It is impossible to deny that Columbia values diversity. In October 2017, Columbia announced that it would be spending $100 million to increase faculty diversity. This investment follows the $85 million already spent on diversifying the faculty since 2005. While I don’t object to such measures, there is something rather striking about the conversation regarding diversity and its related policies: Viewpoint diversity is discussed much less, and, unlike racial diversity, it is not considered a necessary component of a well-rounded education. Although we care deeply about having students and faculty who look differently, we seem to be indifferent about having students and professors who think differently.
So it is that intellectual diversity on campus gets largely ignored. Over the past three presidential election cycles, faculty donations to Republican candidates never accounted for more than 10 percent of the total. Ideological commitments within the student body are probably similarly skewed: There are more left-leaning clubs on campus, and these tend to attract more members than their right-leaning equivalents.
In a letter to the editor published last year, Nikita Singareddy argued that we should not concern ourselves with the scarcity of conservative voices because universities “should remain liberal bastions.” The world is “built upon the edificies of capitalism,” wrote Nikita, so universities should be spaces where the “ruling ideology” can be critiqued. She is partly right: We should indeed be free to critically question the structures of our society. But then again, so too must we be free to defend those structures and to engage with the influential thinkers who have contributed to the creation of the institutions that some among us are so eager to dismantle.
The “liberal bastion” that Nikita defends actually harms progressives too because it converts left-liberal interpretations of politics and society into incontestable dogma. Certain beliefs, like the notion that the United States is structurally biased against minorities, or that campus feminism is an unquestionably good thing, can be asserted without justification. Although compelling evidence could be marshalled in support of such views, they are not foregone conclusions. Studying in an environment that fails to adequately challenge them fosters a sort of intellectual complacency for which Columbia students should not settle.
One of the principal purposes of a university, after all, is to create an environment where our beliefs are challenged before being confirmed. We are all experts at finding holes in the arguments of others, but fall short when tasked with examining our own inadequacies and inconsistencies. Precisely for this reason, the learning enterprise is a collective one: We need the inquisitive and skeptical minds of others to dispute our interpretations and compensate for our individual biases. We have as much to learn from those with whom we disagree as from those whose first principles we are predisposed to support.
To foster discourse and engagement, Columbia must do a better job of presenting a vast diversity of ideas, because in my experience, the University has often failed to do so. In my U.S. Intellectual History course last semester, for instance, we were assigned entire books by progressives but only about four excerpts from intellectuals on the right. Columbia, moreover, offers a course on liberalism but not one on conservative thought. Thus, Columbians might know all about Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and Kimberlé Crenshaw without ever encountering the books of Thomas Sowell, William F. Buckley, and Irving Kristol.
Although I believe Columbia can and should do more to present conservative counterpoints, there is not much it can do in the short term to improve the representation of conservatives among the professoriate. As a Spectator article pointed out, the “lack of political diversity among faculty [might be due] to factors outside the University’s control.” In the long term, however, Columbia could reasonably take extra care to fund the research of conservative scholars so as to increase their representation, even without implementing any sort of affirmative action program for right-wingers. (About 25 percent of Americans with postgraduate experience identify as conservative, so the pool from which to draw more scholars into the faculty already exists; it is a matter of incentivizing them and making academia a more welcoming place for their ideas.)
Most of the changes I would like to see, then, are primarily concerned with culture rather than policy. Put simply, students and professors must take it upon themselves to engage the right: in conversation, in course syllabi, and in their personal readings.
The dearth of conservative voices at Columbia (and similar institutions) is robbing students of access to a rich intellectual tradition and of engagement with an ideology with which one third of Americans identify. One of the reasons that incur the dismissal of conservatism seems to be that conservative thought is often conflated with the most grotesque elements of the Republican Party. I understand where this confusion comes from: The GOP is America’s conservative party, so it appears fair to assume that the party is representative of the conservative movement in general. But this is a simplistic and unfair generalization. Many conservative intellectuals have disavowed Donald Trump and the GOP: Even the National Review, the country’s flagship conservative publication, ran an anti-Trump symposium in February 2016. When I encourage Columbia’s students and faculty to engage with conservatism, I specifically mean that we should engage conservatism’s serious scholars, writers, and intellectuals. I make no apologies for a Republican Party that nominated Donald Trump and endorsed Roy Moore. Nor do I make apologies for any of the other assorted clowns and racists and demagogues of the American right.
So seek out the thoughtful conservative students and professors and engage their views without invective. Buy yourself conservative books (I can recommend some, if you like). Don’t assume that your ideological opponents are motivated by malicious intentions or that their positions are informed by the desire to preserve white supremacy. Tackle only the strongest version of your opponent’s argument. Even if after doing all this you continue to think conservatism has no insights to offer, you will still have benefited from the experience of refining your position and better understanding that of your opposites.
What I propose is not radical, nor are the cultural changes I’d like to see particularly exacting. To live out the meaning of a university education, we must be willing to abandon complacency, to revel in disagreement, to pursue truth, and to engage with ideas even if they shake the very foundations of our intellectual edifices.
Christian Gonzalez is a sophomore in Columbia College studying political science. If you’d like to tell him why he’s wrong about conservatism (or, alternatively, if you’re interested in those book recommendations), you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Heterodox runs alternate Tuesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.