How Heterodox Academy Hopes to Change the Campus Conversation

Heterodox Academy is starting a new program that will provide support for a network of groups on college campuses to further the organization’s mission of promoting “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.” The first 23 campuses in the program, called Campus Communities, will receive funding over the next three years to host events and bring in speakers with the goal of affecting “campus culture and policy.”

What exactly that means, and what influence those groups will have, remains to be seen, but the program is an attempt by Heterodox to exert its influence at a more grass-roots level. Founded in 2015, Heterodox — which now has more than 5,000 members, including professors, educators, administrators, and students — began as a response to what its founders saw as a growing tendency on campuses to quash dissent and shy away from controversial topics. In the years since, the conversation about how to navigate potentially offensive topics — and how to balance the concerns of students with a commitment to academic freedom — has, if anything, only become more combustible.

One of Heterodox’s co-founders, Jonathan Haidt, detailed what he believes is the sorry state of American higher education at a much-talked-about Stanford conference on academic freedom last November. Haidt told those assembled that presidents have in recent years endeavored to “convert the university over from a truth-seeking institution to a social justice institution.” He pointed to how readily some administrators have acceded to student demands to have, say, a professor fired or a course cancelled. Haidt, who is chairman of Heterodox’s board of directors, also referred to the organization’s new program: “We’ll be working a lot more on campuses and helping our members to create groups that will directly influence policy.”

If you’re a college administrator, that might be cause for worry. Do you really want another organization complaining about your policies and actions? But John Tomasi, who became the first president of Heterodox last year after a quarter-century as a political philosopher at Brown University, sees the mission of Campus Communities as more collaborative than confrontational. “We’re not critics who are from the outside. We’re insiders who love our universities and are trying to make them better,” he told me. “Our mission is to improve the culture of teaching and research, and I think to improve that culture, you really need to be working on the campuses where that culture exists.”

Michael Regnier, who took over as Heterodox’s executive director in August, hopes Campus Communities will provide a better model for dealing with the inevitable conflicts that arise at any college. “We can show what disagreement in constructive ways can look like, and then hopefully that can be the new normal,” Regnier says. “I think so many people in academia are tired of shout-downs and other kinds of efforts to stop expression instead of engaging with it.”

The Johns Hopkins University is among the campuses that will host a Campus Communities group in this initial phase. One of the leaders of that group, Dylan Selterman, an associate professor of psychology, notes that Johns Hopkins did poorly on the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s free speech rating (its current rating is yellow, which means it has a policy that “too easily encourages administrative abuse.”) Selterman, who describes himself politically as “very left of center,” says he’s concerned about the anxieties some students have about expressing themselves. “The goal is diversity of thought,” he says. “I hope that it will be received as ‘Oh, this is a place that is receptive to my needs and concerns and includes me in the conversation.’” Selterman wants to hear from students and faculty members to see what their concerns are, to determine if there are common threads, and then to “translate those into things that are actionable.”

The mission, as Regnier sees it, is to nudge higher education in a direction that’s more tolerant of opposing views, less quick to condemn others, and more willing to embrace difficult conversations: “I think it opens up an opportunity to do some course correction, because the faculty, the students, and sometimes the leadership all agree that the status quo of walking on eggshells is not really serving the university’s purpose.”

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