring; the footprints and portfolios of human-resources, student-services, and other administrators are expanding; tenure-track faculty positions (especially in the humanities) are disappearing; reliance on (often exploited) adjuncts, graduate students, and short-term instructors is increasing; and regulatory burdens are growing.

What is more, it seems clear that partisan homogeneity and ideological conformity are crowding out the dialogue, debate, and diversity that should be at the heart of academic life and student experience. We are all familiar by now with stories and illustrations of how meaningful education is being undermined by divisive identity politics, incivility and uncharity in disagreement, and the weaponization of concepts like “safety” and “harm.” It is unlikely that our colleges and universities are preparing young people well either for responsible participation in the politics of our constitutional democracy or for everyday life in our workplaces and neighborhoods (let alone our social-media platforms).

Arguments about diversity in higher education are, of course, both unavoidable and highly charged. Generally, these debates have to do with the use of race in the admissions practices of elite institutions or with the dramatically one-sided make-up of these institutions’ faculty, administration, and leadership. A crucial dimension of the diversity problem, however, is less noticed: In a nutshell, we should be concerned about not only intellectual diversity within institutions, but also meaningful diversity among institutions, that is, what John Garvey, the President Emeritus of the Catholic University of America, called “institutional pluralism.”

A few years ago, in a blog post, Yale Law School’s Professor Jack Balkin discussed what he called the “infrastructure of free expression.” True expressive freedom, he noted, requires “more than mere absence of government censorship or prohibition to thrive; it also requires institutions, practices, and technological structures that foster and promote it.” In other words, this freedom is not only enjoyed by and through, but also depends on, the existence and flourishing of, a variety of institutions—newspapers, political parties, interest groups, libraries, associations, universities, and so on. Yes, these institutions are free-speech actors, but they also play a structural—or, again, an “infrastructural”—role in protecting the civil-society space within which expressive freedom can be well exercised. These institutions are “not only conduits for expression”; they are also, I once wrote, “the scaffolding around which civil society is constructed, in which personal freedoms are exercised, in which loyalties are formed and transmitted, and in which individuals flourish.”

Expressive freedom of speech, then, involves and needs more than speakers and hearers. To withstand attacks and constraints, and to function effectively and vibrantly, it needs an infrastructure. Universities (and other institutions of higher education) are crucial parts of that infrastructure. They are, as Paul Horwitz has explained, “First Amendment institutions” that “play a significant role in contributing to public discourse.” Free speech, correctly understood, is a practice and, as my colleague Alasdair MacIntyre observed, “no practices can survive for any length of time unsustained by institutions.”

So, how do universities make their “infrastructural” contributions and do their “infrastructural” work? First, and maybe most obviously, they are locations, forums, and platforms for speech. They host students, faculty, associations, clubs, candidates, visitors, debates, conferences, and so on. As we have seen recently, some of this work can be controversial and, unfortunately, it is sometimes obstructed or disrupted by closed-minded actors who fail to understand these institutions’ role and function.

In addition, universities form, shape, and produce speakers. They not only host the free-speech game, they also develop the free-speech players. This is, if we think about it, a major part of what “education,” correctly understood, is. Paideia, or soul-formation, is always happening at universities, whether or not they, or we, admit it.

Universities and similar institutions also discover and create knowledge. They facilitate expressive freedom by identifying things to talk, argue, and wonder about; by providing the tools needed for exploration; and by uncovering the questions to be engaged and the problems to be solved. They set the agenda, but not—we should hope—by declaring debates concluded, pushing matters off the table, or condemning proposals as not-to-be-heard.

Those in positions to do so—lawmakers and citizens, teachers and students, scholars and employers—should take up the project of both demanding, and supplying, a healthy infrastructure for expression, research, learning, and flourishing.

And finally, for now, universities “speak” for themselves. This sort of expression can be controversial, to be sure, and it has sometimes been argued that universities should not, as such, presume to address contested social, political, and moral questions. The University of Chicago’s famous Kalven Report, for example, emphasized the importance of institutional “neutrality” and embraced a “heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day.” My own institution, the University of Notre Dame, takes a different approach: While scrupulously respecting the academic freedom of community members, it professes and promotes, as an institution, core commitments and values. 

These are just some of what universities do, as First Amendment institutions. What, then, is the “crisis” or, at least, the concern? It is, borrowing again from John Garvey, the loss, or the erosion, of institutional pluralism. Our First Amendment institutions will do their important jobs less well, and fulfill their role less well, if they are all the same. The beautiful Gothic cathedrals, to avoid collapsing, employ a variety of strengths and supports; we all admire the windows, but recognize also that the flying buttresses and pointed arches do necessary work. Just as ecosystem is healthier, and an agricultural enterprise is more sustainable, if it is diverse and not a monoculture, so the landscape of higher education is better and healthier if it is characterized by institutional pluralism rather than sameness.

Our colleges and universities should not all look the same; they should (within reasonable bounds) have varying curricula and programs; they should develop different specialties and sub-fields; they should cultivate distinctive missions and aspirations; they may take on a range of characters; they should come in multiple shapes and sizes. Institutional pluralism means, among other things, that our colleges and universities may be public and private, big and small, research-focused or liberal-artsy. We can, and should, have land-grant institutions, historically Black institutions, single-sex institutions, and military institutions. Some can focus on music and the arts; others on engineering and technology. Some may be animated by religious traditions and aims, others by environmentalism or multiculturalism. An institution’s distinctive mission will shape its curriculum, its policies, its hiring, and its student body. And, these differences will, taken together, strengthen expressive freedom’s necessary infrastructure. 

Again, though: this healthy pluralism is under threat, and from an unsettling array of sources, from political partisans and ideological entrepreneurs to public-funding bureaucracies and athletics conferences. It confronts a homogenizing and superficial consumerist mindset among students, parents, benefactors, and rankings-marketers; and an increasing emphasis on the acquisition of credentials over the development of prudence and judgment. It is under attack from those who imagine that it is somehow inherent in the nature of a university or in the notion of academic freedom that higher-education institutions be aggressively progressive or scrupulously secular. It is vulnerable to those who contend that educational institutions must be “safe spaces” rather than, as John Courtney Murray once put it, communities of people “locked together in argument.”

Perhaps the most obvious challenge, or threat, to the institutional pluralism described and endorsed above is also the most pedestrian: cost. Sameness and standardization are, in many contexts, efficient. It is not, we might worry, only rising tuition expenses, but also a temptation for institutions to mimic and streamline—and, in so doing, to compete and survive—that is the pressing danger. And yet: Variations and diversity among American institutions of higher education are essential; the health of our democracy’s infrastructure depends on them. They should not only be tolerated and welcomed, but also encouraged and incentivized, supported and even subsidized. Those in positions to do so—lawmakers and citizens, teachers and students, scholars and employers—should take up the project of both demanding, and supplying, a healthy infrastructure for expression, research, learning, and flourishing.