In May, Gov. Glenn Youngkin sent the Council of Presidents of Virginia’s public colleges and universities a detailed letter setting out his expectations. Among his most urgent requests is that university administrators promote intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas. That includes a bold, overdue reform: hiring faculty of diverse political persuasions.
Amid growing public dissatisfaction with the politicization of higher education, Youngkin is right to shake higher education out of its complacency.
In response to Youngkin’s letter, the Richmond Times-Dispatch quotes a prominent University of Virginia professor who asks, “Where’s the problem?” That professor might consider talking with U.Va. senior Emma Camp. Her March New York Times op-ed lamented the culture of self-censorship on the Grounds. Undergraduates are afraid to debate ideas, Camp wrote, because they fear rebuke from their peers and professors. When they voice unpopular views, they face not good-faith arguments but personal and social condemnation. As a result, the university is failing to fulfill its mission of promoting free, truth-seeking inquiry.
Ten days after Camp’s op-ed was published, the student Editorial Board of U.Va.’s campus newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, called on the university to bar former Vice President Mike Pence from speaking on the Grounds. Fortunately, the university could not and did not cave to this demand. But what is U.Va. teaching if some of its brightest students find it acceptable to ostracize a former vice president from campus?
If you think that the problems with campus culture are primarily the fault of a few student activists, think again. It is professors and administrators who bear the blame for our current predicament. As Camp observes, university instructors too often foster a classroom environment in which students feel the need to self-censor.
We know this is true at the University of Virginia where only 30% of students recently surveyed answered that they are “very” (4%) or “somewhat comfortable” (26%) “publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic.” No wonder 60% of U.Va. students say it can be difficult to have an “open and honest conversation” about a topic such as racial inequality.
A major source of these problems is a massive and growing ideological imbalance of university faculties. Our organizations studied the imbalance at Virginia’s flagship public university using publicly available FEC donor records. Since 2012, nearly 97% of all political donations made by faculty at the University of Virginia have been to Democratic candidates and PACs.
This situation gives the progressive viewpoint a false aura of infallibility. Campus progressives who do not have to defend their ideas against real-live skeptics have no incentive to moderate their positions, and so they adopt increasingly radical views. When left-leaning professors have no conservative colleagues, they are likely to accept caricatures of conservatism as accurate. They write off conservatives as idiots or bigots. And they pass on their misconceptions to their students, coarsening our public dialogue.
If Virginia’s public universities recruit more conservative and independent-minded professors, they will take an important step toward creating a culture of genuinely free thought on campus. Through their teaching, these professors can push their students and colleagues to consider the best arguments from all sides in political debates.
At present, hardworking Virginia taxpayers fund the state’s ideologically imbalanced public universities at the sum of over $2.3 billion per year. On their behalf, Youngkin has raised a question of paramount importance. What are university administrators going to do to actualize viewpoint diversity?
With the state budget still unsigned, Youngkin and Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera have a rare and welcome opportunity to ensure that public universities begin taking faculty intellectual diversity seriously. Every Virginia public university must commit to action.
This article originally appeared here.
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