Higher education has become an identity-laden monoculture in desperate need of reform. Conservative-leaning students and faculty are a minority on campuses, and far too many self-censor out of fear of being canceled. More than half of faculty report that they fear losing their job over misunderstanding something they said or did. This is devastating. Diversity of viewpoints in dialogue with each other is the centerpiece of a genuine liberal education. It is no secret that many institutions of higher education are failing to reach this goal.
Numerous ideas for reform are being batted around to address these problems. New schools, like the University of Austin, are forming to create a well-informed citizenry equipped for self-government. However, creating new schools or other radical reforms can be challenging; perhaps the most realistic, scalable, and powerful approach to addressing the lack of viewpoint diversity today involves the many new classically liberal campus centers that are popping up nationwide.
Centers and programs like the University of Texas’s Civitas Institute or the University of North Carolina’s School of Civic Life and Leadership represent ways to push back on the leftward lurch of collegiate life and provide space for a diversity of ideas, open inquiry, and teach topics that are ignored and overlooked.
These centers can advance independent thought on campus and promote civil discourse, civic education, and intellectual diversity by providing a home for intellectual dissent and difference with faculty and programming that provide heterodox and classically liberal views. They can also serve as a critical resource for students to help them explore the world, given that so many campuses have turned away from the academic search for truth. Establishing these centers can be done quickly within existing collegiate structures, and new centers can spark powerful curiosity within students. I know this firsthand from my experience as an undergraduate student at Stanford with the Hoover Institution—this can work nationwide.
In addition to having an incredible library, the Hoover Institution is a think tank that promotes personal and economic liberty, free enterprise, and limited government and hosts some of the finest thinkers in the world.
As a freshman, I wasn’t aware of Hoover or cared much for politics. After taking classes for a few terms, I realized that I was being inundated with liberal messaging and regularly found myself in spaces that refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of alternative ideas. My views were habitually marginalized and attacked. Identity politics played a role here, too. Being a white, Jewish male from the East Coast, professors expected me to be of a certain economic and political status—namely, a socially progressive, economically liberal Jew and someone who sees government intervention as the answer—all things which I was not. There was a strong push to conform to political positions divorced from data, reason, or truth.
I did not keep my frustrations a secret. Fortunately, a few centrist professors suggested that I meet some of the fellows at Hoover who may want to engage with me. Because of my interest and persistence, I secured an invitation to coffee in the Senior Commons—a pavilion at Hoover serving afternoon drinks and cake where fellows would gather and chat.
It was bizarre for an undergraduate to be in the Commons back then. Nonetheless, I was introduced to thinkers like Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, and Seymour Martin Lipsett, among many others. Some spent hours listening to my questions and asked questions in return. They challenged my ideas, gave me books to read, and engaged in a dialectic dialogue to help me find the truth, focus my ideas, and grow intellectually. I will never forget when Milton Friedman, for instance, talked me through his thinking on the importance of choice and competition in education concerning questions of equity and innovation or when Gary Becker spoke with me about urban renewal. Those ideas have never left me.
I eventually brought these ideas into my classrooms, much to the chagrin of many faculty. Equipped with confidence and a better understanding of statistics and history, classroom discussion changed. There was no longer a uniform agreement; professors and students had to engage with my ideas. Because of the Hoover Institution, I became a sharper thinker, debater, and writer inside and outside the classroom. And unlike conversations on campus, at Hoover, no topic was off limits, and we talked about race and affirmative action, policing, education, urban renewal, and religion. They engaged with me as an ignorant but eager freshman who grew because of their openness.
My experiences at Hoover informed practically all that I do today and changed my life for the better. My work as a scholar and teacher revolves around the notion that competition of ideas is good for the nation and rests at the very core of the academic enterprise. Colleges and universities can deliver the same experiences I had at Hoover, providing meaningful, heterodox conversations where faculty can teach without fear of losing tenure and have guest lectures and diverse intellectual programming if they create and support these new institutions with faculty and funding.
The impact on campuses could be monumental if students embrace these centers. Students are hungry for viewpoint diversity and civic education. I continue to be amazed by the crowds when I, and others with heterodox views, speak and engage on campuses today.
Survey data regularly shows that Gen Z college students are not a monolithic bloc of liberal ideologues; they are politically homeless and politically disengaged, rejecting ideological extremism and wanting to move beyond commonplace political platitudes and identities. While they are not enormous supporters of the GOP, they are not happy with the Democrats whatsoever. Gen Z students today “identify with more moderate positions than either those on the left or the right” suggesting that they are searching for something else that presents an opportunity to whichever party is bold enough to cultivate and capture this rapidly growing demographic group. Classic liberal centers could play a powerful role in shaping campus discourse, which will inevitably leave the campus gates and enter mainstream discourse.
Gen Z is socio-politically different from earlier generations. As opposed to their Millennial predecessors, Gen Z students are far more pragmatic and thoughtful, rejecting the simplistic labels about others that are peddled by diversity, equity, and inclusion offices; they want to be seen and heard as individuals who think and evaluate ideas and evidence and not a group defined by immutable characteristics that therefore assign them particular preferences and traits. Even Vox Media is quick to point out that when it comes to Gen Z today, Gen Zers do not approve of society “assign[ing] labels by characteristics such as gender, race, and physical characteristics,’ when in reality “Gen Z-ers identify themselves first and foremost based on their personality traits, hobbies, interests, and passions.” Vox notes that “66% of Gen Z-ers say society assigns labels based on demographic characteristics, while 81% prefer to be defined by more personal attributes like personality traits or hobbies.”
Despite a small minority of loud students and the amplifying effect of social media, I have seen countless students eager to learn, listen, and form their own opinions. I have observed and seen data suggesting that most students reject the pervasive tyranny of the minority cancel culture that infects so many campuses. Gen Z students take pride in their tolerance of others with differing beliefs. They welcome having their views challenged and strive to see the world from someone else’s perspective.
There is a demand for so much more by students on campus today. New campus centers are perfectly poised to fill these gaps and needs. The School of Civic Life and Leadership at UNC-Chapel Hill, for instance, has a mission to “offer a home for students, faculty and citizens who wish to cultivate genuine inquiry and earnest debate.” These spaces are exactly what students need and are searching for today. These centers can provide a robust counterweight to the extreme progressive culture that runs deep on many campuses and help provide real education as a bulwark against the extreme socio-political behavior on the part of so many faculty and administrators. If there is an anti-Semitic teacher in opposition to Israel, a center can offer corrective programming and stand up against this madness. In many cases, students need to see that they are not alone in questioning or opposing progressive waves on campus and that there are legitimate views. New centers can do this and alter an entire campus culture.
Although the culture wars have come to our campuses, and faculty and administrators are far more progressive and activist than when I was an undergraduate, students are searching for answers—most are not ideologues. I benefitted immeasurably by having the Hoover Institution on my campus. While it was not designed to engage in student outreach, the Hoover fellows did an incalculable service to me by opening up my mind, allowing me to ask questions, understand multiple viewpoints, and develop my thinking based on reason, ethics, and data.
I can only envision just how big an impact and change to collegiate life and campus culture will happen if tens of thousands of students today could have similar experiences to my own. We must establish classically liberal campus centers on as many campuses as possible. This is not only what students want but also because they will educate students, provide viewpoint diversity, and help promote truth and open inquiry—which is the very foundation of what colleges and universities were created to do in the first place.