At his “farewell lecture” in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall in April 2013, former Yale College Dean Donald Kagan criticized modern universities for failing to provide a liberal arts education that encouraged students to challenge popular views. After arguing that the aimlessness of modern curricula stemmed largely from neglect of a “common core of studies” in Western history, literature and philosophy, Kagan received a standing ovation.
“You can’t find members of the faculty who have different opinions,” he told The Wall Street Journal after the speech. To Kagan, an expert in ancient Greece, “intellectual variety” was essential to creating the kind of free and self-reliant citizens necessary to preserve democracy.
A Feb. 15 article in the News revealed that out of just over $111,000 that Yale professors and administrators have donated to official presidential campaigns this election cycle, over $96,000 went to Hillary Clinton LAW ’73. Some posit that this statistic indicates a lack of political diversity on Yale’s campus, or even Yalies’ tendency to support establishment candidates. Similar statistics emerged in November 2012, when the News reported that “nearly 97 percent of the contributions from Yale employees were for Democratic candidates, the highest percentage among Ivy League schools.”
So what are we talking about when we discuss Yale’s intellectual and political diversity — or lack thereof? And more importantly, what’s at stake?
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Academics tend to lean farther left than the general American populace. But according to Jonathan Haidt ’85, a social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University, as well as the co-author of last September’s Atlantic cover story “The Coddling of the American Mind,” the overrepresentation of progressives on college faculties is not inherently problematic.
Instead, he argues, the problem is that the lack of “institutional disconfirmation” — an active attempt to counter confirmation bias by challenging commonly held views — leads to a hostile and illiberal learning environment.
“Professors routinely make jokes about how stupid and evil conservatives are,” Haidt told the News. “They’ll do it from the podium to an audience of a thousand. Take any definition of hostile climate you want — it’s more intense in the academy toward conservatives than toward any other group. So they drop out of the pipeline.”
Haidt also co-founded Heterodox Academy, a coalition of professors and graduate students concerned about “political or intellectual homogeneity.” The group criticizes “entrenched yet questionable orthodoxies” that become widely accepted, even without adequate evidence, because of the echo-chamber effect of confirmation bias. One such orthodoxy, according to their website, is the notion that affirmative action effectively advances the interests of oppressed or underrepresented groups.
“Yale students should be mad as hell that they are now rarely exposed to dissenting opinions on the most important matters of the day,” Haidt said.
Spanish and Portuguese professor Noël Valis, who is also a faculty advisor for Yale’s William F. Buckley Jr. Program, said Yale’s percentage of Democratic Party donations, although higher than any other Ivy League school, still falls in line with political leanings of universities across the country.
Valis echoed Kagan’s criticism of the modern university as well as Haidt’s concerns about the overrepresentation of the left in academia. She also said she has noticed a “filtering process,” whether by self-selection or institutional bias, that homogenizes discourse in higher education. This, she noted, is a “definite loss” for students as well as faculty.
Joining the Buckley Program has been “a breath of fresh air,” she added.
Since its founding in 2011, the Buckley Program has grown rapidly, now claiming almost 200 undergraduate fellows. According to its mission statement, the program aims to “expand political discourse on campus and to expose students to often-unvoiced views.”
Lauren Noble ’11, executive director of the Buckley Program, co-founded the organization during her senior year. She said she aimed to address what she perceived as a lack of political diversity among faculty and visiting speakers.
But not everyone agrees that Yalies lack exposure to a broad spectrum of ideas. Maxwell Ulin ’17, a self-described progressive activist on campus, cited Yale’s “strong conservative tradition” as evidence of political diversity.
“I would say that the arguments that we don’t have a diversity of opinions expressed in the classroom are probably wrong, at least in my experience,” said Ulin, a political science and history major. “I’ve taken classes with a number of conservative professors, and they have challenged me in terms of my views and opinions.”
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Just as Haidt argued that students whose ideas line up with dominant campus opinions are often hostile toward opposition, Noble claims that students, especially conservatives, often feel intimidated about expressing their political beliefs in the classroom. She hopes the Buckley Program provides a forum for students to explore ideas that might otherwise be silenced or ignored.
“I would argue that the absence of intellectual diversity on campus probably ends up hurting liberal students more than it hurts conservative students,” Noble said. “If your position is always being challenged, you have to learn how to defend what you believe, but you’re also being given opportunities to further think about what you believe and why.”
