Corporate America Is Obsessed With Debate on Elite Campuses

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The day Donald Trump was elected, the five-college Claremont campus east of Los Angeles went into mourning. Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, sent out an email expressing sympathy for anyone feeling “vulnerable and unsafe.” David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College, said, “On a day like this, the personal and the political cannot be separated.” Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver urged students to channel energy into activism.

Debra Mashek, a psychology professor at Harvey Mudd, looked around and thought, Surely not everyone is upset. There were students on campus who’d voted for Trump, and they were being ostracized. So Mashek—no Trump supporter, but a keen advocate of broad debate—created a course called I’m Right, You’re Wrong. She wanted her students to examine the sources and nature of their own assumptions and learn how others start from very different ones.

That may sound like a basic premise for almost any college course. In theory, one goal of studying physics or Islam or Mandarin or the American West is to make foreign ideas feel more familiar and the familiar feel more foreign. But the concept that a diversity of outlooks feeds and shapes our culture and politics is now itself controversial on elite university campuses across America and, indeed, the English-speaking world. Critics argue that the atmosphere of liberal orthodoxy increases the risk that graduates will enter the workforce without knowing how to confront political viewpoints different from their own. A new study shows that 39 percent of the top U.S. liberal arts campuses haven’t a single Republican faculty member; at many others, the number is insignificant. Its author, Mitchell Langbert of Brooklyn College, wrote: “Thus, 78.2 percent of the academic departments in my sample have either zero Republicans, or so few as to make no difference.”

Mashek became so concerned that she took a leave from her tenured position this spring and moved to New York to head Heterodox Academy, a young organization of ­academics—funded by a group of private philanthropies—who share her worry. “We’re focused on breaching orthodoxies, on playing devil’s advocate,” she says. The rapidly growing group of 2,000 professors and 200 graduate students held its first conference in June. Speakers sought to define the problem, understand its origins, offer solutions—and fend off a bear hug from doctrinaire conservatives seeking to hammer the multiculturalist Left rather than broaden debate.

Heterodox Academy is the creation of Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Haidt didn’t dedicate his formative years to the study of business or the lack of conservative professors. A liberal social psychologist who’s never voted for a Republican, he spent years studying the societal bases of morality and, in 2012, published a highly praised book on his findings, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Mashek used The Righteous Mind in her post-election course before ever meeting its author or imagining that she’d be working with him a short time later.

Haidt’s latest book focuses on campus discourse. Co-authored with First Amendment lawyer Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure elaborates on a 2015 article the two wrote for the Atlantic. It had its origins in a conversation the previous year when Lukianoff told Haidt about his work as head of the 19-year-old Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which champions academic freedom. Accused by some of a conservative bias, FIRE says that it’s strictly nonpartisan and being criticized because more intellectual bullying has come from the Left than the Right in recent years.

Lukianoff told Haidt that while the group had long fought campus censorship, he was noticing an alarming change. Controversial speakers had been disinvited in the past by students or professors who considered their thoughts offensive, the goal being to stop speech seen as racist or sexist. More and more, he said, the reason given for stopping speakers or attacking the ideas of others was that the listener felt in danger, or even unsafe, if certain words were uttered on the same campus. “We are seeing a new conception of students as being fragile,” Haidt says. “It’s increasingly hard to teach without giving offense to someone. I don’t make jokes in class anymore.”

In the few years since Lukianoff and Haidt began working on their book, examples of people being driven from campus for what they said or planned to say have increased. Last autumn saw more episodes of students heckling to shut down classes or speeches than any previous semester in FIRE’s records. Among recent episodes: Students tried to stop a conservative political scientist whose theories they consider racist from speaking at Middlebury, and students shouted at a lecturer at Yale who said they shouldn’t be so sensitive about the implications of Halloween costumes.

Haidt says the problem is more acute on elite campuses than on the thousands of others across the country. But where he’s spent his career—earning his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching for years at the University of Virginia and now at NYU—the concern is real and new. In the bathroom down the hall from his office is a sign, as there is in NYU bathrooms across the campus, urging those who believe they have encountered “bias, discrimination, or harassment” to contact the NYU Bias Response Line. Haidt says discrimination and harassment are good reasons to file such a report. What worries him is the looseness of the term “bias” and the idea that students are urged not to work out their concern with the alleged perpetrator but to report it directly to the authorities.

He and Lukianoff argue that this approach—call the cops if you think someone has said something offensive—emerges from a set of good intentions and bad ideas. The three main bad ideas they identify are: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. They say these ideas and the policies based on them are causing problems for the young, for universities, and for liberal democracies.

