The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How to restore intellectual diversity on college campuses

Princeton University began its James Madison Program in 2000. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
4 min

“Left-leaning” was once an accurate description of college faculties in the United States. In 1990, a survey found that professors who considered themselves on the left outnumbered their counterparts on the right by more than 2 to 1. Since then, the academy has been moving toward becoming an ideological monoculture. By 2017, progressives had a 5-to-1 advantage. And there is reason to believe the tilt has become even more pronounced in the following years.

The lack of right-of-center professors undermines higher education. It means that some conservative perspectives go unexplored and conservative arguments unexamined. It stifles debate, since even professors and students with reservations about campus orthodoxies will hesitate to voice them if they think they’re alone. And it perpetuates itself by creating a climate that discourages bright young conservatives from becoming academics themselves.

It’s also unsustainable. Conservative voters are not going to consent forever to sending tax dollars to support institutions at odds with their values. They are losing confidence in higher education’s benefits for the country. And, in the past few years, Republican states have increasingly been legislating against left-wing indoctrination in colleges. The most prominent example: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that, among other things, prohibits state college instructors from teaching that any person should bear guilt for past injustices committed by other people of the same race.

DeSantis next wants legislators to deny funding to state colleges’ “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan group, says that “DEI administrators have been responsible for repeated campus rights abuses.” The group is urging legislatures to bar state colleges from using pro-DEI statements as a litmus test for hiring or promotion — a common practice.

States ought to give serious consideration to the FIRE proposal. But conservatives and others concerned about a progressive stranglehold on the academy should not place all their hopes in bans and regulations. Such legislation will be challenged in court — and sometimes should be, based on the risk of chilling free inquiry. And, in any case, there’s no way to regulate an overwhelmingly left-wing professoriate into making a fair presentation of conservative ideas.

George F. Will: When colleges take political positions, they show who isn’t wanted

The goal should be to have more viewpoints, not fewer, represented on campus.

One promising approach to restoring balance is to build, within existing colleges and universities, new institutions devoted to exploring the key questions of social and political life without ruling out conservative answers. Princeton University’s James Madison Program, begun in 2000, is an example of such an institution. The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University is another.

These centers are not a space for conservatives only, but genuinely places for debate. The Madison program has hosted discussions of euthanasia with Robert P. George, the program’s founding director and a prominent social conservative, alongside the equally well-known utilitarian Peter Singer. George guesses that less than half of the program’s undergraduate fellows are conservative, noting that its success is evidence that many young progressives remain interested in hearing other points of view. And with a board of counselors including both liberals and conservatives, ASU’s center has also avoided taking one side of contemporary debates.

To make a difference on their campuses, such programs need dedicated funding, the ability to hire professors and postdoctoral fellows, credited courses, and — most important — leaders committed to academic excellence. These programs do not generally arouse as much opposition as, say, bans on types of instruction. Whenever they are proposed, though, they encounter the same objection: The new center will be a propaganda mill that discredits the university. So far, these centers have not borne out that objection. Princeton seems to be doing just fine.

As Republican discontent with the academic status quo spreads, so do these programs. Last year, DeSantis secured $3 million in funding for the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. The trustees of the University of North Carolina want to start a similar institution of their own. And there is great potential for growth. Nearly two-fifths of Americans live in a state with a Republican governor and Republican legislative majorities.

If any of those governors have further political ambitions, they should prepare to answer two questions: Have they done anything to bring intellectual diversity to their state colleges? And, if not, why not?