Commentary

A Diversity of Viewpoints Is at the Heart of Learning

August 26, 2015

I must confess that I’m coming late to the microaggression debate. It was only after a colleague recently asked if I had heard about the dustup in the University of California system last winter when President Janet Napolitano requested that deans and department chairs attend seminars about what faculty and students should not be saying on campus that I started to get up to speed on the subject.

"Microaggression," for those even more in need of a crash course on leftist academic politics than I, is a term used to describe "insults and dismissals" directed at nonwhite people and other so-called socially marginalized groups. OK, I thought, people shouldn’t go around insulting each other. But what troubled me were examples of what counts as microaggression at the University of California — and on many of today’s college campuses: "America is a melting pot." "America is the land of opportunity." "I believe the most qualified person should get the job." "I think affirmative action is racist."

Of course, I’m not alone in being concerned about this latest assault on free speech in higher education. The Los Angeles Times, one of the most liberal newspapers in the United States, for example, noted in a recent editorial about the shenanigans in the UC system that "it’s troubling when any institution tries to squelch debate or discourage controversial ideas, but it’s downright alarming when this occurs at a university." I agree.

But what concerns me more about campus life today is the macroaggression — in other words, the large-scale or overt aggression — to which white males who aren’t on the political left are routinely subjected. It’s fair to say that the left dominates American higher education more than any ideological persuasion dominates any segment of American life, and it is bound and determined to remove any semblance of intellectual diversity on campus.

For example, good luck trying to land a decent tenure-track faculty appointment if you’re a conservative or libertarian white male. Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, a libertarian law professor at Georgetown who did manage to land one thanks to his proverbial "golden ticket" (he clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice), put it well in an essay in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy when he said of his colleagues: "We are a faculty of 120, and, to my knowledge, the number of professors who are openly conservative, or libertarian, or Republican or, in any sense, to the right of the American center, is three — three out of 120. … The bad news, though, is that, at Georgetown, the consensus seems to be that three is plenty — and perhaps even one or two too many."

Conservative and libertarian college students also face macroaggression from the left. Public-interest groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have more work than they can handle because of how aggressive many colleges and universities are about stifling free speech on campus. In fact, I recently returned from a conference about academic freedom devoted to combating macroaggression against the right on college campuses.

The conference was both enjoyable and eye-opening. What stood out most for me was a comment from one of the other participants who characterized what conservative and libertarian professors are forced to do to simply survive in higher education today — that is, play defense — as a "waste of time." What he meant was that our time is better spent writing and teaching. But he also knew that we have an obligation to the students we teach, and to their families who pay increasingly exorbitant tuition bills, to stand up to this latest development in what has become an increasingly aggressive culture war in higher education so that students are exposed to more than one side of a debate, no matter how uncomfortable that debate may sometimes be. If we don’t, higher education as we know it is dead.

Scott Douglas Gerber is a law professor at Ohio Northern University. He is the author of "A Distinct Judicial Power: The Origins of an Independent Judiciary, 1606-1787" (2011, Oxford University Press).