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So picture this: An established institute for the study of public policy, officially housed on a state university campus, develops a 10-minute survey regarding attitudes about open expression on campus. This survey, which was approved for dissemination by the local campus-wide ethics board, was presented to the university administration with a request that it be distributed to all students in the state university system. The goal of this survey is, quite genuinely, to get a sense of how students within the university system perceive issues surrounding freedom of expression on campus.
Makes sense so far, right? But then get this: Top administrators at several of the campuses in the system push back against the idea of disseminating the survey, perhaps because this survey might end up providing information that doesn’t reflect well on the campuses. Preliminarily, the head of the entire system sides with these cautious campus leaders. Thus, an initial decision was made to disallow the dissemination of a survey regarding perceptions of free speech on campus. Think about that!
Not only is this situation, of course, dripping with irony—but get this: It is actually true, It is something of an ongoing situation for the University of Wisconsin university system right this second.
And it is not a small deal. This situation has led to the resignation of an interim chancellor within the system (the chancellor of UW Whitewater, who reportedly experienced too much pressure on this issue). And it led to a reversal of a decision from the president of the entire university system, who had at first rejected the request to disseminate the survey but who, at a later point, reversed this decision, largely at the urging of the authors of the survey who had put in a lot of effort to develop the survey. and who, clearly, cared about the results that the survey would reveal.
I’ve been conducting survey-related research professionally for more than a quarter of a century and I have to say, the content of this particular survey seems fully appropriate and reasonable in my book. The survey, primarily overseen by the established philosopher and UW faculty member, Dr. Timothy Shiell, includes questions that might be expected on a survey of students regarding perceptions of free speech on campus, such as this: “How often do your professors encourage students to explore a wide variety of viewpoints and perspectives?”
I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty curious to see what students had to say on this subject. As things turned out, the survey did end up being disseminated (results are, at the time of this publication, pending). But not without a fight (for more information on this particular situation, check out this detailed article by Joseph Knippenberg).
Open Inquiry in Academia
As I argued in greater detail (with co-author Julie Planke) in this 2018 piece, academia has something of a freedom-of-expression problem. And based on the emergence of several high-profile organizations, such as the Heterodox Academy, there is currently a pushback against the squelching of voices and ideas within academia.
The recent University of Wisconsin debacle, in my mind, amplifies the problem quite a bit. Universities are hesitant about allowing researchers to study freedom of expression itself? To me, it almost sounds like something out of an over-the-top movie.
In 2018, I was fortunate to be invited by revered behavioral scientist Richard Redding of Chapman University to be part of a set of conferences titled “The Heterodox Psychology Workshop/Conference.” These conferences (which took place in 2018 and 2020) provided a forum for behavioral scientists to carefully examine issues associated with freedom of expression in the academy.
The Heterodox Psychology group has recently morphed into the Society for Open Inquiry in Behavioral Science (SOIBS), which now has a strong and growing membership—including many leaders in the behavioral sciences—as well as its own academic journal (the Journal of Open Inquiry in Behavioral Science, edited by Rutgers’ Psychology Department Chair and highly regarded social psychologist, Lee Jussim) dedicated to advancing our understanding of issues connected with open inquiry. I consider myself fortunate to be a founding member of this group and am hoping to be part of the solution when it comes to the expression of ideas within the academy.
Open Inquiry, Free Speech, Academic Freedom, Heterodoxy, and Viewpoint Diversity
When it comes to the expression of ideas within the academy, there are, in fact, various inter-related issues at play. Here, in an effort to provide clarity on these issues, I provide brief summaries of five of the primary ways that this broader topic is framed.
1. Open Inquiry
Open inquiry is the idea that scholars, who are generally charged with helping us to better understand the world and our place in it, need to be able to study any topics that they find of academic interest. Some topics make people feel uncomfortable. For instance, in my own research across the years, I’ve studied behavioral differences across the sexes; I found out pretty early in my career that not everyone likes this topic.1 But I found the topic interesting and important and so I studied it in any case.
