Last month, as our students returned to campus, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a parent a year ago. He said his son was politically conservative and uncomfortable speaking in class. He had come to expect that his comments would be unwelcomed by classmates and professors alike. He felt like an outcast on a campus that is decidedly liberal. "Sorry," I said.
It was not the first time I had heard such concerns here or at my previous colleges. Over the years, I know it has been fair game in some classes to ridicule political candidates, dismiss their positions as nonsense, and inject liberal dogma where it has little curricular relevance.
As an educator—and a father—I find it troubling: One of my sons is a college student and a conservative. Our sparring over politics has only cemented our respect for each other, leaving me to wonder why it cannot be so at the university. After all, isn't listening to others a core tenet of liberalism?
I believe something needs to be done by us before it is done to us. (State legislatures have deliberated academic interventions, a chilling prospect.) Some colleagues share my concern, but worry about stifling academic freedom. I worry more about the academic freedom of the conservative minority.
It is an affront to diversity when a professor's politics seep into his or her pedagogy and define classroom presumptions; multiplied across a faculty, it can produce an institutional hostility akin to bigotry. We would not tolerate such insidious prejudice aimed at religion, race, or gender, yet we are largely silent when the target is a political creed. Intolerance is intolerance.
Fortunately, there is already an apparatus in place well suited to deal with this: the armamentarium used to promote diversity of race, ethnicity, and gender. It's time we used it in support of political beliefs.
Such an expansion would merely reaffirm the underlying values of diversity—inclusion, the creation of diverse communities, the celebration of individual differences. Opening up the academy to balanced discourse is not going over to the Dark Side; it is acknowledging that education is a contact sport, that exposure to divergent opinions opens minds and molds students into citizens. In these times of fierce political rancor and divisiveness, the academy can continue to be one more engine in the siege, or it can aspire to something nobler by helping to reduce the fragmentation of society.
Political diversity begins with faculty. Colleges do not hire based on political views, but historically search committees tend to favor those who resemble themselves. Overcoming that tendency lies at the heart of transforming an institution into one that more closely resembles the broader community.
In disciplines like economics, political science, and history, to name a few, scholarship often leans left or right—usually left. When choosing between candidates of equal standing, why not embrace the candidate of conservative persuasion? Besides, who could resist bringing in conservatives under the umbrella of affirmative action?
Today, many colleges reflect a birds-of-a-feather mind-set that dampens intellectual ferment and smothers dissent. The mere presence of a cadre of esteemed conservatives would provide academic shelter and validation to political refugees—the conservative students and faculty.
But we should also train existing faculty to promote a climate in which conservatives feel secure and welcome. Diversity training often focuses on the small verbal and physical cues that evince bias, the repeated glance in the direction of the lone black student each time civil rights are discussed, for example. A mere rolling of the eyes at the mention of Gov. Rick Perry or an offhand crack about the Tea Party signals who is and who is not a political outcast. It is how orthodoxies are enforced—and reactionaries born.
Over the years I, too, have allowed personal and political presumptions to insinuate themselves into my classroom. But I have tried to use such occasions to create space for my students to disagree or show that turmoil and conflict are elements of honest intellectual struggle.
When the subject of abortion comes up—as it has in discussing the news—I admit I am pro-choice but, as an adoptive parent, profoundly aware that my own sons may be the strongest pro-life argument one could possibly muster. And I suspect I am not the only person who does not fit seamlessly on one side or the other of that great divide. Yes, we professors have every right to express our political views when they are germane to the course if such expressions are labeled "opinion," offered with humility, and designed to encourage, not stifle, opposition.
Colleges should also invite speakers who reflect diverse viewpoints—and not merely as academic window dressing. I was once invited to speak on government secrecy at Colby Community College, in Kansas, where the students were staunchly conservative but eager to use me as a sounding board to test their own presumptions.
"The surest way to corrupt a youth," wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, "is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently."
Courses, too, should introduce students to the complexity of scholarship but also to the contested landscape of fact and faith. This does not mean that we abandon the sanctity of evidence but rather that we acknowledge divergent views without conflating scientific consensus with cultural or theological unanimity.
The fossil trail may appear irreconcilable with intelligent design on a scientific level, and we can say so, but exploring the issue in a cultural or religious light may illuminate how others view the world, something we can do without ridicule or condescension. And yes, one can show respect without allotting equal time. It's all about the tone.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that almost half of students believed in-class discussions of politics were too one-sided. Almost one-third said they felt they had to agree with the professor to get a good grade.
Broadening student exposure to the spectrum of political ideas should be part of our mission if colleges are to be incubators of independent thought, not crucibles of conversion. Where else will students learn to navigate in a diverse society, something the grown-ups failed to master? Embracing political diversity may produce a generation that can move beyond polarization and paralysis, restore civil discourse, and recognize that one can compromise without being compromised. If we can't make it happen on campuses, what hope can we have for Congress?
Where common ground is not found, exposure to each other will at least prepare students for the realities of a heterogeneous society. We do not want them emerging from the academic cocoon only to be blindsided by conservatism, bewildered by its values, and unable or unwilling to talk with their neighbors, almost half of whom are conservative.
Next spring I may see that father again at his son's graduation. I hope to have an answer for him, something more than an apology. For guidance, I need only look out my office window to the Boston Common where, centuries ago, a Quaker was hung for her beliefs, where innumerable protests have since been heard, and where, today, the Tea Party holds rallies. Mine is an urban school, and the common is our campus. But, as its name suggests, it is also an invocation to respect those with whom we disagree in our search for common ground.
Ted Gup is chair of the journalism department at Emerson College. His most recent book is A Secret Gift (Penguin Press, 2010).