Monopoly to Marketplace: Diversifying Higher Ed from Inside and Out

Ashley Thorne

Higher education needs more diversity. By “diversity,” we don’t mean racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity among the students, faculty, and staff. Colleges and universities are already on that job. Rather, we need more different kinds of curricula, and especially more intellectual diversity.  

The university should be a place where competing ideas are tested and weighed on their merits, where students learn and can argue multiple sides of a debate. But today in most colleges and universities, students are getting a largely one-sided education. The academy is less of a marketplace and more of a monopoly. Students are taught not to seek sound ideas but to reproduce favored ones.  

That’s where we come in. The National Association of Scholars seeks to foster intellectual diversity by cultivating academic freedom and reasoned debate in higher education. We are well-positioned for this work. 

This week in Minding the Campus, in “Recapturing the University: The Hybrid Alternative,” Robert Weissburg portrays the battle for students’ minds as one between liberal-dominated academia and free market think tanks. Academia, he says, has a huge advantage because day after day professors are in the classrooms with the students, commanding their thought life through directed readings, discussions, essays, and exams. Undergraduates and graduates—the future professors—give much more attention to what they learn in school than to the publications of outside groups.  

Weissburg proposes a “hybrid” approach to level the ideological playing field. “In a nutshell,” he writes, “students would interact with think tank-based scholars in regularly scheduled for-credit classes...but receive their degrees from the university.” He recommends the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute as the think tanks. 

His idea strikes us as a description of what NAS already does. We are not a free market think tank, although we see the preservation of free institutions as essential to intellectual freedom. The National Association of Scholars exists both inside and outside the university. As a non-profit organization, we are outside academia, free of its entanglements and able to provide a detached point of view. As a membership association, we are inside the university, with thousands of our members as professors on campuses all over the nation.  

Our non-partisan status frees us to engage people across the political spectrum, and it keeps us focused on the goal—not to counter-indoctrinate but to promote the free exchange of ideas. In that sense we have an advantage over “free market think tanks.” As Weissburg writes, the goal is “to expand intellectual diversity, not train conservative missionaries to teach Milton Friedman to the multitude.” 

Steve Balch, chairman and founder of NAS, has helped pioneer institution-building similar to what Weissburg describes. He has created about 30 programs (many of which are listed on the NAS page Excellent Programs) in American studies, free institutions, Great Books, or Western civilization, hosted by institutions such as Brown University, Ashland University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder. These programs offer for-credit courses, lectures, scholarships, debates, and research programs. As Weissburg points out, they help begin to fill the gap in the world of ideas dominated by academic orthodoxy.  

NAS is uniquely positioned to influence higher education for the good. Not only have we established these beachhead programs, but we continue to collaborate with our state affiliates and professors on the field. We are thankful to Robert Weissburg for enunciating his vision for advancing intellectual diversity in the university, and working from both the inside and the outside, we aim to do just that. 

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