The idea that college campuses have become politically uniform now looms in the American popular imagination—and has some basis in fact: U.S. college students and faculty tend to lean to the left, particularly at some of the country’s most elite universities. This reality, 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 troubling for conservative students and faculty on campus if any experience of hostility, or even ambient pressure, inhibits them from being open and engaging 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? Is intellectual diversity essential to the mission of the university?

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 morally questionable. 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 ideas that animate the population of the broader society they live in.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: What kinds of viewpoint diversity are most important for universities, and why? When you say “intellectual diversity,” what do you mean?

Teresa Bejan: If that weren’t the language out there, I wouldn’t use it. My intervention is simply to observe that in the kinds of institutions I’ve been educated in, and where I’ve taught, there’s a kind of overrepresentation of viewpoints, 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 perspectives 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 being 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 to introduce them to the world as it is, not as we wish it would be.

Kevin Lee

Bovy: You’ve relayed a striking anecdote on Twitter about a prominent academic calling anyone with right-wing politics a “cretin.” This raised an issue about power imbalances. Is this a dynamic where a professor who determines a student’s grade, or even might ultimately influence their professional prospects, may claim to be speaking for the underdog but is really, in the moment, effectively intimidating someone less powerful than them?

Bejan: Very often in the professoriate, we have a sense of ourselves as embattled, especially among those of us who teach in public institutions—and in the U.S., increasingly, in Republican-leaning states. I teach in the U.K., where we are in a position where a conservative government views 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.

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