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In previous weeks Bridge the Divide has placed a specific focus on the role politics plays in academia. Several of you have shared your opinions in the discussion and in the live ambassador roundtable held last week. To close out our exploration into the topic, Kymberley Chu explores different reasons why there is an increasing political polarization in academia and what some are doing to combat it.
Concerns about the political polarization within academia have become inescapable in recent years. Intellectual diversity in higher education promotes a variety of ideological viewpoints that may solidify our critical thinking skills and open ourselves to others’ rationals. However, the majority of liberal professors in most educational institutes may exert an echo chamber that prohibits this growth. According to Nicholas Kristof, most universities lack tolerance towards ideological and religious beliefs. In fact, the Pew Research Centre reports that 58% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats think that higher education has negative impacts. It appears that psychological and cultural factors such as confirmation bias, tribalism, and motivated reasoning are breeding this polarization within academia.
For example, the Washington Times reports that liberal professors outnumber conservative professors 12 by 1. The imbalanced ratio may lead to social stigmatization of specific beliefs which undermine the concept of intellectual diversity. Lack of exposure may formulate stereotypes and misconceptions about centrist and conservative beliefs. In social psychology, NYU professor Jonathan Heidt illustrates that negative associations with the right revolve around “intolerant” and “dogmatic” terms towards ambiguity. In general, these politically homogeneous communities tend to perceive outcasts in a negative light. Regardless of beliefs, the problem with a mostly homogeneous academic community is that it solidifies a uniform system of beliefs and unduly questions the validity of alternative research methods and viewpoints.
Another factor may be the politically turbulent climate. According to the Washington Post, UCLA’s Higher Educational Institute reported that only 42.3% of incoming freshmen identify as “centrists” which is considered shrinking. Besides the concern that “echo chambers” have emerged in several universities, numerous controversial approaches emerge such as “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” may also be accelerating the process of political polarization within academia as by closing off people’s minds to alternatives. The purpose of these practices themselves is not to close off ideas they don’t agree with. They are protective measures aimed at preparing students for or even allowing them to avoid topics which evoke a particular trauma that could be psychologically damaging. The problem is that they have become a wall behind which people hide from ideas that challenge their own. Professor Greg Lukianoff claims that such approaches may frame students as “fragile” and described as “vindictive protectiveness”. Thus, such vindictive protectiveness encourages students to regurgitate their beliefs and to consider other viewpoints in a negative light.
In an attempt to combat this, non-partisan civic initiatives have emerged such as Heterodox Academy to foster and encourage political diversity in academia. Groups such as the Heterodox Academy promote civil dialogue activities, multiperspectivity readings, and other learning opportunities for those interested in understanding different beliefs. Moreover, another solution to reduce politics in academia many universities have sought out is encouraging guest speakers of different beliefs than the general belief of the school community. School entities such as academic departments, student government, and other college clubs may invite guest speakers for students to learn and understand multiperspectivity. Within academia, professors may develop shared values and emphasis on collaboration for future goals, regardless of beliefs or political attributes. By developing collaboration, academic content and research may minimize biases or misconceptions. These solutions may develop critical thinking skills such as open-mindedness and multiperspectivity among both professors and students.