Can a New Law Protect Intellectual Diversity on Campus?

American colleges and universities lean left. Among faculty at leading U.S. universities, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 11-to-one. The administration is even more skewed: there, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 12-to-one. Further evidence can be found by examining summer reading choices, non-academic campus programming, commencement speakers, and funding given to student groups.

George R. LaNoue observed in a Martin Center article that this imbalance extends to the conversation on campus. LaNoue is a research professor of political science and research professor of public policy at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. In a study on campus debates, LaNoue found:

Except for wealthy institutions possessing high-status research centers or law schools, sponsoring debates or forums about public policy with different perspectives is not a priority in higher education. Many political issues debated everywhere else in American society are not debated at all, or only rarely, in campus public events. Almost all undergraduates can vote, but few are exposed to diverse viewpoints about the major policies which should inform their franchise.

LaNoue suggested that oversight from policymakers and trustees was necessary to facilitate change by “asking the right questions to top administrators and requiring them to make public reports.”

Now Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of a successful bill to protect free speech on university campuses, has proposed a solution that goes one step further. His new model legislation is entitled The Campus Intellectual Diversity Act. It does a few things, which Kurtz explained recently in National Review. The Act would:

  • Direct universities to establish an Office of Public Policy Events;
  • Direct the new office to host debates, panel discussions, and individual lectures from a wide diversity of viewpoints on current public policy issues;
  • Direct the new office to keep a yearly calendar of events that is open to inspection by the public and policymakers; and
  • Direct the new office to record each event and make it available for the public to view.

Kurtz’ idea isn’t new. Richard Vedder, an emeritus economics professor at Ohio University, suggested a similar approach in Forbes last year. He recommended inviting diverse speakers as a “cheaper, quicker, and politically probably more feasible” alternative to attempting to control faculty hiring.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has also recommended improving the campus intellectual climate by inviting more outside speakers. In a recent publication, “Intellectual Diversity: A Time for Action,” ACTA recommends that universities encourage balanced panels and speaker series as one of its “practical suggestions.”

At least two schools have already proven the value of debates on campus. At Princeton, Robbie George and Cornel West have taught and lectured together—showing students how to disagree deeply but without rancor or personal animus. Their lectures have been wildly popular. Ohio University has recently introduced a new lecture series entitled “Challenging Dialogues.” The purpose of the series is to “provide [an] outlet for campus-wide discussion and debate.

What is new is implementing the idea legislatively. That’s one of the reasons that the Act has received mixed (although mostly positive) reviews from critics and observers of higher education.

Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein praised the Act in an article for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying it will improve civil discourse by exposing students to ideas with which they disagree—and conditioning them to respond with intellectual rather than emotional arguments. “When the climate on the quad goes sour, we should expect the public square to follow suit—as has already happened. If we want a more civil society, the act is a good starting point,” Bauerlein wrote.

Journalists at Campus Reform interviewed Kurtz last month, who conceded that the legislature wouldn’t have to step in to solve the problem of campus imbalance in an ideal world. Then, it could be left to the free market and campuses themselves:

If the campus marketplace of ideas was functioning properly, legislative adoption of this proposal would be unnecessary. With administrators and faculty averse to debate from across the political spectrum, it is up to trustees and legislators to step in.

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, endorsed the model legislation on behalf of his organization. He wrote:

This Act would advance the goal of improving higher education at public colleges and universities by encouraging well-formed and intelligent debate on important public policy issues. Such debate is needed to ensure that college students acquire a well-rounded understanding of the range of views that shape our state and national discussions on matters of which Americans at large disagree.

But John K. Wilson, contributing editor of Academe, the blog of the American Association of University Professors, was skeptical. Although he supports the idea of more debates on campus, he called the bill “unnecessary and counterproductive.” He also pointed out that bill would add layers of bureaucracy to campuses already burdened with top-heavy administration and red tape:

Kurtz takes a wonderful idea that I have long advocated, for colleges to promote debates and discussions of opposing ideas, and he completely ruins this great idea by legislating it and suffocating it with insane bureaucratic rules.

He calls the Act’s insistence on video documentation of each event and paper copies of speaker rosters wasteful and duplicative.

Despite these criticisms, it seems that there is wide agreement on the underlying goals of the legislation: bringing thoughtful and diverse speakers to campus, exposing students to new ideas, and improving the campus intellectual climate.

Jenna A. Robinson is president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.