Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU’s business school, is a founder of Heterodox Academy, which promotes wider “viewpoint diversity” in academe.
On a February morning in Washington, a hotel ballroom is packed with people eager to hear Jonathan Haidt explain what’s wrong with higher education. His talk is part of the International Students for Liberty Conference, which has attracted 1,700 attendees, mostly young libertarians, to a weekend of sessions with titles like “Stereotyped 101,” “Advancing Liberty Around the World,” and “Beer Is Freedom.” Before he’s introduced, Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, stands at the front of the room, tall and thin, dressed in a dark suit and white shirt. As people gather around, a brown-haired woman in a gray skirt chats him up before rushing off. “Oh, my God,” she says to a friend, “I just shook Jonathan Haidt’s hand!”
Haidt’s renown is driven by bold declarations like those in a 2015 cover story in The Atlantic titled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Written with Greg Lukianoff, president and chief executive of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the article took the rise of microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces as evidence that colleges are nurturing a hypersensitive mind-set among students that “will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.” The article, which has been viewed by nearly six million people, catapulted Haidt, already a prominent scholar and best-selling author, into a new role: gadfly of the campus culture wars.
“We have this image of college as a bucolic time discussing ideas guided by learned faculty,” Haidt tells the crowd, “but weird stuff is happening.” He points his clicker and calls up a slide. On one side is a photograph of students marching for free speech in the 1960s at the University of California at Berkeley. On the other, a flaming pile of rubble from a protest in February to prevent the alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at Berkeley. “The extremes, the far left and the far right, are being” — Haidt pauses a beat — “well, I’d say bizarre and crazy, but first, that would be a microaggression” — a roar of laughter from the audience — “and second, it would not be true. What’s happening isn’t crazy. It’s straight moral psychology.”
For the next hour, Haidt roams the stage, TED-talk style (he’s delivered four), and explains what he calls “the new moral culture spreading on many college campuses.” It is a culture, he says, that values victims, prioritizes emotional safety, silences dissent, and distorts scholarship. It is a culture that undermines the university’s traditional mission to pursue truth — “veritas” is right there on the seals of Harvard and Yale — in favor of a new mission: the pursuit of social justice. It is a culture that Haidt believes is fueled by three factors: political polarization, the rise of social media, and a lack of ideological diversity in the professoriate.
Haidt, already a prominent scholar and best-selling author, has been catapulted into a new role: gadfly of the campus culture wars.
Through the 1980s, Haidt says at the conference, liberals outnumbered conservatives on college faculties by about two to one. In his own field, psychology, a left/right disparity of four to one existed until the mid-1990s. “That’s not really a problem as long as there are some people on the right who can raise objections if someone says something that’s just overtly partisan and isn’t backed up by the facts,” he says. Today, however, precious few conservatives are in psychology departments. “If you say something pleasing to the left about race, gender, immigration, or any other issue, it’s likely to get waved through to publication,” says Haidt. “People won’t ask hard questions. They like it. They want to believe it.” This represents “a real research-legitimacy problem in the social sciences.”
Solving that problem has become a crusade for Haidt. In 2015 he co-founded Heterodox Academy to advocate for what its mission statement calls “viewpoint diversity.” The organization began as an online salon frequented by a few colleagues, but after high-profile student protests at the University of Missouri, Yale, and elsewhere, the ranks began to swell. The group now has more than 800 members, primarily tenured or tenure-track faculty. The active ones conduct research and distill their findings into blog posts, which has made the Heterodox Academy website a clearinghouse for data and views on academic bias, scientific integrity, and the latest campus free-speech flaps. Last year a quarter-million people visited the website.
Haidt has a team of three staffers with him at NYU and three part-timers who work on a more ad hoc basis. Initial support for Heterodox Academy came from two small donors, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, best known for its support of the sciences, and the Achelis and Bodman Foundation, a tradition-minded backer of the arts and charter schools in New York City. This year the group received substantial support from Paul Singer, a hedge-fund billionaire active in Republican politics, which has allowed it to work with a Washington-area branding and public-relations firm. Haidt is cultivating a center-left donor and hopes to use those funds to rent office space and hire an executive director.