Ulin recognized that Yale has a student culture that “emphasizes consensus,” and said he would not be surprised if conservative students are more concerned about the reactions of their peers than about the reactions of their professors.
Still, Ulin stressed that even conservative students who feel uncomfortable with voicing controversial opinions should be willing to speak up, just as left-leaning students should be willing to push back.
“No one should be silenced in a class discussion,” he said.
Emmy Reinwald ’17, a Buckley fellow, said a lack of political diversity among the faculty does not significantly affect students. In classes involving political discussion, she explained, students recognize that everyone, including the professor, has a personal bias.
Instead of open hostility or a lack of understanding on the part of left-leaning students, Gabriel Ozuna ’16, a Yale Political Union Federalist Party member, described Yale’s political climate as lacking in compassion.
“You have to be willing to have the charity to engage with someone who disagrees with you, so that you give them the basic human decency of having an opinion, while at the same time understanding that there are necessarily conflicts between ideological positions,” Ozuna said. “Just because you disagree with somebody doesn’t mean you think any less of them.”
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But would anything change if Yale’s faculty included more conservative voices?
Haidt believes the presence of more conservative faculty and administrators would facilitate a campus climate more conducive to open debate. Furthermore, he said, it would “prepare students for the real world.”
Ozuna doubts that more outspoken conservative voices in the faculty would significantly change students’ views, as there is a disjunction between what is taught in the classroom and what is promulgated among the student body.
A history major, Ozuna cited his YPU involvement as a greater influence on his political philosophy than any of his classes, although he believes that conservative students could benefit from having more faculty mentors.
“It’s really been through debate and through conversations that I’ve had with other conservatives that I’ve been able to shape and refine what I actually believe,” Ozuna said. “I think that’s something Yale should be proud of — that most of this forming occurs outside of the classroom among students involved in different organizations.”
The YPU, the oldest and largest student debating society in America, serves as an outlet for students’ political energies, and a testing ground where students can challenge each other’s views — if they aren’t afraid of being hissed at. Unless students actively seek out places to discuss politics, though, it is possible for them to let four years slip by without ever re-evaluating their political stances.
As the events of last semester proved, however, even ambivalence is political.
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The events and controversies of the past year on Yale’s campus, and on college campuses across the country, have widely been portrayed as one of two conflicts. One portrays marginalized students struggling for inclusion within institutions resolved on holding them back. Another pits free-speech defenders against the whims of coddled babies. But many students and faculty members emphasized that each of these narratives oversimplifies the reality of campus politics.
Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor, agrees that college campuses are not politically diverse — but he defines political diversity differently than Haidt and members of the Buckley Program.
“Why do Harvard and Yale faculty, virtually unanimously, support the establishment Democratic candidate over the non-establishment Democratic candidate?” Stanley asked. “I think it’s very important that we not define political diversity in terms of a very narrow ideological band between two parties.”
Stanley’s course, “Propaganda, Ideology and Democracy,” aims to explore how authoritative institutions reinforce stereotypes about less-privileged groups in order to maintain power, as well as how negatively privileged groups have combated these stereotypes through social movements.
If you’re going to challenge sexism or racism, Stanley explained, you have to understand that, while abhorrent, sexist or racist views stem from part of a person’s identity. As he tells his five-year-old son, “There are no good guys or bad guys. We’re all a mixture of good and bad.”
At the same time, students with controversial opinions should avoid offending their peers, Ulin said.
“Class discussions, especially in the social sciences, are not hypothetical. We’re talking about policies that, oftentimes, really affect people in the room,” Ulin said. “You have to be cognizant of the fact that you’re not speaking in a vacuum.”
Although she believes campus remains politically divided, Reinwald said the national media unfairly portrayed people and events on campus last semester. Ultimately, she said, students universally desire to make the most of their learning experience at Yale — even though they pursue this through different, and sometimes oppositional, means.
At the bottom of the syllabus, Stanley includes a warning that discussions and readings for the class, which include “concrete instances of group domination and oppression,” “will be (and perhaps should be) disturbing to all.”
Such “trigger warnings” are often criticized by avid supporters of free-speech movements on college campuses, who believe students should be exposed to controversial and uncomfortable ideas as part of a liberal education. But to Stanley, who considers himself an intellectual peer to his students in class discussions, it’s a simple courtesy.
“Ideology is not just a matter of talking about stuff,” he said. “When you ask people to change their views, you ask them to change their identities. That’s a lot to ask.”