A New Leader in the Push for Diversity of Thought on Campus

Professor Debra Mashek is leaving a tenured job at Harvey Mudd College to lead Heterodox Academy.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

As of this year, more than 1,500 college professors and a couple hundred graduate students have joined Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit founded in 2015 on the premise that research and teaching suffer when college campuses lack diverse viewpoints.

Amid recent tumult in academia, where student protests have been common and clashes over free speech and intellectual inquiry have made national headlines, these academics agreed with the view that university life requires encountering different perspectives in an environment where people are free to constructively challenge one another. “I am concerned that many academic fields and universities currently lack sufficient viewpoint diversity, particularly political diversity,” a statement of principles that they all signed as a condition of affiliating with the organization concludes. “I will support viewpoint diversity in my academic field, my university, my department, and my classroom.”

Today, the organization is announcing a new leader: Debra Mashek, a tenured professor of psychology at Harvey Mudd College who will keep teaching there until the end of the spring semester, when she will move to New York City for the new role. What follows is an edited interview that I conducted with her. We discussed the problems she perceives on campus and the changes she intends to work toward.

Conor Friedersdorf: It’s a big thing to walk away from a tenured job as an academic.

Debra Mashek: Yes, I’m leaving my dream job at a college that I love with these students and colleagues who impress and inspire on a near daily basis. I love the academy. I have this deep sense of gratitude for my own education. I value education as this amazing, equalizing platform, but I also worry about the academy.

I’m hearing the stories of the blowups and the shout-downs and the shutdowns, and I worry that we’re undermining our ability to do the best research and cultivate the best minds to go out and solve the trickiest problems that the world faces. And, as a professor at a liberal-arts school, I think about what it takes to engage with ideas from across the spectrum. It takes fluency with those ideas. And fluency requires exposure in the classroom––beyond a cursory there are these people who think differently, which ends up being a caricature of a position. I think it’s important to engage with the people who actually hold those different positions.

Friedersdorf: What do you teach at Harvey Mudd?

Mashek: My favorite classes to teach include one on the psychology of close relationships (I explain to the students that it’s about hooking up, breaking up, and everything in between). Another is on the psychology of collaboration. My students spend a lot of time in group-based learning at college, and then when they graduate, many work in teams in tech and industry, so this class helps them think about how to bring their individual perspectives and talents into a shared project and contribute meaningfully to proverbial stone soups. And then last year, after the election, I decided to teach a course called I’m Right, You’re Wrong, which was about constructive engagement with others. This semester I’m teaching a course about intellectual virtues.

Friedersdorf: And what’s your experience been in the classroom?

Mashek: I haven’t experienced a great big shout-down or shutdown or anything like that. But I have seen an increase in the small tensions in my classrooms.  It is as if I’m looking at a pond, wondering if it is really raining, and watching rain drops hit the surface.

I am seeing more raindrops.

So thinking about last semester, in the Psychology of Close Relationships class: Student facilitators were talking about breakups and had us do this really clever exercise where we each wrote down advice to our future self if we experience a breakup. We all balled up our paper like snowballs and threw them across the room.

Then everybody picked up somebody else’s snowball, and we went around the room. The very first speaker starts reading somebody else’s words: “He wasn’t good enough for you anyway, you’re better off without him.” The facilitator—a thoughtful, generous student—started to look uncomfortable, and stepped in to ask that if anybody sees gendered pronouns on your snowballs, if you could please just neutralize those. Then I stepped in and said, “No, no—the instructions were for us to put our words down, so we should honor the words that others wrote down.”

Friedersdorf: Right, they were notes to yourself.

Mashek: Yeah. So I’ve experienced moments like that––little reactions, as if, in that case, the pronouns were going to be offensive. I hear requests to avoid all gender binaries and other examples around word choices. Another example: There was a chapter in a book we read one semester titled “Sexual Assault,” and a student asked me why I didn’t give a trigger warning on that chapter. I said that the chapter title tells us what’s going to be in there. And she said, “I guess that’s a good point.”

You had asked about examples from the classroom, so those are a couple.  I should say that the much more worrisome examples come from faculty––closed-door conversations where my colleagues clearly say they are afraid to speak up, reports of faculty members labeling colleagues as racist, of members of hiring committees wondering if political leanings of candidates were unduly informing discussions.

Friedersdorf: So these “raindrops” you’re noticing, are they rooted in an impulse to be newly attentive to certain issues, or to police how others think? Are those impulses related?

Mashek: I think it’s highly related. To be clear, I think it’s a good thing that we have increased sensitivity and awareness to the importance of creating diverse and inclusive campuses. So I think it’s good that we’re mindful of word choices and that students and others are empowered to raise concerns and questions. I agree that the impact of our words and actions matter, but I think intent matters, too.