In the meantime, he fills that role. He’s an active presence on social media, with more than 50,000 Twitter followers, and he’s often quoted in major newspapers explaining the campus culture wars. The Wall Street Journal opinion section has published a flattering profile as well as several of his op-eds. When an appearance by Charles Murray led to protests and violence at Middlebury College, Haidt was booked on Charlie Rose to offer insight. He’s in such demand that he charges $30,000 per speech. At the Students for Liberty conference, Haidt explained that his activism is driven by a belief that the stakes could not be higher: “This could be the beginning of the end for liberal democracy.”
His critics, of whom there are many, see his efforts to shift the conversation about diversity away from race and gender and toward politics as at best obtuse and at worst hostile. They say his absolutist stance on free speech is at odds with the need for a diverse and inclusive university. They say he lends a social-scientific sheen to old conservative arguments. They say his penchant for skewering the left, coupled with his willingness to engage the right, is suspect and creates confusion about where his sympathies actually lie. They say he’s either a closet conservative or a useful idiot for the right.
Haidt acknowledges that, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, he risks sounding like a guy in Berlin in 1933 insisting that wisdom is to be found on both sides of the political spectrum. “The election has ramped up emotions so strongly that any effort to say, ‘You really need to have more conservatives in the university, and you need to listen to them’ strikes some people as immoral.” On the other hand, he says, the election has forced a reckoning. More academics are saying, “Wow, we really are in a bubble. We must get out of this bubble.”
Haidt’s corner office at NYU’s business school has many bookshelves, a large, L-shaped desk, a dorm-size fridge, and a gray fainting sofa, on which he takes a daily 35-minute nap. Behind his desk is a window that looks out on the apartment building where he lives with his wife and two children. (Asked what brought him to NYU after 17 years at the University of Virginia, he says access to the media and subsidized rent.)
Campus politics can make for strange bedfellows, and for Haidt these are strange days. A few hours before we meet, he was a guest on Glenn Beck’s radio show. They exchanged friendly banter. On the show, Haidt called the former Fox News host one of his early teachers about conservatism; Beck credited Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind (Pantheon), with changing his view of politics. Beck invited Haidt to come back the next day.
Critics see Haidt as complicit in the rise of the divisive politics he claims to abhor.
“For the record,” he tells me later, “I’ve never voted for a Republican, never given a penny to a Republican candidate, never worked for a Republican or conservative cause.” On the left in the early 2000s, he grew frustrated by what he saw as the failure of Al Gore and John Kerry to speak to voters’ moral concerns. Haidt shifted his research focus to political psychology and immersed himself in conservative media, subscribing to
and watching Fox News. “My reaction was constantly like, ‘Oh, I never thought of that. Oh, that’s a good critique,’ ” he says. “The scales were falling from my eyes.” He’s since carefully positioned himself as a centrist, a neutral broker who speaks with all sides.
When he taught at Virginia, the psychology department hosted a weekly lunch presentation. One day the topic was women and math. The talk focused on how cultural messages girls receive dissuade them from pursuing math. Haidt proposed an alternative explanation: “We know that prenatal hormones influence the brain, changing all kinds of interests. Is it possible that girls are just less interested in math?” There was dead silence. “Wait,” he pressed. “Do you think hormones influence behavior?” More silence. “Nobody agreed, nobody disagreed, nobody would touch it,” he recalls. “That’s when I realized our science is suffering. Social science is really hard; it’s always multiple causal threads. If several threads are banned, then you cannot solve any problem.”
In 2011, during a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Haidt asked the audience of about 1,000 people for a show of hands: How many considered themselves liberals? Eighty percent raised their hands. Centrists or moderates? About 20 hands. Libertarians? Twelve. Conservatives? Three. “When we find any job in the nation in which women or minorities are underrepresented by a factor of three or four, we make the strong presumption that this constitutes evidence of discrimination,” he said. “And if we can’t find evidence of overt discrimination, we presume that there must be a hostile climate that discourages underrepresented groups from entering.” He likened the situation of nonliberals in social psychology to closeted homosexuals in the 1980s.
