The decline of dissent in universities

How Institutional Neutrality can ameliorate polarization

Carsten Torgeson, Contributing Writer

On Oct.18, Mark McNeilly, a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, published an article calling for universities to adopt “Institutional Neutrality.” Institutional Neutrality limits the ability of a university to make statements on behalf of its students and faculty, with the hopes of encouraging students and faculty to derive their own viewpoints. With universities increasingly becoming liberal echo chambers, including Case Western Reserve University, the adoption of Institutional Neutrality would be a good first step to stanch the decline of our academic institutions. Any university that believes that knowledge comes from critiquing differing opinions, with strengthened ideas that subsequently arising from this dialectic, would do well to adopt this policy. 

To give some context, the past 20 years, and certainly since the election of the former President Donald Trump, the political and social spheres have been marked by an increase in polarization. In everyday life, charged issues are avoided to prevent harmful and polemical confrontations. This may not be unique to this time, but certainly, with people occupying ever distant positions on the political spectrum, the risk for explosive, relationship-affecting conflict has increased. The time and place for these discussions is no longer in quotidian social life—perhaps it never was—but at the very least the hallowed grounds of a university should always be a place to apprehend and critique differing opinions. Sadly, it no longer is.    

This claim, that universities are no longer a space for discourse, is a difficult one for any individual to assess. For many students, their undergraduate years are the only years they will spend directly involved with a university education, meaning their perspective is relatively narrow. Only around 25% of students go on to earn masters or doctoral degrees. This means that for many students, after they complete their undergraduate education, they may never set foot on a college campus again. For undergraduate degree seekers, the level of political heterogeneity (or lack thereof) may seem normal—or at the very least, static. However, as soon as we expand our view to include more than just the four or so years that the average individual student spends in higher education, it becomes clear how rapidly higher education has become homogenized.

In his 2016 Hayek Lecture at Duke University, Dr. Jonathan Haidt says that “as late as the [mid] 1990’s, the left:right ratio [of professors] in the academy was only 2:1.” However, a little over a decade later, that ratio is 5:1. When excluding the non-humanities majors, that ratio becomes as high as 10.5 to 1. This rapid liberalization at universities means that the conditions of undergraduate education a mere 25 years ago do not resemble today’s conditions in the slightest. This change, which is just barely slow enough to evade individual perception, nevertheless has huge implications for students and their impact on the world after graduating.

The lack of political diversity in higher education presents two problems. First, the incongruence between the overall ratio of liberals to conservatives in the United States, and second, that ratio on the college campus raises concerns about proper representation. This problem of representation is massive, and something worth revisiting in its own article. 

However, for now, it is suffice to say that this lack of representation creates a way of thinking that has little to no applicability to the noncollegiate world. Students are taught to think in ways that are largely divergent from the ways normal people think beyond the relatively small academic sphere. This lack of diversity on the college campus leads to polarization beyond its walls. More pertinent, however, is the impact that uniform opinions and perspectives have on the university’s ability to create an environment conducive to knowledge acquisition.

The notion that dissenting opinions (and their critique) are necessary for the improvement of multiple perspectives and—in general—is a way to filter out “bad” ideas, can be understood easily enough. This notion is best crystallized by John Stuart Mills writing, “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

According to Dr. Haidt, in the contemporary college campus, with all its political homogeneity, “orthodox views become strongly held but weakly supported” and students “don’t know the reasons for their beliefs, because they’ve never been challenged.” Differing opinions in university spaces are invaluable, and it should be concerning that they are so hard to come by. An academic environment that contains a multiplicity of differing opinions creates something that Haidt calls “institutionalized disconfirmation” wherein “[the] community of scholars [critique] each other’s work,” resulting in better thinking and better ideas. But between the lack of variation in opinion, and universities developing their own monolithic perspectives (that speak for all its members), institutionalized disconfirmation ceases to act as a filter for bad research. Instead, unchallenged ideas are blindly purveyed by students who are no longer required to critically contend with the ideas they hold to be true. 

At this point it should be abundantly clear that homogeneity in universities undermines the institution’s ability to aid its students in acquiring knowledge. It should also be apparent that the nonacademic world has become increasingly polarized, in part, as a result of this lack of varied perspectives in higher education. However, while there are many reasons for this homogeneity, there are an equally numerous number of solutions. There are simple steps that every university can take to stimulate variation in the ways its community members think. 

On July 27, 2022, the University of North Carolina adopted the Kalven Report, committing the school to following a policy of Institutional Neutrality. Institutional Neutrality is founded upon the belief that a university should act as nothing more than a home for the development of ideas and should not be a producer of these ideas itself. With this in mind, Institutional Neutrality limits schools’ ability to make statements on behalf of all its community members, in turn stimulating varying opinions amongst the proper people—its faculty and student body. This combats the increasing tendency for universities to speak on behalf of their faculty and students, resulting in dissenting opinions and views being stifled and the reduction of that school’s legitimate academic thrust.

As a humanities and social science major at an institution that is most well known for its engineering programs, I am sometimes frustrated by the relatively small number of fellow humanities majors. As a left-leaning student though, I am thankful to interact with students whose opinions differ from my own, which perhaps would not occur quite as frequently at a school more grounded in the humanities. Regardless, I believe that CWRU should take this first step of adopting Institutional Neutrality. Our university should commit itself to maintaining and building an environment open to the academic critique of more than just what is deemed to be orthodox.