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Study finds most hosted speakers lean left politically

Student coalition published report in hopes of fostering ideological diversity on campus

A coalition of students, working under a group called SPEAK, published a report last Tuesday that found 94.5 percent of speakers invited to Brown lean left ideologically.

Composed of 17 students who collected and analyzed the data for the study, SPEAK welcomed representatives of different groups on campus, such as No Labels at Brown, the Brown Republicans and the Brown chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society, said Greer Brigham ’20, leader of SPEAK. The group’s recently published report also received endorsements from the Dialogue; the Brown Journal of Philosophy, Politics and Economics; the American Enterprise Institute at Brown; Brown Students for Israel; and various faculty and administrators,  he added.

Despite reaching out to liberal groups on campus, SPEAK’s endorsements largely come from center- and right-leaning groups, Brigham wrote in an email to The Herald. “We do have several endorsements from liberal professors. … In addition, the key members of our team (are) about 50-50 left and right.”

The project started as a way to figure out how to bring better balance to the dialogue on campus, said Alex Santangelo ’19, vice president of No Labels. Inspired by an idea presented at a No Labels meeting, SPEAK was formed as a coalition when the group realized that other organizations had similar goals, he added.

“We treated it like a social science question. … We collected data for it, we worked with some Brown professors checking the data (and) making sure it was accurate, and we’re now … publishing it,” Santangelo said. With the actual collection process beginning early last fall, the report covers all of the speakers invited to campus in 2017, he added.

For the report, the group examined speakers who had spent significant time in the United States and who weren’t considered event moderators, Brigham said. In determining where each speaker should be categorized on the political spectrum, the group used a number of metrics, including campaign contributions, social media statements and career positions that the speaker had previously held, he said. “Only when we were very confident … whether they were left or right, then we’d assign them,” he added.

In defining the boundaries of “left” and “right,” the group generally used the Democratic and Republican parties as proxies for these ideologies, Brigham said. “You can pull up (the speakers’) political contributions,” he said. “It’s easier to get hard data than … if you try to get their views on capitalism or something like that.”

Out of 237 speakers overall, 94.5 percent were identified as having a “left lean,” according to the published report. Even more specifically, out of the 198 speakers who specifically addressed topics related to American politics, 93.4 percent fell on the left side of the ideological spectrum. Addressing the fact that many invited speakers are college professors, a group that tends to be more liberal than the average population, the report also states that 92.3 percent of the 90 non-professor speakers in 2017 were left-leaning.

In response to these findings, Brian Clark, director of news and editorial development, reaffirmed the University’s commitment to hosting a wide variety of speakers. “Welcoming a broad diversity of perspectives on our campus — from students, faculty and staff or from those who visit campus — is fundamentally important to advancing our core mission of education and discovery,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. “The stated goal in the report of promoting greater engagement with ideologically diverse ideas is one that the University supports wholeheartedly.”

But Clark said the metrics used in the report, while depicting a left versus right analysis, fail to capture “in totality the richness and complexity of viewpoint diversity at Brown,” adding that the depth of ideas are rooted in more than just political ideology.“Every week, speakers from around the globe come to campus and offer distinctive views and perspectives informed by their experiences, expertise and scholarship. And there are routinely wide differences in viewpoints on topics expressed by different speakers, regardless of their perceived place on the political spectrum,” he wrote.

Edward Steinfeld, director of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, expressed similar ideas in an email to The Herald. “We focus on public policy issues from an international and comparative perspective, so many of our speakers — and many of the topics we address — don’t naturally fit in a Democratic (versus) Republican or liberal (versus) conservative framework,” he wrote. He emphasized the Watson Institute’s continued commitment to “thorough discussion of global challenges.”

Through this project, SPEAK is hoping that real change can be effected on campus. During the fall semester, the coalition met with political groups, faculty members and campus administrators to get input on their process. These included leaders of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy and the Watson Institute, Brigham said. “We want the conversation to be within Brown. We’re just trying to figure out how to make this as productive as possible and actually have the University invite a more broad range of speakers,” he added.

For Santangelo, one of the purposes of the report has been to encourage the administration to create more diverse ideological conversations. “The ultimate goal is for the administration to understand … they need to do a better job of bringing a balance of perspectives,” he said.

Though Clark agrees that hosting a wide variety of views is important, he also noted that this responsibility is shared among the Brown community as a whole. “All members of the Brown community have the right to invite and host speakers of their choice on campus to advance and debate ideas,” he wrote. “Members of the Brown community turn that responsibility into action every day, and the lineup of events and speakers nearly every week of the semester makes that clear.”

The overarching goal for the project has been to spark dialogue about the ideas being shared on campus, Santangelo said. “We just want to bring balance to the type of speakers that are coming here and what’s being discussed. … We’re highlighting a national problem but keeping it to Brown.”


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