Is There Any Room for Diversity of Thought on New England College Campuses?

The quintessential image of an austere college campus usually involves students walking across the quad with colorful leaves falling in the background. Their backpacks are heavy with books, or maybe the students are carrying a particularly thick text as they try waving their hands, engaged in heated discussion, moving as if floating on a cloud of intellectual stimulation.

Nowhere else is this image best envisioned than on the Northeast campuses of New England, the Dartmouths, Harvards, and Yales of higher education.

Yet, you’d be wrong to think these imagined discussions are steeped in diversity of thought. That’s not what’s happening on these campuses, according to the Heterodox Academy, which ranked 200 schools on how much viewpoint diversity one can expect to find. The organization, which collates several sources of information, including whether the school is committed to the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, recent events on campus, and implementation of speech codes, is comprised of professors who have taken a pledge to support and respect diverse perspectives, particularly political perspectives, and to foster an environment where people feel free to speak their piece.

Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics and social science at Sarah Lawrence College and a member of the Heterodox Academy, says that the results are particularly troubling when it comes to the storied institutions of New England.

The ranking has revealed that New England is by far the worst region of the country, especially for liberal-arts colleges, when it comes to campuses that support and maintain viewpoint diversity. With Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Tufts on the university side and Williams, Wesleyan, Smith, Amherst, and Mount Holyoke on the liberal-arts college side, these schools reflect the politics of the region and were all at the bottom of the rankings in terms of viewpoint diversity. This could well be the first time that these esteemed institutions have found themselves at the bottom of national rankings that are so crucial to the very mission of higher education.

But schools in the Upper Midwest and along the West Coast didn’t fare well either. The schools of the South and Midwest were described as the “least closed” in terms of diversity of thought.

Abrams notes that it may be easy to dismiss the findings as imperfect or one-offs, but they are becoming part of a trend.

New England has long viewed its progressive and social-justice leanings as part of its historical fabric, and the ideological preferences of those teaching in its institutions certainly reflect that. …

Taken together, these studies should give pause to New Englanders and anyone else interested in education, civic life, and questions of innovation and social progress. Students — current, future, and former — along with parents, trustees, and those in the community, should demand that institutions of higher education recommit themselves to the free exchange of a multiplicity of ideas. Viewpoint diversity is what drives progress on countless fronts, and it can help forestall the almost weekly nationwide blowups over speech and ideas.

This trend may get worse or better in the near future — that will depend on leadership at these colleges, leadership that goes all the way to the top. While Charles Murray recently lamented the problem of Middlebury’s president dismissing a riot that resulted in a professor being injured and free speech driven off campus, some school presidents are starting to see the downside of a lack of intellectual diversity.

Whether these schools help students learn to think critically, accept dissent, and function constructively when challenged will determine whether generations to come protect and preserve principles held dear by the nation’s Founding Fathers and which make American exceptionalism the envy of the world.