If my partner comes home an hour late for an amazing dinner I made, I can choose to react by thinking, you ungrateful jerk or oh my gosh, something bad must have happened at the office. The latter interpretation will set us up for a more positive reunion; I’ll be more receptive hearing why my spouse was late. Of course, you have to look at habits and repetition over time, but I worry that sometimes there’s an impulse to tell a narrative of insult and injury that I don’t think is always justified.

Friedersdorf: Do you think that impulse affects how the other students engage in class discussion?

Mashek: I certainly have students coming in after class saying that they had a question that they had wanted to ask in class, but they weren’t comfortable doing so. At times, their minds are absolutely at work and engaged, but they’re not comfortable stepping into that shared learning space, which is a real detriment—not just to them, but also to all of us in that discussion. If we think of learning as that opportunity to be challenged by having one’s ideas put into that crucible of inquiry, to have them turned over and thought about through other perspectives, we’re missing that if students aren’t willing or able to bring their viewpoints in to the mix.

Heterodox Academy has collected some data through the yourmorals.org platform [an online effort by academic researchers to probe why people disagree so passionately about what is right while giving them insight into their own beliefs].

These are self-selected people who come to this platform to complete self-report surveys. In that non-random sample, we see that students worry about the censure of other students. So they’re not usually worried about the professor saying, “hey, you’re not allowed to have that belief”; they’re worried about other students telling them that they’re wrong—name-calling, or in some other way ostracizing them—the sort of consequences that can take place in the presence of orthodoxy.

Friedersdorf:  If you’re a professor who doesn’t want to be unduly heavy-handed in telling students how to think, but who also wants students to be free to converse without censure from an orthodoxy, that puts you in a double bind, doesn’t it? How do you decide when to step in and say, “hey, maybe you shouldn’t be censuring this other person?”

Mashek: All of this is so complex. This semester I added language to my syllabus that tries to signal right at the outset that I value different perspectives; that students will not be graded on their opinions; and that no ideas are actually safe here, that I hope we get to interrogate all of them. And then backing up a step, I’m also thinking about what habits of heart and mind students actually need in order to have those conversations in a way that’s productive, that doesn’t feel scary or threatening—about how to approach those conversations with humility and intellectual curiosity.

Friedersdorf: Some people see college as a way for people to improve their lot in life. Jonathan Haidt gave a talk arguing that the purpose of the university is truth-seeking. There are scores of colleges with missions that are at least partly religious in nature. What’s your view on the question of what colleges and universities are for?

Mashek: That’s a big question. First, I’m a fan of heterodoxy, so I don’t think it has to be one-size-fits-all, and I agree that truth-in-advertising has value. A lot of college mission statements hint at their orientation, as do their curricula. My dream is that students go to places that value viewpoint diversity so that their own perspectives can be challenged and refined.

How can you communicate the existence of such places to high-school students? Heterodox Academy has created a Guide for Colleges that compiles metrics to help high-school students figure out where they’re most likely to find heterodoxy if they want exposure to a range of viewpoints.

Friedersdorf: If you think of diversity of thought in higher education, there are two ways in which you could frame it. You could want every institution to embrace the value of heterodoxy within itself. But you could also value diversity among institutions. What’s your posture towards a orthodox religious school, or an orthodox political school for that matter, that is clearly adding heterodoxy to the universe of academia, but in part by limiting heterodoxy among their students and faculty?

Mashek: The reason viewpoint diversity is valuable is because we bring those differing viewpoints into conversation with one another, and that allows us to interrogate ideas, to figure out the limits of our own reasoning, and to develop a deeper understanding.  While an institution could be set up intentionally to limit exposure to other ideas, that isn’t a college where I’d want to send my kid. I would want him to experience different viewpoints within his institution. I’d never say that such colleges shouldn’t be allowed to exist, but I’m not going to support them with my tuition dollars. I’d rather support the colleges that welcome and celebrate viewpoint diversity.

Friedersdorf: Should there be any limits to the embrace of heterodoxy? Many in academia agree that diversity of viewpoint is important. And yet most wouldn’t worry if everyone on a campus were against genocide, or against the production of child pornography. When there’s an extreme stigma against something, or a position for which the evidence is overwhelming––the Earth is round!––what’s your attitude toward those matters as someone who thinks we don’t value heterodoxy enough?

Mashek: I think there’s value in talking about extreme cases. If our rationale does not fit them then we have to back up and ask: What other conditions or considerations might be at play? Then it becomes a logic puzzle that we need to sort through. It is also worth thinking about what counts as evidence. Obviously, coming from the social sciences, I would argue that we need empirical evidence. In addition, I think there are other incredibly valuable sorts of evidence, like lived experience, and that should absolutely come into the conversation and be welcomed.

