Michael Hicks: SB202 is wrong solution to real problem in Indiana academia

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I was initially reluctant to weigh in on SB202, but the testimony by fellow professors and administrators almost perfectly illustrates the lack of viewpoint diversity the bill targets.

Indeed, from what I’ve seen, not a single professor or administrator who testified on this bill admitted a lack of ideological diversity in higher education. That is troubling, and at best reveals an unhealthy institutional blind spot. There are other perspectives.

I begin by noting that among my early columns was a criticism of tenure. My view hasn’t changed. But, as a lifelong conservative, I deeply value the principles and results of a classical education. Our universities must be places where students are challenged by difficult and potentially controversial ideas, not provided safe spaces for inquiry and learning.

However, in my three decades in higher education, I’ve seen that ideal slowly erode from view. Today, American public universities are among the least ideologically diverse institutions in the world. Indiana is no exception. I am certain there is more ideological diversity in a typical infantry platoon than would be found at any public university.

That is a real problem that should concern taxpayers and their representatives. More importantly, it should alarm those of us who’ve committed a life to nurturing free inquiry and debate.

Indiana’s SB202 tries to address the lack of ideological diversity at state universities in three ways. One is to challenge tenure and create ideological evaluation of faculty. The second is to force universities to report their spending on some institutional programming. The third is to modestly alter the oversight structure of universities. Let me address each.

First, it is a plain, well-documented fact that faculty are overwhelmingly progressive. Many disciplines have fewer than one in 20 professors who self-identify as anything other than progressive or extremely progressive. Yet, classrooms remain the one place on campus with a thriving marketplace of ideas. The best evidence for this is simply that the most ideologically unbalanced disciplines are losing students at record rates. English, writing, gender and ethnic studies, history, sociology and anthropology face historic enrollment declines.

More ideologically balanced majors, such as engineering, health professions, law, business, and economics continue to thrive. Now, none of these disciplines have even a quarter of professors who are conservative. However, that makes them ideologically balanced within the monolith of deeply progressive orthodoxy that modern American universities have become.

Let me be clear what I mean about ideology. I teach Karl Marx to first-year students; that isn’t indoctrination. Likewise, a biology professor should ignore public opinion on evolution or photosynthesis. Our research and teaching should pursue and reflect truth, no matter the distress it causes. Neither am I referring to party affiliation, or support for a particular candidate. My reference to ideological imbalance refers to the creation of an artificial close-mindedness that stifles debate, isolates important perspectives and diminishes the richness of a college education.

Eliminating tenure or policing classroom speech will do nothing to balance the ideological composition of campus, and could worsen it. That is because the problem lies within the institutional structure of modern universities, not the classroom.

To address this, SB202 requires universities to report spending on diversity, equity and inclusion programming—an area that is especially susceptible to ideological narrowness. It also asks the Commission on Higher Education to survey students to determine their experience with a culture of free speech. These questions are too narrow. If universities were to conduct an honest audit, they would find that they spend far more on ideological programming by administrators than they do researching policy issues that confront Hoosiers every day.

The spending on this ideological programming includes salaries for large staffs, hefty travel and honorarium to outside speakers, as well as spending on campus activities and programming that are so ideologically conforming that it nurtures an intolerant and illiberal climate.

One clear example comes from a colleague who attended a brainstorming session on how to convince more faculty to live near the university. He suggested that highlighting the many high-quality local schools would be helpful in attracting new faculty. Most normal folks view this is self-evident. Yet, this professor was scolded by a senior university administrator, who said that the university would not discuss that because “concern about school quality is white privilege.”

This is an example of how progressive orthodoxy inhibits debate. A campus climate like this should outrage taxpayers, legislators and most especially my fellow professors. That particular “white privilege” claim is a puerile hypothesis easily dismantled by empirical evidence. But, empirically dubious and even racist assertions should be confronted with data and argument, not shut down because of ideology. If this is happening to senior professors, one can only shudder to imagine what it is like to be a first-year student in this university.

This unhealthy stifling of debate is symbolic of much broader problems that are injurious to a climate of free expression and inquiry. It is anti-intellectual, counter to the principles upon which our Republic was founded and inconsistent with the mission of a public university. Yet, this mindset is pervasive on public university campuses, here in Indiana and elsewhere. Taxpayers and their representatives have every reason to be concerned. Faculty members and administrators who think scrutiny of this problem will disappear are foolishly naive.

If you think my example is cherry picked, I invite you to visit the website of any public university in Indiana. Read through their diversity, equity and inclusion programming, review their freshman readers or peruse the many racial or gender-based scholarships they offer. Make your own judgments about their ideological balance.

Thirdly, SB202 seeks to allow the legislature to appoint two members of the governing bodies of every Indiana university. Because the stifling intellectual climate on campuses has thrived under the current oversight structure, it is time for change.

Finally, I do not support SB202 as written. Though it identifies a weighty problem, it offers the wrong solution. The problem is not tenure or the ideological composition of faculty. The problem is that from the moment a student considers attending a Hoosier university, to long after they graduate, they are immersed by a singular world view. Within this there is no counterpoint, no nuance and little debate. That environment is counterproductive to nurturing diversity of all types—racial, gender, religious and other viewpoints. Until it is dismantled, with public dollars redirected to more balanced programming, nothing will change. That will be disastrous for our universities, and rightfully summons even more legislation.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.