Is intellectual and political balance a reasonable goal for a university campus? Should every strongly held political and intellectual view expressed publicly be countered by a carefully selected opinion from the opposite pole? Are today’s students exposed to too narrow a range of acceptable opinions that limits their true intellectual development and mocks our cherished aspiration to be a marketplace of ideas?
These questions and others like them are at the core of an enormously important argument occurring in the hallways of academia, in state legislatures, in Congress and in the popular press. Scholars from all points on the political spectrum have commented on this issue. David Horowitz, in his book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, comments on what he refers to as today’s “radical academics.” Stanley Fish, a literary theorist and legal scholar now at Florida International University, has opined that balancing individual viewpoints is “affirmative action for conservatives — because it assumes a relationship and even an exact correlation between one’s performance in the ballot box and one’s performance in the classroom.”
On our campus and throughout the country, conservative students have raised the concern that their points of view are not welcome in classroom discussions. Opinions in various student publications have explored aspects of this issue at Cornell. An interesting editorial in The Cornell Daily Sun following a spring 2005 campus appearance by David Horowitz argued: “Intellectual understanding only advances in a free exchange of ideas. To move forward as a society, our universities must serve as rigorous testing grounds for thinking from all parts of the ideological spectrum. The process — not the outcome — is most important.”
Such varying points of view have raised questions about the value of administratively imposed balance in academia. To stimulate further discussion of this issue at this time on our campus, I propose to the reader four operating principles regarding diversity of perspective at Cornell.
First, we must adhere to the principle that all perspectives and their proponents are welcome on our great university campuses. As I told first-year students during my convocation address in August, nothing will broaden your horizons more than going to hear a speaker whose political view you despise. No speaker should be kept from our auditoria and lecterns unless the immediate consequence of a speech would be a violent act or other lawless behavior. Short of such immediate provocation, no easy line can be drawn to isolate any individual opinions from the greater campus community.
A second principle that must be followed is that no internal perspectives, including those of the faculty, should be suppressed. Whether viewed as liberal, conservative or by any other label, faculty members must not face artificial interference with their presentation of facts, observations, conclusions or implications of any aspect of their disciplines based on perceived balance or imbalance along the political spectrum.
A third principle is that discourse should be civil and non-threatening. Being allowed to make a presentation in a classroom or other forum on a university campus must include the right to complete the discourse. As Columbia University President Lee Bollinger pointed out in response to the disruption of an event on that campus earlier this month, “ … we must speak out to deplore a disruption that threatens the central principle to which we are institutionally dedicated, namely to respect the rights of others to express their views.” Of course, arguments, protests and demonstrations have long been vital features of campus life at Cornell, as well as at universities throughout the United States and in many other countries. But a threatening environment, a campus that does not allow expression of a perspective, no matter how odious to a particular group, is not consistent with the university’s basic purpose of exploration and debate.
The mere presence of individuals on a campus representing a diversity of viewpoints, while laudable, is not enough to promote the intellectual debate and dialogue that are appropriate in an academic community. The admixture of these points of view may be valuable when conceived as part of the presentation of a complex issue or set of issues and leads to the fourth principle: that support for planned academic debate is an excellent use of university resources, but only as the support will enable a learned debate, not an artificial evening of the scales whose aim is balance at any cost.
On September 6, 2006, Robert Kagan, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a self-described neoconservative, and Cornell professors Isabel Hull and Peter Katzenstein, engaged in an interesting, strongly felt and superbly presented debate on aspects of culture and conflict in our society. I have heard from many who attended that symposium that they gained new insights from the balance of viewpoints presented, whether or not their own opinions were changed.
Balancing every presentation with another chosen to bring out an opposing point of view is neither practical nor wise. In fact, an externally imposed “balance” will not likely lead to a better pedagogical experience and will not expose students to the proper processes of induction and conclusion. However, I will attempt to find opportunities to support such symposia as the Kagan/Hull/Katzenstein exchange whenever one is suggested through the normal procedures of planning by student groups, individual faculty or faculty or staff organizations. In an open university, artificial balance is not an acceptable process. But the fostering and support of exchanges of disparate points of view are approaches to creating a broader range of intellectual discourse at Cornell.
David J. Skorton is the President of Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. From David appears every month.