His talk became a sensation. The New York Times covered it; the society’s email list lit up in debate. One post in particular caught Haidt’s attention. It was by Jose Duarte, a grad student at the University of Arizona, who argued that social psychology is so riddled with embedded ideological assumptions that a lot of peer-reviewed research might be invalid. Haidt heard from several other scholars interested in collaborating on a study of political diversity in the discipline. The resulting paper was published in 2015 in Behavioral and Brain Sciences with Duarte as lead author and five co-authors, including Haidt.
Around that time, Haidt received an email from Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, a professor of law at Georgetown University. Rosenkranz attached the text of a talk he’d given at an event hosted by the Federalist Society, an organization of conservative and libertarian legal scholars. (He is a member of the group’s Board of Directors.) Titled “Intellectual Diversity in the Legal Academy,” Rosenkranz’s lecture concluded that there isn’t any, claiming that he was one of three conservative or libertarian professors on the 120-member Georgetown law faculty. Liberal orthodoxy, he argued, undermines the quality of scholarship and classroom instruction. “It is a fundamental axiom of American law that the best way to get to truth is through the clash of zealous advocates on both sides,” he wrote. “And yet, at most of these schools, on most of the important issues of the day, one side of the debate is dramatically underrepresented, or not represented at all.”
Over lunch in New York, Haidt and Rosenkranz, who had not previously met, speculated about the situation in other fields. By the end of the meal, they’d agreed to form a faculty group to promote political diversity in academe. They invited Haidt’s co-authors from the journal article to join, along with Chris Martin, a graduate student at Emory University who had recently published an
warning about the effects of liberal bias in sociology. The first order of business was to select a name. Rosenkranz suggested “Heterodox Academy.” Duarte thought it sounded too academic, too much like a “stuffy old white man thing.” Haidt pushed back. “This is not to bring in millions of people. This is for professors.”
The Heterodox Academy website began in September 2015 with 25 members and an appeal for other tenured and tenure-track professors to join. (Membership was recently opened up to adjuncts, postdocs, and graduate students.) Libertarians and conservatives were first to heed the call. Jeremy Willinger, the group’s communications director, says that each membership application is screened, and that the group has rejected a few cranks, racists, and plagiarists. The staff recruits progressives. “We don’t want to be another conservative bastion,” says Willinger. Still, the center-right remains dominant within Heterodox Academy. According to figures provided by the group, 65 percent of members identify as conservative, centrist, or libertarian, while 18 percent are progressives. (The remaining members are listed as “unclassifiable,” “prefer not to say,” or “other.”)
Haidt believes that the vast majority of professors share Heterodox Academy’s concern over the spread of illiberal attitudes on campus, but that many are reluctant to speak up. The cause of that reluctance, he thinks, is twofold: Some liberal professors fear giving even inadvertent comfort to the right, especially with Trump in the White House and a Republican majority in Congress. Others, he argues, are intimidated by the bullying tactics of the far left.
That diagnosis rings true to David Bromwich, a professor of English at Yale. His 1992 book about the campus culture wars, Politics by Other Means (Yale University Press), is a withering assault on both traditionalists of the right and thought-policers of the left. (As John Silber wrote in a review, the book might have been called A Plague on Both Your Houses.) Asked how the current mood on elite campuses compares with that time, Bromwich says it’s at least as bad. “There is a horror of being associated with anything or anyone conservative,” he says, calling it “a mark of the timidity of the academic personality in our time. It leads to a great deal of conformity, small acts of cowardice, and the voluntary self-suppression of ideas.”
