Does the Heterodox Academy know what it stands for?

Haidt vehicle ostensibly began as bid by left-leaning professors to limit their own extremes, but conservative power is more visibly – and audibly – driving its growth

June 12, 2024
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The political enemies of US higher education appear to be on a roll, with assertive allies across multiple state capitals, in the US Congress and at key philanthropic choke points. Now a well-funded campaign to recruit faculty to their cause is showing signs of growth, as well as uncertainty over what it really aims to accomplish.

The potential for both power and perplexity was on show in Chicago, where the Heterodox Academy (HxA) gathered for a three-day conference. While about 500 people attended, the HxA, a non-profit advocacy group that aims to advance open enquiry and “viewpoint diversity” on campuses, said its membership has now grown to nearly 7,000 faculty and other supporters, up almost 50 per cent from its previous gathering in Colorado in 2022.

Less clear, though, is exactly who is behind that success, whether HxA is more about partisan advantage than free speech, and what US higher education can expect to come from it.

The Heterodox Academy was founded in 2015, led most prominently by Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership in business at New York University. Its formative saga is that Professor Haidt acted after growing dismayed to see his academic colleagues – especially in his field of social psychology – become blinded by groupthink insistences on politically liberal perspectives.

While Professor Haidt generally came from the same side of the political spectrum, he argued that the ideological dominance had become so great – even extreme – that it was distorting science and teaching, making some research questions and classroom discussions effectively out of bounds.

Whatever the extent of that reality, correcting it was a fraught mission. By the measure of political affiliation, US academics do sit to the left of most US voters. Yet many other forces – notably the wealthy donors who universities increasingly court to compensate for sharp declines in public funding and the stepped-up interference by conservative commentators and politicians who have long seen the academy as an existential threat – flash in the other direction.

And with the US sinking in recent years into its win-at-all-cost partisan divide, attempts at principled self-correction can quickly become vulnerabilities that opponents exploit. For HxA, that has meant a coalition with significant numbers of left-leaning faculty who are bankrolled – more than $4 million (£3 million) in its latest public filing, covering 2021, from less than $3 million the previous year – largely by advocacy groups more clearly committed to a conservative agenda.

It can be a tricky mix, said John Wilson, an editor for Academe Blog, an online publication of the American Association of University Professors, the nation’s generally left-leaning chief faculty association. “Organisations don’t always choose who’s interested in them,” said Dr Wilson, an HxA attendee and supporter.

That dichotomy was in full bloom during the Chicago gathering. Its prominent participants included the heads of the University of Chicago, Vanderbilt University, the University of Wyoming and Claremont McKenna College, who took varying degrees of credit for limiting student protests on their campuses.

Other headliners included Jacob Howland, the provost of the University of Austin, the new private institution that sees itself as an antidote to academia’s leftist dominance; and Stanley Fish, a professor in residence at the New College of Florida, the boutique liberal arts institution overhauled last year by a board of right-wing activists appointed by governor Ron DeSantis.

Over and over, HxA president John Tomasi, a former professor of natural theology at Brown University, and other allies stressed the group’s goal of promoting “viewpoint diversity” – the notion of promoting a balance in campus ideologies. To that end, the conference highlighted HxA’s growing efforts to help colleges and universities create forums where students are encouraged to debate contentious issues.

Beyond that, however, Professor Tomasi and his Chicago assembly did little to explain how or why HxA would push universities to hire more conservative faculty, and what success would look like. Instead, as described by Professor Fish – renowned for his sceptical take on the 1960s student protests while a young University of California, Berkeley faculty member – the Chicago event too often featured HxA believers who “utter large abstractions like ‘truth’ and believe that we have said something”.

Still, evidence abounded of the HxA’s conservative structural underpinnings. Mentions of DEI – diversity, equity and inclusion – efforts in higher education were repeatedly met by chants of derision from HxA attendees. Professor Tomasi got enthusiastic applause for listing some recent anti-DEI moves in academia and for mocking student demonstrators who questioned the use of aggressive police tactics against largely peaceful anti-war assemblies.

“They seem not to understand,” he quipped, alluding to Martin Luther King Jr’s essay on the moral responsibility to fight injustice, “that the letter from the Birmingham jail was actually written from a jail.” The conference included almost no mention of the large-scale fight against those students’ free-speech rights by Republicans in the US House of Representatives, or Donald Trump’s threats to do even worse.

Yet in a potentially hopeful sign for HxA, the group still seems to defy attempts at pigeonholing it. Its believers include Leah Murray, a professor of political science and philosophy at Weber State University who sees value both in DEI initiatives and in HxA’s psychology-based educational models for organising respectful student discussions.

“Every person who has gone through that [HxA] training has commented that it made things better,” Professor Murray said. “It has taken the temperature down in conversations and in classrooms.”

However, there is also Adam Ellwanger, a professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown and disgruntled HxA member who has publicly chided Professor Haidt for growing too conciliatory to leftist faculty. “HxA’s leadership”, he said, “seems somewhat incapable of seeing – or admitting – that the problems in the university are caused by leftists.”


Print headline: What does the Heterodox Academy really stand for?

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Reader's comments (3)

Teething problems aside, a serious attempt to develop viewpoint diversity should be applauded.
Heterodox is this context represents orthodoxy. There is no tolerance for "viewpoint diversity" for any point of view with which HxA does not agree. Read their writing....
This article demonstrates a significant misunderstanding of the purpose of HxA. At a minimum, the author could have quoted from the HxA website and founding documents, including the set of norms and values that we call "The HxA Way." We encourage our members to embody these in all of their professional interactions, and we insist on these norms and values for those publishing on our platforms or participating in our events. The recent conference in Chicago had these norms and values in clear display.