Op-eds, Opinions

Sacks ’22: University needs greater diversity of speakers

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, April 25, 2019

SPEAK was originally founded in 2017 in order to help ensure the survival of healthy discourse and diversity of thought at Brown. Our 2017 Speaker Report showed that 94.5 percent of the 237 University invited speakers who demonstrated explicit political leanings leaned left politically. A year later, not much has changed. Our 2018 Speaker Report shows that of the 161 speakers invited to Brown who demonstrated an explicit political leaning, 94.4 percent leaned left.

These numbers are not perfectly representative; many speakers who came to Brown could not be identified as having a distinct political leaning. But is there any reason to believe that those speakers who could be identified using our methods are unrepresentative of the sample size at large? Though we welcome campus feedback on this point, we feel compelled also to ask the opposite question: Could the fact that the majority of speakers are “unknown” politically actually understate, surprisingly enough, the level of ideological bias?

There is cause for hope. Since last year, we have had conservative speakers such as Jeb Bush, Arthur Brooks, Bill Kristol and Michael Steele. Such events show the Brown University community that the administration is willing to broaden the spectrum of viewpoints to which its students are exposed. Nonetheless, our data show that despite these improvements, there has not yet been a significant change in the uniformity of ideology among invited speakers. A handful of prominent conservative speakers brings attention to a conservative presence at Brown, but a few speakers do not make substantive discourse a routine part of student life. We must therefore face anew the fact that Brown University fails on the whole to provide the viewpoint diversity required in such an outstanding institution.

Why should we be concerned about the fact that we have such poor representation of conservative views on campus? Put another way: what happens when we do not facilitate engagement with a diversity of opinions? The answer is probably put best by John Stuart Mill: “If (an idea) is not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.” In other words, ideas grow stale without proper discussion. While the average Brown student seems to hold a position to the left of political center, we must not universally conform to a homogeneity of ideas. Our ideas would grow stale and weak were we not afforded ample opportunity to engage critically with data, experiences and opinions different from our own.

It is, after all, necessary to remember that Brown University is not representative of the world. If we look at polls or venture beyond the College Hill and Ivy League bubble, we would doubtless notice that our country is not nearly so homogenous in its political opinions. Accordingly, the University has a responsibility to prepare its students to engage with views they oppose if it really does seek to equip students to make a difference in the world. Moreover, this responsibility is not one of indoctrination: the University must expose its students to various perspectives, even if students consequently change their minds.  Mutual empathy is impossible without mutual respect, and true understanding is impossible without honest exploration.

Former President Ruth Simmons understood this reality, this need for viewpoint diversity and rigorous debate in the university. In her opening convocation in 2001, she stated these powerful and critical words: “The protection of speech that is offensive or insulting to us is one of the most difficult things that we do. But it is this same freedom that protects us when we are in turn powerless. It is easy enough to exist in a realm where everyone is like-minded and speaks only of unimportant matters. That’s easy. While comfort may be found in silence, truth cannot dwell there.”

It is this commitment that SPEAK seeks to uphold; we reaffirm former-President Simmons’ words with urgency nearly 18 years later. The Speaker Report for 2018 shows that we still have a long way to go to achieve our goal of free expression and true diversity of thought.

David Sacks ’22 is a Thought-Leader at SPEAK and Director of Communications for the 2018-19 year. He can be reached at david_sacks@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.