They note there are much higher rates of anxiety and depression among adolescents today than in the past, even the recent past. Twice as many teenage girls commit suicide compared with the early 2000s. For boys the rate is also up, but not so sharply. They attribute the change to a number of factors, including what they call a new culture of safetyism—an overprotectiveness in parents who’ve extended legitimate advocacy for bicycle helmets to concern over unsupervised play. That, they contend, has produced a generation less equipped for complex and challenging debate.

They draw an analogy with the sharp rise in recent years of peanut allergies. Until the mid-1990s, 4 out of 1,000 children under the age of 8 were identified as having such an allergy. By 2008 the rate had more than tripled, to 14 out of 1,000. Over the course of those years, peanuts and ­peanut products had been curtailed and increasingly banned in schools to protect those at risk. It turns out, however, that the ban made the situation worse. By keeping kids from peanuts, more of them have developed a sensitivity. As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends adding peanut protein to infants’ diets to help them build up tolerance. In the same way, the authors say, schools and society need to expose the young to difficult and threatening ideas so they learn to cope with them. Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.

The Right echoes the argument to make its political points. At a talk to students in July, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “Rather than molding a generation of mature and well-­informed adults, some schools are doing everything they can to create a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, super­cilious snowflakes.”

This is the kind of talk that drives Michael Roth crazy. Roth is president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut (which I attended), a liberal arts college often viewed as a haven for political correctness. He shares the concern about narrowed debate and has worked to address it, bringing military officers and veterans to campus as teachers and students and advocating for increasing conservative scholarship. But arguments such as Sessions’ are for him a terrible distortion, a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power. He says the problem exists on both sides of the spectrum. And from an administration that assails journalists daily and engages in what he calls an assault on the very notion of investigation and truth, such attacks are unseemly. “Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on PC elitism,” Roth says.

He goes further, arguing that the desire to make college campuses and classes into more welcoming communities is a good thing. The term “safe space” has faced derision, but that’s what Roth wants his classes to be: places where those who may feel like outsiders—minorities and gays, but also conservative religious students—feel comfortable. He says it’s his job as the teacher to set the tone. When a black student was addressed by others as if she represented all African Americans, Roth stepped in. When a student spoke about “Japs” in a discussion of Pearl Harbor and there were Asian students in the room, he stepped in again, “not because it traumatizes, but because it marginalizes,” he says. “When I was an undergraduate, and a professor would tell a girl in a short dress how much he liked what she was wearing, it affected all women in the class. This is the same thing. We want to ­create a culture to make people feel included and to flourish. Bullying is real. We don’t want to protect too much, but we want them to bring their whole selves to class.”

Jeffrey Adam Sachs, a political science lecturer at Canada’s Acadia University, is even less impressed with Heterodox Academy’s mission. Sachs doesn’t deny there’s an unhealthy political imbalance on university faculties. But he says research indicates that faculty political preferences have a limited impact on students. In addition, he views the alarm over safety and snowflakes to be characteristic of “certain perennial worries about the fragile and coddled of the previous generation, that they are not like how we were, we who grew up as tough men and women.”

Today’s campuses, he says, are more diverse than in the past and include more first-generation college-goers, single parents, even some who worry about not having enough to eat. “The idea of fragility is insulting. Any kind of new demands are read as evidence of a failure of character or moral fiber. These students are not weak, just dealing with issues I didn’t have to deal with.”

Finally, Sachs says, setting out to hire more conservatives will end badly. “To the extent that departments are interested in creating diversity, I am not convinced ideological diversity is the one we should be worried about,” he says. “The problem is that faculty is overwhelmingly from a limited economic and racial background. That’s what we should worry about—developing a faculty that is demographically representative of America rather than to engineer one that is culturally representative of America.”

One thing all sides agree on is that what happens on elite campuses influences what happens in corporate America—even if the majority of students view the debate as background noise as they earn credentials and broaden their knowledge. The battle over how much to protect students from potentially offensive speech is playing out more and more in companies as graduates of elite institutions bring their sensibilities to work.

Last year a Google software engineer, James Damore, wrote a 10-page memo raising questions about the company’s assumptions regarding gender and diversity. He said not all hiring and promotion disparities are attributable to discrimination; some are likely due to biological differences and even preferences. Google, he added, wants to impose its liberal outlook onto reality shorn of real data and science and suffers from being in an “ideological echo chamber.” After his memo exploded on social media, he was quickly fired.

Mashek wasn’t happy about what happened to Damore. Whether or not you agree with him, she says, policymakers and business leaders, like students, need to learn to deal with different perspectives as long as they’re backed by scholarship and not quackery. The corporate world, she says, needs people willing to challenge conventional wisdom, to serve as naysayers and whistleblowers. “People are increasingly afraid of frank debate,” Mashek says. “They feel like they’re walking on eggs, and so they just stay quiet to avoid trouble. That is not the environment we want to foster either on campuses or in the business world.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Howard Chua-Eoan at

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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