College leaders spend a lot of time talking about the need for diversity on campus. They want to make sure that different races, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations are represented. To some extent, this makes sense: Colleges are supposed to expose students to a variety of perspectives. It helps to have students surrounded by people from different backgrounds.
Yet college administrators ought to remember that it’s different ideas — not just skin colors, languages and genders — that are most important. Sadly, the need for intellectual diversity is often entirely overlooked. And while this is true for universities generally, it’s particularly true when it comes to women’s issues and campus Women’s Studies departments.
When I attended the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, one of our ethics classes was dedicated to the topic of abortion. About 60 students sat in seats that were curved around the room, in an attempt to facilitate discussion and debate. Yet on that day, there was hardly any debate at all. Almost no one was willing to make the pro-life argument. Part of the problem was there were no more than a handful of students with a pro-life viewpoint in the class. But even those who were in attendance were understandably reluctant to speak up. Not only were they outnumbered, but they knew from experience that those with pro-life positions are likely to be demonized as anti-woman, or worse.
Our ethics professor — herself a stalwart feminist, but one who truly believed in the importance of intellectual diversity and open debate — had to pry pro-life arguments out of students and offer some herself. I appreciated the effort. But it was hard to overlook that she was herself making the arguments only out of duty.
This imbalance in the class degraded the quality of education we received that day: The pro-choice students didn’t hear many of the best competing arguments of the other side, and neither side learned how to defend their views and engage in passionate, but respectful debate.
Harvard certainly isn’t alone in facing such imbalances. Studies confirm the obvious: Professors on campus overwhelmingly skew to the political Left. A 2012 study of full-time, professors at four-year colleges found that 12.4 percent self-identified as “far left,” 50.3 percent as “liberal,” 25.4 percent as “middle of the road,” and 11.5 percent as “conservative.” The category “far right” was little more than a rounding error, at just 0.4 percent. That adds up to two out of every three professors being admittedly on the side of the political Left, compared to just one in ten on the Right.
Interestingly, the female professoriate was even more lopsidedly liberal. And other studies have found that professors in humanities are the most ideologically skewed.
This data suggests that Women’s Studies departments are likely to be among the most out of balance. This makes sense because, in fact, the entire women studies discipline was created as part an outgrowth of a political movement – a movement intended to advance an ideological agenda — rather than as a traditional field of education. The National Women Studies Association, which was founded in 1977, still proudly publicizes its relationship with the traditional, liberal feminist movement, noting on its website:
NWSA recognizes that women’s studies is broader than what happens in the classroom and acknowledges women’s centers staff as feminist educators. Campus-based women’s centers have a long history of working together with women’s studies to transform the curriculum, the campus environment, and society at large.
The “transformation” they seek is simple; to move the country further to the Left. One can debate whether or not that’s a good or bad idea — but students in Women’s Studies programs ought to at least have that debate. But that won’t happen when the professors are ideologically in agreement and aren’t particularly welcoming to students with different perspectives.
Some schools, of course, recognize the ideological imbalance problem and are making efforts to correct the lack of intellectual diversity. Today, Harvard’s Kennedy School at least tries to demonstrate a respect for conservative ideas by bringing in Fellows to be a part of the school community. In fact, this spring, the Kennedy School is bringing in a Fellow who has been at the forefront of trying to correct the imbalance in Women’s Studies programs and centers on college campuses.
Karin Agness helped found the Network of Enlighted Women (NeW) while a student at the University of Virginia. Her campus women’s center hadn’t welcomed women with conservative views, so Karin and some friends started a group of their own for female students who didn’t agree with the liberal orthodoxy on campus. Since then, NeW’s network has grown to 25 campuses, as well as professional network groups for young adults in Washington, D.C., and New York City. Hers is a perspective students at the Kennedy School need to hear.
Much more needs to be done on campuses across the country to make sure that students really are hearing a diversity of opinions, learning to assess a variety of viewpoints, and coming to their own conclusions, including – perhaps especially — when the topic is women’s issues.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum. Read her past columns here.