In 2001, newly instated President Ruth Simmons famously responded to controversy surrounding a racist advertisement in The Herald by stating that “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.” Fifteen years later, her successor, President Christina Paxson P’19, stressed the importance of freedom of expression on college campuses in her 2016 convocation speech, likening the censorship of ideas in universities to “turning off the power in a factory.” Both emphasized that civil discourse and debate among opposing views are essential resources for students to develop, build on and perhaps even challenge their pre-existing beliefs. In that vein, universities have the responsibility to expose their students to a diverse spectrum of ideologies and opinions, as doing otherwise would effectively lull students into thinking in a one-dimensional manner. All this begs the question: Has our university lived up to the promise of engaging its students in ideological diversity?
A university can be judged by the type of thought and discourse it attracts, as this indicates its commitment to challenging commonly held ideas and engaging in frontier-pushing work. Those who are invited to speak, debate and lecture in its halls are representative of that commitment, and we are coming up short here on College Hill.
In 2017, the University invited a long list of speakers to campus — and we should know. Over the past year, the SPEAK coalition — a group of students, professors and student organizations seeking to bring more ideologically diverse speakers to Brown — has collected data on every speaker invited by the institutes and centers listed by the Political Science Department as “bear(ing) on the study of politics.” We chose to analyze the political affiliations of these speakers as a transparent metric of the ideologies welcomed on campus and of the general environment of discourse. Of the 237 speakers who were politically identifiable based on campaign contributions, social media statements and career histories, 94.5 percent leaned left, while a mere 5.5 percent leaned right. In an examination of political contributions by these speakers, 97.4 percent of donations went to Democratic races and political action committees, whereas only 2.6 percent went to Republican ones. Though political affiliation may be an imperfect measure of ideology, the results are so skewed that they can’t help but betray a lack of diversity. The complete results of our findings are available in our 2017 Brown University Speakers Report, with an extended analysis of the data and a detailed methodology on our website. Our mission has been supported by several student organizations and faculty members.
The Herald reported on this last Tuesday, and reached out to administrators for comment. According to the article, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Director Edward Steinfeld took issue with our analysis, commenting that Watson’s programming focuses on “public policy issues from an international and comparative perspective.” He claimed that a left-right dichotomy does not apply to these topics. However, in order to mitigate this very problem, we chose not to include international speakers who had never lived in the United States in our data, and collected additional data on whether speakers’ talks had any relevance to American politics. Of those that were relevant, 93.4 percent of speakers still leaned left.
As a concrete example of this issue, the Watson Institute will be hosting a talk later today that was originally titled, “The Future of Bipartisanship.” Yet even this event will not be bipartisan — the two planned speakers are 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee ’75 and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez ’83 P’18. (The title of this event has been changed to “A Conversation about Partisanship Today,” but the description of the event still calls it “a discussion on the future of bipartisanship.”)
Brian Clark, director of news and editorial development, also noted in The Herald piece that the left-right dichotomy in our data failed to capture “in totality the richness and complexity of viewpoint diversity at Brown.” This begs the question: If such a wide diversity of viewpoints is brought to campus, why do almost all of the speakers fall on the left side of the spectrum? This isn’t a matter of chance — as we showed in the report, this bias occurred among professors and non-professors alike, as well as those who addressed both American and international topics.
For these reasons, we, the SPEAK coalition, challenge the Brown community to improve. Diversity of thought is crucial to academic and personal development, and is one of the main reasons we’re all here. How can we truly experience diversity of thought when most of our speakers come from the same perspective?
We at SPEAK seek to hold the University to its promise of creating a more ideologically diverse environment for personal growth, self-reflection and discussion. To this end, Brown should invite intellectuals, journalists, policy practitioners and others from across the ideological spectrum who can articulate their worldviews and subject them to respectful campus scrutiny. This would not include spectacle speakers or professional agitators, who offer nothing of intellectual substance and attack marginalized groups on and off campus. We are now working to expand our coalition and receive input from these groups on how to achieve our goal in the most inclusive and productive way possible.
We are staunch liberals, lifelong conservatives, avowed libertarians, passionate socialists and everything in between; however, we share a common interest in diversity of thought. As an advisory and watchdog group, SPEAK hopes to facilitate civil debate and open-minded discovery for ourselves and our peers, an environment we argue is currently lacking.
The like-mindedness within our university can only be mitigated by welcoming differing voices into our discourse. Otherwise, how can we be sure that, in Simmons’ words, we do not speak “only of unimportant matters”?
Eugénie Boury ’20 is the media relations director of the SPEAK coalition and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.