A week after Heterodox Academy began, Kate Manne, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell, wrote a defense of trigger warnings in The New York Times. She took specific aim at “the idea, suggested by Professor Haidt and others, that this considerate and reasonable practice feeds into a ‘culture of victimhood’ ” and described Haidt’s view as “alarmist, if not completely implausible.” Haidt responded on his blog, reiterating his objections to trigger warnings but adding that Manne’s efforts to shield her students from potentially upsetting material suggest that she’s a “caring teacher.” Manne shot back on Twitter, accusing Haidt of “uncharitably interpreting and patronizing a younger female colleague” and making “stereotypical assumptions about teachers/professors you’ve not met, nor discussed their pedagogy with.” Haidt was genuinely dumbfounded. He thought he was paying her a compliment: “But you discussed your pedagogy. I called you caring based on what you wrote.”
Haidt is accustomed to brickbats from the left, but he was caught off guard when, in December, Jarret Crawford, an associate professor of psychology at the College of New Jersey and a founding member of Heterodox Academy, posted a letter of resignation on Twitter. “In many ways, and however unintentionally, HXA has become a tool for the political right to decry and smear the left,” he wrote, using an acronym for the organization’s name. “I cannot associate myself with a group that the right, which has debased itself with its embrace of a president who would threaten liberal democracy and equal protection, has clearly begun to embrace as its own.”
Crawford’s decision was “a buildup of things,” he says, but he was especially unsettled by the emergence of another group, Professor Watchlist, whose aim, in its own words, is to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” (The group has since cut “promote anti-American values” from that statement.) Though Haidt has denounced Professor Watchlist, “it’s hard for me not to see it as a logical extension of Heterodox and its mission,” Crawford says. “If Heterodox is primarily a watchdog of the left on campus, then compiling names of leftist faculty members is an extension of that.”
‘What’s sacred at a university?’ Haidt asks. ‘Victims are sacred,’ he answers.
Crawford’s suggestion that Haidt and Heterodox Academy are emboldening the right dovetails with the views of other critics who see Haidt as complicit in the rise of the divisive politics he claims to abhor. “Haidt has led the campaign against political correctness, which became the mantra of the Trump movement” says Jason Stanley, a philosopher at Yale University who calls Heterodox Academy a “scaremongering rage machine” that targets “oppressed minorities who are vastly underrepresented in the academy.” To Stanley, the group also gives cover to efforts like a
in Iowa that would require the state’s public universities to avoid any faculty hires that would cause either Democrats or Republicans to outnumber each other by more than 10 percent. (Haidt opposes the legislation on the grounds that it’s “too blunt” and would in effect “require political discrimination against qualified Democrats.”)
In his resignation letter, Crawford also singled out a tweet Haidt sent that linked to an article from the conservative news site Daily Wire about North Carolina State University’s decision to set up “conversation spaces” for students to talk with counselors about the presidential election. “How universities SHOULD respond to election: social psych to bring ppl together, not clin psych to affirm trauma,” he tweeted. To Crawford, Haidt was belittling the fears of people worried about what will happen to them because of their immigration status, religion, or country of origin.
Crawford’s criticisms hit Haidt hard. He began to question his own behavior. (He also asked Crawford to take down the letter, which he did.) “I had thought my Twitter stream was civil but provocative. Then I realized that it’s a new game. It’s one thing to be provocative when all the powers controlling universities are on the left,” he says. “But now that the presidency and the Department of Education are controlled by the right, the dangers are very different.”
He fretted over the implications of the election for Heterodox Academy, posting his thoughts in a letter to the group’s membership in January. “HxA must proceed with caution,” he wrote. “In a time of such powerful and understandable passions, it will be harder for HxA to make the case that wisdom is to be found on all sides, and from the conflict of viewpoints.” He added, “It will be easier for us to anger and alienate potential supporters.”
“When I went to Yale, in 1981, it said above the main gate ‘Lux et Veritas’: Light and Truth. We are here to find truth,” Haidt says as he paces the stage at the Students for Liberty conference in Washington. “This is our heritage all the way back to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates.” But the pursuit of truth is being supplanted by a new mission, he warns, the pursuit of social justice. He paraphrases Marx: “The point is not to understand the world; the point is to change it.”
