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Tobias '12: Understanding a different kind of diversity

Too often, I hear students lament the lack of political diversity on campus. Brown, as the common wisdom holds, is a bastion of uniform liberal thought where dissenting opinions are unceremoniously dismissed.

This line of thinking is epitomized by the column written by Garrett Johnson '14 last week ("A different kind of diversity" Sept. 13), which argues that Brown is deficient in its diversity of political opinions. Johnson argues that should the University make "a well-publicized effort" to attract conservative professors and speakers, more conservative students would flock to Brown, thereby increasing the political diversity on campus.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking is flawed.

On the whole, the student body is not abnormally liberal given its demographic. People between the ages of 18 and 24 are among the most liberal voters in the country. In 2008, a full two-thirds of young voters with a high school diploma voted for President Obama. And the top three states from which Brown students are admitted in a politically blind process are New York, California and Massachusetts. These also happen to be states where Obama won over 60 percent of the vote. And, since a liberal arts education is compatible with many of the political left's values about education for the sake of education, it is unsurprising that a Herald poll conducted before the 2008 presidential election indicated that 86 percent of the student body supported Obama.

In fact, Brown students are really unremarkable compared to their peers at other liberal arts colleges. At Harvard, 82 percent of students planned to vote for Obama in 2008, and even 79 percent of students at Princeton indicated that they supported Obama that same year.

Assuming that academic skill is randomly assorted within the demographic Brown pulls from, and that Brown always chooses the strongest candidates, then by simple statistics, conservatives should be about as prevalent at Brown as they are within the population of applicants.

In short, Brown students are overwhelmingly on the liberal end of the political spectrum because most bright, talented high school graduates planning to attend elite liberal arts colleges are. It would be unacceptable for Brown to purposefully admit more conservative students regardless of academic preparation merely to bolster their representation within the student body.

In his column, Johnson asserted that the University should bring in conservative speakers and professors in order to increase political diversity.

Here too, Johnson seems sadly misinformed. In my time at Brown, the University has hosted many diverse speakers. In 2009, the University welcomed John Yoo, a former Bush administration lawyer, and in 2008, the Brown Lecture Board brought former Arkansas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. And even this past year's speakers are not exactly the loudest liberal voices. Sanjay Gupta is known foremost as a medical expert and esteemed journalist — not exactly the first name that pops to mind when one thinks of a liberal talking head.

As for professorships, the University should select new professors based on their academic excellence. Anything less would shortchange the student body of the high-quality education they paid for.

Imagine, for a second, that the University went out of its way to hire creationist biology professors in order to "diversify" Brown's biology department. The strength of the theory of evolution is that every piece of evidence ever collected supports it, though it surely is a darn shame that Brown students miss out on a so-called broad array of opposing opinions.

While this biology example may sound hyperbolic, it still illustrates the limits of including more opinions merely to create the appearance of impartiality. Sometimes ­— and I am not saying that it is the case — one side might just be more correct than the other, and it would be dishonest to present both sides as differing opinions of equal value. Creationists simply do not deserve a forum next to evolutionists.

While there are probably many conservatively minded professors that are just as capable as their liberally minded colleagues, again the demographics are just not in their favor. As with the potential Brown applicant, the demographic of college professors is skewed politically liberal nationally, so it is no surprise that more Brown professors hold liberal positions.

In fact, as far as I know, no systematic survey of Brown professors' politics has ever been conducted, making Johnson's assertion that Brown is deficient in conservative ideas all but speculation.

Finally, Johnson argues for a wide variety of viewpoints being presented on campus, from conservative to communist. This single spectrum fails to speak to the full diversity of opinions and nuance already on Brown's campus. One liberal student might be pro-labor, pro-gay marriage and pro-life, while another liberal student might be pro-free markets, pro-civil unions and pro-choice.

Given the wide range of issues that Brown students are passionate about, there are an infinite number of combinations of political philosophies on campus. Brown is a campus full of some really strange, wonderful and fascinating ideas. Let's not jeopardize that by inventing an artificial cross-section of the population.

Ethan Tobias '12 is an 18-to-24 year-old high school graduate from New York.

He can be reached at Ethan _Tobias@brown.edu




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