James D. Herbert’s Feb. 11 column in the Portland Press Herald, “Are We Just Another Echo Chamber?” drew less attention than one might think having been authored by the University of New England’s president. It evoked just eighteen comments and a single letter of support. The column argued that the political right’s characterization of American Academia as “plagued by liberal bias and elitism” has merit, and undermines public confidence in institutions of higher education. He supports his first thesis by citing studies documenting an imbalance in academics political views and partisan identification, e.g., a 2016 survey of over 7000 professors found that liberals outnumbered conservatives 11.5 to 1 nationally and 28:1 in New England. He cites a Gallup survey and Pew study to support his anxieties about declining confidence.
President Herbert asserts a familiar principle: “The marketplace of ideas can’t function optimally without a range of perspectives in the mix.” The belief that in the need for a free competition of ideas was first expressed by John Milton in 1644 and further developed by John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty in 1859. Liberals and libertarians have been nearly unanimous in upholding Mill’s view in my lifetime. The “marketplace” metaphor has been repeatedly cited by the Supreme Court and may be called the dominating idea in America’s free speech law.
Herbert’s case against the “echo chamber” comes from his belief in the value of ideological diversity and, more importantly, the value of debate. He clearly believes that minds enclosed in conformist bubbles, where no contradictory ideas are never heard except in the form of caricature, will deteriorate. He proposes that our universities make intellectual diversity an institutional priority, select ideologically diverse search committees, train “search committees to become aware of their own biases,” and seek talent by targeting publications, organizations, conferences popular among conservatives.
Some of these suggestions might prove useful, but they don’t promise a real transformation. University presidents are not generally notable for displaying the kind of courage required to enforce a diversity priority. The overwhelming predominance of left-lurching faculty makes it difficult to form a diverse search committee, and the idea of “training” faculty whose resumes are already adorned with bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees seems a little odd. Exposing the faculties to the sources of conservative thinking is more promising. At the very least it will make them aware of the existence of such oddities.
Some remarks in the PPH comments thread show how tough a row the UNE president has chosen to hoe. None of them directly deny the value of competition. None boldly deny that diversity is a good thing. Although not numerous, the hostile responses fall into four familiar categories, all useless as debate material.
Indignant abuse: “…a bunch of garbage,” “…Hogwash,” “…fearmongering,” “…alt-right meme spreaders,” “….a horrifying column from a university president.”
The urge to purge: “It seems that he may be in the wrong state and the wrong institution with these views,” “….maybe he ought to step down in favor of somebody with more imagination,” “…any plans I had to donate to the school will now be pushed till James is out as president.”
Flat denial: “I have NEVER once had a professor that has talked about their political and/or personal views,” “….Political leanings are irrelevant,” “….a tremendous amount of ideological diversity.”
Invincible smugness: “There is an imbalance liberals want to help others, conservatives want to help themselves,” “…social justice warriors have been the heroes in our civic history,” “Republicans distrust education?—How am I not surprised.”
Herbert is acting according to one of his prescriptions by offering a President’s Forum presentation on March 19. “Making Sense of Jordan Peterson” has two faculty who will debate the ideas of University of Toronto psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, the mere mention of whose name makes social justice warriors incandescent with fury. His YouTube videos are viewed by millions. He habitually defies the canons of political correctness and far-left intolerance. He welcomes controversy with gusto.
President Herbert believes he has a duty to teach students that the heckler’s veto is incompatible with the free exchange of ideas. If this is not the plain duty of every university president, an argument must be made to explain why it is right to silence some opinions while allowing free expression for others.