Race Relations, Liberal Bias, and Safe Spaces on Campus

Ashley Thorne

Is there any harm when college presidents acquiesce to protesters’ demands for increased racial diversity? Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim say yes.

Does bias exist against conservatives in academia? Nicholas Kristof says yes.

Are students being intolerant when they ask for “safe spaces”? Michael Bloomberg says yes.

Bloomberg’s commencement address to the graduating class of the University of Michigan and the articles by Haidt and Jussim and by Kristof come at a time when the value of college is high on people’s minds. As approximately 1.9 million American college students graduate this spring, can we feel confident that they have been educated to be open-minded?

These three items speak to that question and are welcome contributions to the conversation about what ideals and practices college students are learning from today’s campus culture.

Unequal, Hence Separate

Haidt and Jussim, professors of social psychology at NYU and Rutgers respectively, wrote in the Wall Street Journal this Saturday to advise college presidents who have received demands from protesters that they take steps to increase student and faculty racial diversity—in other words, to increase the number of minority students and faculty.

Their article, “Hard Truths About Race on Campus,” uses studies from social psychology research to show that such steps do not improve racial relations on campus, and in fact do active harm. One study showed that the benefits of interracial contact disappear when unequal standards (i.e. affirmative action) are applied to members of different races. Students tend to form friendships according to academic ability regardless of race, so students tend to self-segregate by race when racial minorities are admitted at different academic standards.

Professors Haidt and Jussim also explain that microaggression training fails to accomplish its intended goals because it makes it even harder for students to have conversations and friendships across the bounds of race. The threat of being reported to campus authorities for saying or doing something perceived as a microaggression encourages students not to talk to students of other races in the first place.

Students would be more willing to associate with peers of other races, Haidt and Jussim write, if colleges fostered a culture of generosity of spirit and forgiveness rather than one of grievance-mongering.

A Liberal Concedes: Conservatives Are Unwelcome

Meanwhile, at the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof acknowledges and mourns liberal bias against conservatives and Christians in academia. The best-selling author of Half the Sky (a popular “common reading” assignment) argues that the reason there are fewer conservatives than liberals in higher education isn’t just that conservatives self-select out, or aren’t smart enough. Rather, he writes, “The scarcity of conservatives seems driven in part by discrimination.” He cites two studies in which about a third of academic respondents admitted they would avoid hiring a conservative candidate. Even more said they would avoid hiring an evangelical Christian.

Kristof notes that the campus left’s preoccupation with diversity doesn’t extend to ideological diversity: “We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.” He declines to advocate affirmative action for conservatives, but urges academics to work to overcome this “liberal blind spot.”

Kristof gives a shout-out to Heterodox Academy, of which Haidt and Jussim are founding members. The group consists of scholars across the political spectrum who are concerned about ideological homogeneity in higher education and research.

Safe Spaces are Dangerous

Such ideological homogeneity is not only a blind spot but also a threat to students’ education, said Michael Bloomberg in his commencement speech at the University of Michigan. The former mayor of New York City told the graduating class, “One of the most dangerous places on a college campus is a safe space, because it creates the false impression that we can insulate ourselves from those who hold different views.”

Bloomberg spoke about the value of healthy debate and open-mindedness to hearing competing ideas. He encouraged students to keep things in the right perspective: “A microaggression is exactly that: micro.”

While speaking about the importance of listening to perspectives with which we disagree, Bloomberg also emphasized the need for civility in discourse, both on campus and in the public sphere. That standard of reasoned dialogue has been vitiated “at campaign rallies that turn violent, on social media threads that turn vitriolic, and on college campuses, where students and faculty have attempted to censor political opponents.”

Fairness Matters

These three statements have two things in common: they prioritize diversity of ideas over diversity of race in the context of higher education, and they show that fairness in academia matters in the long run.

With unfair racial preferences in admissions, student race relations fall apart. With unfair political preferences in hiring, scholarship suffers from ideological one-sidedness. With unfair censorship of ideas, college graduates learn to close their minds when they disagree. 

The timely messages from Haidt and Jussim, Kristof, and Bloomberg each illustrate a widening concern for open debate and judgment based on individual merit in American higher education. College presidents, this year’s graduates, and incoming students would do well to pay attention.

Image: Policy by Mario Mancuso // CC BY

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