The Perilous State of the Universities

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There is a struggle taking place on US campuses for the soul of the university which has been grabbing attention far outside the US. Many have become better known for student protests and the banning of speakers than for scholarship in recent years. Phrases like safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions are well known and have spread to other parts of the western world.  Others such as bias response teams, unconscious bias training, are entering the lexicon as many university administrations capitulate to the demands of social justice warriors and attempt to discipline staff that are considered to depart from the narrow and rigid orthodoxy. What is happening in US universities is highly relevant to Ireland.

Lack of viewpoint diversity

Certain major sectors of the academy such as the humanities and social sciences are especially vulnerable to leftist ideologues. Here viewpoint diversity is almost non-existent. Figures from the Higher Education Research Institute have been tracking this trend since 1989. In Psychology the ratio of left to right among staff, still only 4:1 in the mid-1990s has increased steadily and in 2016 stood at 17:1. At some point conservative or centrist scholars will either not be considered for a job or will not apply at all fearing ostracisation. Gender and Women’s studies, multicultural and ethnic studies are among the worst offenders.

This has led to appalling consequences in terms of political activism masquerading as scholarship. Jordan Peterson describing what he calls the rot in the universities has said that 80% of humanities papers are not cited once. There is further waste of money as libraries are pressured to buy journals which are the preserve of a small cosy in-group. Universities are forced to pay inflated prices for articles nobody reads while taxpayers foot the bill.

J. Peterson: 80% of humanities papers are not cited once

Heterodox Academy

In 2015 a group of academics, increasingly worried by the lack of diversity, increasing politicisation and threat to free speech on American campuses decided to set up Heterodox Academy dedicated to the Chicago Principles championing free speech. Foremost was the psychologist Jonathan Haidt who has achieved an international reputation with his books notably The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. From Heterodox Academy website:

“The surest sign that a community suffers from a deficit of viewpoint diversity is the presence of orthodoxy, most readily apparent when members fear shame, ostracism, or any other form of social retaliation for questioning or challenging a commonly held idea. In these contexts, it is likely that the dominant idea is not entirely correct because it is protected from challenge and change. If, however, the response to dissent is civil discussion and evidence-based argument, then the community does not suffer from orthodoxy.”

The question, then, is whether colleges and universities welcome and celebrate viewpoint diversity. While some individual institutions do (see our Guide to Colleges), many American universities are typified by an ideological monoculture.

In a Youtube video from Dec 2016 Haidt explained:

“Universities must choose between Truth and Social Justice not both.  What we need is a schism, we must separate the Universities into those that are pursuing social justice and those that take Truth for their telos. Brown has volunteered to take the leadership position for social justice, and U of Chicago has taken the leadership position for Truth.”

Haidt and Peterson have appeared together in a youtube video The Perilous State of the University in which Haidt utters the memorable phrase “We are seven steps on the road to Hell”.

Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, have written a book, The Coddling of the American Mind,  in which they go into great detail on these and other issues.

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