Saturday, August 11, 2007

Intellectual Diversity Revisited

By Richard Vedder

CCAP is concerned mainly with issues of efficiency, affordability, accountability --pocketbook matters. But in assessing the value of the enterprise of American higher education, we have to look at the relationship between the outputs or outcomes to the inputs or costs. And a key part of the product or outcome of higher education has always been the challenging of students, of offering them diverse points of view, and helping them find their own sense of values of what is true and untrue, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. In turning children into adults, and illiterate into literates, we want to offer people a rich range of opinions and views of the world. I would hate to have a higher education dominated by Ward Churchills, but students should have some exposure to people who think the unconventional, who challenge orthodoxy, etc.

Thus I am not happy (although not surprised) with the new release of data that shows that academics are overwhelmingly supporting Democrats financially. To be sure, this has been a low period for Republicans generally, and in some ways they are less deserving of support than is typical. But the fact that 81 percent of donations at Harvard (the largest contributor to candidates of any university) went to Democrats is further evidence that there is a depressing sameness, a lack of diversity, in the academy's support of so-called liberals or progressives. Moreover, I doubt all of the 19 percent non-Democratic money went to Republicans --some no doubt went to socialists, Greens and others even more progressive than today's Democrats. My guess is that liberals got close to 10 times as much money at Harvard as conservatives.

Of course, people should give to whom they want. Yet I believe it is true that the establishment within universities is hostile --and often increasingly so --to persons who are conservative, libertarian, or even non-political. The effectiveness of higher education is reduced by this huge bias, as is, in the long run, its political support (and rightfully so, in my opinion).

The interesting question is: why does this exist? Has there always been a left-wing bias in American higher ed? We really don't know, and I suspect higher ed has always had a disproportionate number of lively minds that question the orthodox view --which, in principle, is a good thing. But I would bet the American academic of, say, 1850 or even 1900 was far less liberal on average relative to the population than today. There were the Thorstein Veblens (a progressive economist), but also lots of rock-ribbed Republican types as well.

I think the growing role of governments in funding higher ed, either directly through subsidies or indirectly via tax policy favoring private gifts, has made academics minions of governments, and strong supporters of public support. We academics are on a sort of sophisticated form of welfare, and like all welfare recipients, we clamor for more, like the kid in the musical Oliver who plaintively asks for more food. I think this governmental support has promoted mass inefficiency --but also an intolerance for the one type of diversity that is truly important, namely that of ideas.

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