Heterodox Academy wants to ‘lovingly’ push viewpoint diversity at colleges

Dive Brief:

  • Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit group seeking to promote free inquiry at colleges, is treading for the first time into a more grassroots approach to its activism with a new Campus Community Network, starting at 23 colleges where its members will host events aimed at remolding “campus culture and institutional practices.”
  • The organization will give each of these 23 campus hubs at least $3,000 for activities for their first year and “intensive consulting” from its staff. They are being organized by Heterodox Academy members and are not officially sanctioned by the institutions.
  • John Tomasi, Heterodox Academy’s president and a former Brown University political science and philosophy professor, said the group wants to roll out events like “Heterodox conversations” on campuses They would feature two speakers with opposing viewpoints on topics and “open an intense dialogue.”

Dive Insight:

About eight years ago, a trio of scholars discontented with what they deemed ideological uniformity in their respective disciplines founded Heterodox Academy. 

Their nonprofit group intended to combat viewpoint conformity on college campuses, knitting together professors who espoused tenets known as “The HxA Way,” a pledge to stay intellectually humble, charitable and constructive. 

For a while, this mission largely manifested through blog posts — research and musings on the state of academic freedom. 

Today, Heterodox Academy’s membership has exploded from its initial handful of educators to more than 5,500 faculty, administrators and graduate students in 45 countries, Tomasi said.

Now, the organization wants to bring its goals from a bird’s-eye view directly to college campuses, he said.

The idea of another organization berating colleges’ policies and practices may put off some administrators, who already contend with criticism from sources outside of campus, like lawmakers. Tomasi, though, doesn’t label the ground-level Heterodox acolytes as agitators. He cast them instead as “insiders who care about our universities” and who “lovingly” want to make their institutions better.

“We’re here to promote our values,” Tomasi said. “Not criticize.”

Tomasi said the intent of the events would be to erode a college’s silos and bring in more faculty and administrators to Heterodox Academy’s cause. 

At the very least, he said, the faculty and officials involved with the Campus Communities can add to conversations about the mission of their respective institutions — ensuring open inquiry and viewpoint diversity are valued.

Of course, higher education already treasures free inquiry. But Tomasi said sometimes, free expression at colleges can take a back seat to concepts like racial equity and a commitment to social issues. 

This stance has raised problems for Heterodox Academy before. A Vox essay in 2018 argued the organization’s attitude toward free speech does not come in a vacuum. Representatives from the academy have historically painted a lack of campus free expression as a crisis. This in turn can provide fodder to conservative lawmakers who publicly lambaste institutions as liberal bastions. 

“We’re operating in a world where Republican legislators are using allegations of a campus free speech crisis and liberal bias among the academy to further efforts to crack down on individual freedom,” the essay states.

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