Kristof's 'Confession of Liberal Intolerance'

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

New York Times columnist Nichols Kristof writes on liberal intolerance in his latest column. Here's a taste:

We progressives believe in diversity, and we want women, blacks, Latinos, gays and Muslims at the table - er, so long as they aren't conservatives.

Universities are the bedrock of progressive values, but the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious. We're fine with people who don't look like us, as long as they think like us. . . .

I've been thinking about this because on Facebook recently I wondered aloud whether universities stigmatize conservatives and undermine intellectual diversity. The scornful reaction from my fellow liberals proved the point.

Kristof summarizes empirical work highlighting the stark ideological imbalance in many disciplines. As he notes, in the social sciences, "it's easier to find a Marxist in some disciplines than a Republican." (And this was pre-Trump.)

Kristof understands that the issue is far broader than whether universities and other institutions are "fair" to those with politically incorrect perspectives.

The stakes involve not just fairness to conservatives or evangelical Christians, not just whether progressives will be true to their own values, not just the benefits that come from diversity (and diversity of thought is arguably among the most important kinds), but also the quality of education itself. When perspectives are unrepresented in discussions, when some kinds of thinkers aren't at the table, classrooms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards - and we all lose.

Kristof is right. But will anything change?

The effects of ideological orthodoxy on the quality of higher education may not spur university faculties to reform themselves, but self-interest might. We academics are a fortunate lot, increasingly divorced from society at large. At the same time, many universities are heavily subsidized by the state, and thousands of college grads are swimming in debt. I doubt this is a sustainable equilibrium.

The university's ideological tilt, combined with its intolerance, cannot but place higher education in an even more precarious place. After all, how long will taxpayers in red states be willing to subsidize universities that appear to be their ideological enemies? In a politically polarized nation, why subsidize the other side?

Recent events in Wisconsin - where Gov. Scott Walker (R) and the state legislature have slashed state funding, frozen tuition and weakened tenure - may be an augur of things to come. Financial pressures are part of the cause, but the widespread perception that universities do more to encourage progressive activism than to prepare students for successful careers are surely part of the mix as well. After all, it is easier to support spending on higher education when academic institutions are seen to serve the public at large.

Ideological intolerance is a threat to liberal education. In time, it may be a threat to educational institutions as well.