Efforts to curtail the study of some particular topic in a field because people might not like the answers that are uncovered—or simply because they feel that the topic is too sensitive of an issue to study—are efforts to curtail open inquiry.
2. Free Speech
Free speech in the academy parallels, in many ways, free speech in terms of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which explicitly allows for appropriate expression of criticism of the government. This is a basic right in our democracy and I am deeply appreciative to live in a nation that fosters this right. Along with millions of other Americans, in fact, I have participated in a broad array of protests against the government across the years.
Free speech on campus is a parallel right. Generally, the idea is that within a campus community, individuals should be allowed to voice their opinions and ideas publicly, as long as the ideas are not libelous and do not pose clear threats to the safety of individuals or communities. Not every idea is popular, but generally, people should, based on this principle, be allowed to express ideas on campus freely without fear of penalty or punishment.
3. Academic Freedom
Academic freedom speaks to the ability of academics to have freedom regarding a broad suite of activities, including content that they choose to teach, questions that they choose to study, ways that they choose to present their scholarly work, etc. If a professor whose research focuses on communication within communities wants to study, for instance, perceptions about free speech, that professor should be afforded the opportunity to study this topic without concerns about penalties or administrative hurdles.
Essentially, the idea of heterodoxy is the idea that there should not be a single orthodoxy (or set of foundational ideas) that drives an academic community. The prefix hetero means multiple, different, or plural, Thus, the idea of heterodoxy suggests that academic communities should allow for more than one single set of foundational ideas to underlie our work.
Some paradigms (or sets of inter-related ideas) might not always be aligned with the primary paradigms that are endorsed within academic communities. But such paradigms, which may even cut across the grain of prevailing ideologies or narratives, should not be disallowed or obstructed. Heterogeneity of ideas is, in many ways, the driving force of knowledge.
5. Viewpoint Diversity
A related concept pertains to viewpoint diversity, which essentially suggests that academic communities need to allow room for a broad array of viewpoints on campus. Based on data presented on my home campus by renowned NYU behavioral scientist Jonathan Haidt2 a few years back, it is clear that there is actually little ideological and political diversity among academic faculty in general. This context provides a difficult environment for students and/or other members of an academic community who do not fully stand in line with whatever the prevailing ideology happens to be. The viewpoint-diversity issue speaks to the fact that it is problematic and even dangerous for only a single set of ideas to be allowed into the ivory tower. Again, heterogeneity of ideas is truly the engine that drives advances in our understanding of the world.
The rise of organizations such as the Society for Open Inquiry in Behavioral Science and the Heterodox Academy speaks to a glaring issue within the academy. There are concerns about academic freedom and about the various issues that strongly relate to academic freedom (such as open inquiry and viewpoint diversity). And many of the folks who are concerned about this issue are professors within the ivory tower itself.
I argue that we should let the situation in Wisconsin serve as a warning call. When state universities are obstructing the study of free speech, they are obstructing free speech itself. And they are obstructing the principles of open inquiry, academic freedom, heterodoxy, and viewpoint diversity along the way.
As a lifelong academic, I’m hoping to be a part of the solution. I may be a rare breed; I’m someone who identifies as highly politically progressive but just as strongly identifies as an advocate of freedom of ideas and freedom of speech.
When it comes to free expression, the second that we pick and choose, everyone loses. To say that it is OK for a progressive group to hold a protest against the government but that it is not OK for a professor to study free speech is, to put it simply, pretty messed up.
As our society experiences unprecedented levels of political polarization, we need to work together as a broader community to develop common ground. Censoring entire ideologies and perspectives within colleges and universities is not the way to do it.
Civil discourse is not always easy when ideas are at odds with one another, but it is essential in terms of facilitating community among people with diverse backgrounds and ideas. And when certain ideologies or perspectives are disallowed in the community, civil discourse is crushed. That’s not exactly an outcome that is going to get any of us anywhere.