Many Students Embrace Viewpoint Diversity. Why Won't Colleges?

Many Students Embrace Viewpoint Diversity. Why Won't Colleges?
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College students are unhappy. Given the unrest over the past semester across many college and university campuses around the country, such a statement should surprise no one.

What should shock people is that students have taken note that ideological and political diversity has been marginalized, while discussions about race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender and socio-economic differences are front and center on college campuses. Students like being iconoclastic and challenging norms, and the fact that college officials are not allowing them to hear from a wide variety of speakers for a host of reasons — thus preventing many new ideas from being heard on campuses nationwide — may be contributing to the levels of anger.

Data from the newly released 2017 National Survey of Student Engagement’s (NSSE) “Inclusiveness and engagement and cultural diversity module” make it clear that, despite regular headlines over a few controversial speakers, students recognize that universities and colleges are not doing enough to promote and create spaces for real thought and political difference.

The 2017 NSSE survey data reveal that 62 percent of seniors believe their coursework respects the expression of diverse ideas, but the same students do not see the larger campus as a promoter and guardian of varied ideas.

In one question, students were asked, “How much does your institution provide a supportive environment for the following forms of diversity?”

Seven dimensions of diversity were listed, including racial and ethnic, gender and sexuality and religious or disability status, to be qualified by one of four choices: “very little,” “some,” “quite a bit” and “very much.”

If one collapses the top two categories, almost 70 percent of the students believe their school was “very much” and “quite a bit” supportive of racial and ethnic diversity, sexual orientation, and gender diversity. The number drops to the mid-60 percent range when support for “religious diversity” or “disability status” is thrown into the mix.

But when “political affiliation” is added, the support drops significantly. Only about half of the students believe that their school provides a supportive environment for ideological diversity.

This is incredibly powerful and robust evidence that our nation’s incubators of ideas are not taking real ideas seriously. Political ideas matter and American institutions of higher education are clearly prioritizing other forms of identity-based diversity over political and intellectual ones. Although the 2017 NSSE data convey the fact that American college students are open to different point of views in spite of, or maybe because of, the closed mindset of college administrators, it is interesting to look also at the 2016 survey, which asks slightly different diversity questions and provides us with a complete and continuing picture.

The 2016 NSSE survey had a diversity module called “Experiences with Diverse Perspectives.” A large student sample was asked, “During the current school year, about how often have you attended events or activities that encouraged you to examine your understanding of the following [forms of diversity]?” About 18 percent of students replied that they had “very often” and “often” attended events that promoted different political viewpoints. At the same time, roughly 22 percent of students had attended events that focused on issues of social inequality, race, ethnicity and nationality — not a tremendous difference.

The survey also asked, “During the current school year, about how often have you had discussions about the following [forms of diversity]?” Roughly 50 percent of students answered that they “often” or “very often” discussed issues relating to economic or social inequality and issues of race, ethnicity or nationality.

Almost 40 percent of students replied that they discussed religious or philosophical differences as well as issues of gender or sexual orientation. With regard to political viewpoints, about 46 percent of students confirmed they regularly talked about issues relating to viewpoint diversity — well in line with other forms of diversity.

Thinking about the 2016 and 2017 modules together, it is obvious that while students are not particularly engaged on issues of diversity, and talk of differences with moderate interest, it is absolutely the case that issues of political diversity are given as much weight and consideration as other forms of identification among undergraduates. At the same time, students recognize that their schools are not fostering discussions of viewpoint diversity and offer far less support for political diversity compared to racial or sexual differences.

Students are not the problem here; it is those in the administration and faculty that are pushing a particularly narrow set of goals that ignore the essential aim of higher education: open and honest inquiry.

Truth and progress emerge from disagreement and discourse. Institutions of higher education are being stifled by administrators and faculty who do not promote meaningful exchanges between people with different ideological backgrounds. Students can and should demand better. The data here confirm that our nation’s students are open to having their ideological and political ideas challenged and debated as much as other forms of diversity.

Colleges and universities owe their open-minded students a chance to discuss everything, as well as support and encouragement to look at the world in different ways.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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