Saturday, June 16, 2018

Heterodox Academy Open Mind Conference

I just returned from the first Open Mind conference of Heterodox Academy, founded by Jonathan Haidt. I've been involved with the academic reform movement for more than 25 years, and this meeting was a watershed, not least because of the large audience of academics from all over the country who have taken an interest in campus speech issues and political correctness.

Haidt's strategic and organizational skills are impressive. The meeting integrated important mainstream and left-wing academics into some manner of organized expression of concern about an issue that heretofore conservatives have dominated. There have always been Democrats involved in leadership roles of the academic reform movement, such as Greg Lukianoff of FIRE (who has just coauthored a book with Haidt) and KC Johnson of Brooklyn College, but this meeting was different, for Heterodox is a mainstream academic and even left-organized group.

Among the speakers were President Robert Zimmer of the University of Chicago; President Michael Roth of Wesleyan; and a former president of the University of California, Mark Yudof.

They also included Heather Heying, who had resigned from Evergreen State with her husband, Bret Weinstein, in a bizarre controversy. (Weinstein has received a $500,000 settlement from Evergreen.)  Alice Dreger, a professor who had resigned from Northwestern over a censorship issue, also spoke. Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Education, moderated one of the panels.

The meeting was held in an auditorium on the ground floor of the New York Times building. In other words, the New York Times has lent support to Heterodox Academy.

The speakers were mostly from elite institutions, with the exceptions of Angus Johnston,  a left-oriented scholar of protest movements, a public scholar, and an adjunct at CUNY’s Hostos Community College, and Heather Heying, with whom I had a conversation during the breakfast hour. There were several speakers associated with Yale, Haidt's alma mater, including Michael B Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and philosophy professor Jason Stanley.

Only a few of the speakers, like Robert George (founder of Princeton's James Madison program), were conservatives or libertarians. John McWhorter of Columbia (see his Atlantic article) made some comments that conservatives might like. ACTA's Michael B. Poliakoff also spoke.

There are strengths and weaknesses to organizing a higher ed protest movement from inside the higher ed Leviathan.  A strength is that the Republicans have dropped the ball on this issue, so reform from outside is unlikely in the short run.  A weakness is that this movement might forestall such reform. Moreover, many of the important failings of higher ed, such as the failure of higher ed institutions to do much in the way of real education, might get overlooked.

There may be a tendency to follow the mainstream Progressive patterns that led to political correctness in the first place. Insiders who oppose groupthink may offer Caspar Milquetoast prescriptions. It's not at all clear that moderate reform of some speech issues addresses what is required. 

Most of the speakers were on the obvious side of issues like opposition to shouting down campus speakers, but several said things like “free speech is just a justification for racism” and one or two defended shouting down.

I was skeptical of the degree to which President Zimmer painted Chicago as a center of academic freedom. I have no doubt that it’s better than most places, but I wonder what their D:R ratios look like, especially when you exit the economics department. (Illinois doesn’t provide voter registration information.) Also, although I had a pleasant conversation with Michael Roth before his talk,  I am skeptical that places like Wesleyan will become centers of free speech in the next 25 years.

That said, the brilliance of the movement that Jonathan Haidt and Heterodox Academy are creating is certain. Let's hope that great things will result.

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