It’s human nature to make things sacred — people, places, books, ideas, Haidt says. “So what’s sacred at a university?” he asks. “Victims are sacred,” he answers. And a victimhood culture offers only two ways to get prestige: Be a victim, or, if you can’t manage that, stand up for victims. How? “By punishing the hell out of anyone who in any way, shape, or form, even inadvertently, marginalizes a member of a victim class.”
He clicks to reveal a slide titled “The Six Sacred Groups.” “The Big 3” are Blacks, Women, LGBT. “The Other 3” are Latinos, Native Americans, Disability. The list of sacred victims, he says, is growing. Among the newly sacrosanct are Muslims, transgender, and Black Lives Matter. “I’m in no way saying these are not victims,” Haidt says. “I’m not dismissing claims of systemic racism. I’m just pointing out that the quasi-religious conflicts we have on campus nowadays tend to revolve around these groups.”
According to Haidt, the culture of victimhood is exacerbated by the arrival of an infantilized student body, especially on elite campuses. He says that cable television inaugurated an era in which news about crime filled the airwaves and magnified parental fears about the safety of their children. As a result, many of today’s college students haven’t been allowed to explore, face dangers, surmount them, and come back stronger. “Kids need thousands of hours of unsupervised time to learn how to live without their parents,” he says, “so when they go off to college it’s not the first time they’re unsupervised. They’re not getting it anymore.”
In October, Heterodox Academy released a Guide to Colleges that rates campuses on whether they’re conducive to free speech and diversity of thought. The ratings are based on a combination of factors, including whether the college has endorsed the University of Chicago’s principles on free expression. It also takes into account rankings from FIRE and from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative group founded in 1953 by, among others, William F. Buckley Jr.
At the top of the list is the University of Chicago, where the dean of students sent a letter to the Class of 2020 stating that the university does not condone safe spaces, trigger warnings, or disinviting controversial speakers. Near the bottom of the list is Brown University, where administrators have described social justice as a “bedrock commitment” and responded to student protests in 2015 with a pledge to invest $100 million to create a “just and inclusive campus.”
Haidt hopes the rankings will lead to a schism between those universities committed to truth and those that regard social justice as the highest good, so each can go their own way and high school students would know more about the intellectual climate of the colleges they’re considering attending. To help force the issue, Heterodox Academy offers a model student-government resolution that activists can use to affirm their university’s commitment to free speech and intellectual diversity. In March, Northwestern University became the first — and thus far only — campus to pass such a resolution.
Haidt knows that, at least at the moment, Heterodox Academy provides more comfort to the right than to the left. The imbalance can make him uneasy. “The election scared the hell out of me,” he says in his office. “I’m very alarmed by the decline of our democracy.” He grabs a stack of four books from beside his keyboard. The spines read like a map of his anxious mind: The Authoritarian Dynamic, The Federalist Papers, Rude Democracy, Why Nations Fail. He is especially worried about how social media deepen our political divisions. “We are all immersed in a river of outrage, drowning in videos of the other side at its worst,” he says, predicting that our political dysfunction will soon lead to violence. “I expect hundreds to die. Things are going to get a lot worse.”
Haidt is by nature an optimist, which makes his pessimism all the more startling. His first book, The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic Books, 2006), grew out of his work in positive psychology. It offers a blueprint for a life well lived. His next book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, hinges on his conviction that if we understand the biases that affect our own and other people’s moral thinking, our politics will become more civil. That belief, quaint in 2012, can seem delusional in 2017.
Haidt is fearful not only for the country but also for himself. His default intellectual style is provocation. He used to relish posing questions like, “List all the good things Hitler did,” and he even invented a game, “Racist Jeopardy,” in which he names a stereotype and asks students to identify the ethnic group it describes. “It was very uncomfortable,” he says, adding that he no longer plays the game because he’s worried about running afoul of NYU’s bias-response team. He’s already been the subject of at least two student complaints.
“I’m used to skating on thin ice, but I knew how thick the ice was,” he says. “Now I have no idea.”
Evan R. Goldstein is editor of The Chronicle Review.