The idea that the college campus has become politically uniform looms large in the contemporary American popular imagination—and has some basis in fact: U.S. college students and faculty alike tend to lean to the left, particularly at some of the most elite universities. These realities, combined with a media-driven sense that campuses are hotbeds of hyper-progressivism, may explain why American conservatives are increasingly dissatisfied with higher education as a sector. It has to be unpleasant for conservative students and faculty if ambient pressures on campus, or simply the feeling of being outnumbered, inhibit them from being open with their views. But does it really make for a less vibrant environment for knowledge and learning if most people on a campus think in similar terms?

According to Teresa Bejan—an associate professor of political theory at Oxford University and the author of Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration—there’s a pattern across campuses, in the U.S. and the U.K., where some academics have been attempting to maintain consensus views on campuses by suppressing conservative speech. This has even included, at times, being insulting to conservative students or junior faculty. For Bejan, this pattern isn’t just wrong. It undermines the university in one of its most important roles in a democratic society: to help prepare students to engage effectively with the range of viewpoints that animate the population of their broader society.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: What kind of viewpoint diversity should academia be looking for and why? When you say “intellectual diversity,” what do you have in mind?

Teresa Bejan: If that weren’t the language provided me, I wouldn’t use that language. My intervention is simply to observe that in the kinds of institutions I’ve been educated in, [and at] which I’ve taught, there is a kind of overrepresentation of viewpoints and and, partisan affiliations on the political left, relative to the population. I would like to see more people who identify politically as conservative, but I don’t reduce that to Republican voters in the States, or Tory voters in the U.K. Conservative is an imperfect category that describes a range of views. I would just like to see more of the range of those views in the university, just as I would like to see more of the range of views on the left, and those in the center. A university should be a place where we see the best and strongest versions of the views that exist in our society.

We’re in this strange cultural moment where a particular kind of progressivism is becoming increasingly mainstream, not only in media, but also in the academic humanities. I think it’s important to think critically with the language of representation. That sort of progressivism is not well represented in the population as a whole.

There’s something Hannah Arendt says in her essay, “The Crisis in Education.” She observes that any teacher is basically forced into the position of a kind of conservative, insofar as she is educating the newcomer in the world, on the basis of the world as it is. Teachers have to accept that they are responsible for initiating and educating newcomers. One of the things we need to do is introduce them to the world as it is, not as we wish it would be.

The Signal

Bovy: In a Twitter thread about campus viewpoint diversity, you told a striking anecdote about a prominent academic calling anyone with right-wing politics a “cretin.” This got at something interesting about power imbalances, and at why, before even getting into abstract questions of academic freedom, this issue can be so fraught. Is this a dynamic where a professor who determines a student’s grade or even influences their career may claim to be speaking for the underdog, but is, in the moment, effectively silencing someone less powerful?

Bejan: Very often in the professoriate, we have a sense of ourselves as embattled, especially for those of us who teach in public institutions, and in the States, increasingly, in Republican-leaning states. I teach in the U.K., where we are in a position of a conservative government viewing universities and professors with suspicion and hostility. So we do very often see ourselves as embattled, as fighting the powers that be. But in a way that makes us blind to the fact of our own power, and the fact of our own privileged positions, especially vis-à-vis our students and junior colleagues.

For subscribers

Join to read on and have full access to The Signal, including all articles, art, and our entire archive.

Subscribe now Already have an account? Sign in