Friedersdorf: What about the boundary between engaging in heterodox intellectual inquiry and behavior that crosses a line into the harassment of an individual?

Mashek: We have got to be respectful and civil. I object to violence. That is a bright line. And it is important to think about symmetry of positions. If I feel it is okay to shout down someone I find abhorrent, I also have to be okay with the idea that I may also be shouted down, because surely someone will find something I say abhorrent. It’s the golden rule: Engage with others the way you want to be engaged.

Friedersdorf: What would you say to someone who looks at the mission of Heterodox Academy and the commentary of someone like Jonathan Haidt, or the work that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education does, and says, “Look, it’s not that I’m against what any of these people are doing, but this problem of policing heterodox opinions on college campuses is overblown”?

Mashek: The question of whether these concerns are being overblown is a valid one. We should all be mindful of that possibility. If we always see the exact same stories parroted, that should give us some pause. But we’re seeing new stories emerge regularly, and that’s worth paying attention to. This is an empirical question; there are ways to measure and observe and document. Journalists are clearly playing a part in capturing these moments.

I want to be a good partner to administrators and professors. This is not about shaming anyone or finger wagging. I want to help improve the academy I love. In fact, I want to ask administrators and professors: What are you concerned about on your campus? Is there a way we can support your efforts to make change locally?

It would be great if all these big and small exhibitions of orthodoxy we’ve seen in recent years were a flash in the pan and that within a few years suddenly all campus environments became more welcoming of viewpoint diversity. I don’t see that happening without effort. I would love it if, 10 years from now, I am out of a job because campuses all around the nation have reclaimed their status as places where ideas can be interrogated with passion and nonviolence and genuine intellectual curiosity and humility. If we’re able to get there I’ll be delighted.

Friedersdorf: What does it mean to get there? When you talk about measuring these things empirically, by what metrics?

Mashek: A couple metrics that come to mind include tracking the number of shout downs and shutdowns, the frequency of campus events explicitly billed as opportunities to explore different perspectives, the number of campuses that have ascribed to the Chicago Principles, the number of professors who have joined Heterodox Academy, the number of faculty-job ads that explicitly state that candidates with diverse viewpoints are invited to apply, and the proportion of op-eds that are lamenting the absence of viewpoint diversity on campuses.

And it would be fascinating to measure these smaller moments––for example, when a student who posted a photo on Facebook in which she is posing next to a prominent Republican politician is called out by a fellow student for having committed an act of violence by even posting the picture.

Friedersdorf: Let’s talk about that example. I object to characterizing that as an act of violence. It’s imprecise language. It conflates things––violence on one hand, supporting a politician whose views may be wrongheaded or hurtful or even dangerous on the other––those are not the same. But how does that example implicate your mission? It’s a different viewpoint being aired. So where does it cross the line in terms of Heterodox Academy? How does it come into your purview?

Mashek: I agree. That example isn’t about the classroom or the campus. But the academy doesn’t exist in a bubble, and students are only on campus for a couple years.  The engagement strategies they’re using on and off campus intermingle. College should help better prepare students for constructive engagement beyond the academy—as citizens, as employees, and even as Facebook friends.

Friedersdorf: To me it gets into this tricky question of what role, if any, stigma has in our intellectual pursuits. On one hand, you want to encourage heterodox viewpoints, and x ought to be stigmatized is one viewpoint. On the other hand, perhaps certain types of stigma-wielding harm the truth-seeking mission?

Mashek: Stigma and taboo are closely related.  If we look across human history we realize many taboos are highly contextualized—by time, by place, by culture.  In terms of cultivating intellectual humility, I find it helpful to ask, “what are the chances that I, having been born at this particular time in this particular country, and having been raised by my specific family in my specific community, am more right than all those people in the world who disagree with me?”

Friedersdorf: Is there a place in the classroom for saying, “That ought to be stigmatized,” or “Don’t say things like that?” instead of addressing a matter’s substance?

Mashek: For me, it goes back to the question of what all can come in as evidence. So there’s the cold, rational approach. But if someone responds, “How can you even think that abhorrent thing?” then you back up and ask, “Why is that idea stigmatized? What values are being undermined?” Try to unpack the assumptions and intuitions behind the reaction. I don’t know that in a classroom we’re going to come up with the right answer. In fact, I generally avoid suggesting there is a right one. I would rather we focus on teaching students how to think and giving them the space to do so. My sense is we would get some good thinking done if we asked why we are disgusted by this idea or that idea. I want for all of us to be able to do that without feeling fearful or unsafe––it’s like, we are leaning in, we are curious, and we want to figure it out.