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SPEAK report reveals lack of political diversity in University speakers

In 2018, 94.4 percent of guest speakers with explicit political leanings ‘leaned left’

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 25, 2019

SPEAK, a campus group consisting of students, faculty and organizations, aims to increase the ideological diversity of speakers on campus.

A report published Monday by the University coalition SPEAK found that 94.4 percent of speakers invited to Brown in 2018 who demonstrated an explicit political leaning leaned left.

Of the 325 speakers evaluated by the report who spoke about United States politics, 200 — or 61.5 percent — demonstrated no discernible political leaning, according to the report.

Consisting of University students, faculty and organizations, SPEAK advocates for “the University (to) help expose students to a variety of beliefs,” by promoting engagement with “ideologically diverse ideas,” according to the group’s website.

SPEAK’s findings show that the political breakdown of campus speakers in 2018 has hardly changed when compared to 2017, said Jimmy Thompson ’20, the leader of SPEAK. 94.5 percent of speakers who demonstrated an explicit political leaning leaned left in SPEAK’s 2017 report, The Herald previously reported.

“There are some differences in the speakers series, but by and large, in the aggregate, the makeup of speakers is about the same,” Thompson said.

SPEAK collected data on speakers hosted by University departments and institutes that support the study of politics at Brown, according to SPEAK’s website. The data does not consider speakers who have never lived in the United States or event moderators, according to the report. Because a majority of Brown students and faculty hold liberal views, “a crucial source of diverse viewpoints is Brown’s guest speakers,” according to the report. The report considered a total of 161 speakers.

To determine where a speaker fell on the political spectrum, SPEAK used a combination of both qualitative and quantitative assessments, Thompson said. In their quantitative assessment, SPEAK looked at Federal Elections Commission data on contributions to political campaigns.

Since only 18 percent of speakers made political contributions, SPEAK also expanded its analysis by examining qualitative metrics, such as prior career positions and social media posts, according to the group’s 2018 report.

Based on this framework, the coalition categorized speakers into two groups: “lean left,” and “lean right.” If there was not enough data to categorize a speaker or if no political inclination was found, the coalition labeled the speaker as having “no discernible leaning,” Thompson said.

To distinguish between left and right-wing ideologies, SPEAK compared the data gathered on an individual with the Democratic and Republican party platforms, Thompson said.

Though SPEAK is a “well-intended effort” to foster diversity of thought and expression, “labelling people is a fraught exercise,” said Edward Steinfeld, director of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Separating individuals based on a binary categorization of “lean left” or “lean right” may not “fully encompass the totality of someone’s views or the totality of a person’s learning experience,” he added.

In recent years, both the national and global definitions of liberalism and conservatism have changed, Steinfeld said. “There is a lot of flux in the way people are thinking about issues,” he said. Certain positions,  on topics such as free trade and immigration “that used to be considered absolutely sacrosanct for Republicans are not sacrosanct anymore for people on the right,” he added.

Dheraj Ganjikunta ’22 and Jessica Burbank GS, president and vice-chair of the Young Democratic Socialists, expressed similar concerns with the binary of “lean left” or “lean right,” according to a statement published in SPEAK’s report. “We ask: lean left or lean right in respect to what? Well, the entire political paradigm in the United States has shifted right,” they wrote.

“When the center of our paradigm shifts right, we consequently categorize a larger proportion of scholars in the world as ‘left,’” Ganjikunta and Burbank wrote. Encouraging an even split of liberal and conservative speakers would “limit Brown’s capacity to host discussions of the wide range of diverse ideas and perspectives of the global left,” they added.

In addition to classifying speakers’ political leanings, SPEAK offered recommendations to help encourage more thoughtful discussion of political issues on campus. These recommendations include increasing student involvement in lectures, providing funding for ideologically diverse speakers, connecting with student groups and framing event topics to promote meaningful and respectful dialogue, according to the report.

Though many of the group’s recommendations have not changed since 2017, SPEAK decided to eliminate the quota recommendations included in last year’s report, Thompson said. Previously, SPEAK recommended increasing the proportion of conservative speakers at Brown to at least 30 percent. “On a personal level, I don’t think that (quotas) are the right way to go about change or discussion on campus,” Thompson said. “At the end of the day, what SPEAK is really about is trying to create growth and dialogue on campus by pointing out that there might be this problem and that we all personally might not be benefiting as much as we could be from our education,” he added.

SPEAK also outlined long-term objectives that the University should undertake to increase ideological diversity and tolerance, which include creating an exploratory committee to examine “structural biases which limit the free exchange of ideas,” establishing an annual University award honoring the “most politically diverse speaker series” and promoting First Year Readings that focus on ideological diversity, according to their report.

“Brown is a campus that routinely hosts debates and discussions where speakers with varying and opposing perspectives confront many of the most difficult issues facing society today. Ensuring a broad diversity of perspectives on campus is essential — and we fully support the coalition’s goal of increasing engagement with ideologically diverse ideas,” wrote Brian Clark, the University’s director of news and editorial development.

Yet in a follow up email to The Herald, Clark also wrote that “the viewpoints expressed on campus are rooted in more than just political party. The report is narrow in its methodology by focusing on only a small set of events on campus and excluding speakers who come to Brown from across the globe.”

Steinfeld said he fully embraces “the idea of making sure we have as broad a range of views expressed here as possible,” and believes that maintaining an environment conducive to thoughtful discourse should be a priority.

“We want to encourage people to express their views with evidence, and also to be willing to listen to other people express their views and to engage constructively,” he said.

Watson has recently made efforts to expand diversity of thought through a new military fellowship program, Steinfeld said. “Having military fellows here — it’s not about whether they are on the left or the right — but (the military) does represent a particular kind of perspective and I think it’s not one that’s been broadly represented at Brown,” Steinfeld said. “We’re determined to keep moving in that direction of having lots of different voices,” he added.

Thompson recognized that by itself, increasing the diversity of speakers brought to campus cannot meaningfully improve political discourse at Brown, he said. Other measures must be taken to ensure that students receive an education that is ideologically equitable, he added. As a research group, SPEAK, “can point to the problem, but I think the only way to make up for what might be missing in individual students’ lives is simply for them to come up with best solutions for themselves.” Such solutions can include “taking a class that challenges their world view, or reading different books in the library. It’s nothing flashy,” Thompson said.  “The problem is way bigger than SPEAK, we can just identify it.”

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