Dunn’s TEDxMileHigh talk highlights need for diversity of thought

Josh Dunn, chair and professor of the Political Science Department, and director of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at UCCS, called on the TEDxMileHigh attendees to challenge themselves to different views in “What universities missed in their fight for diversity” Dec. 1 at Denver’s Bellco Theatre. His talk was among the 18 speakers for the 2018 theme “Reset.”

“While our colleges and universities make every effort to increase the representation of racial, ethnic and sexual minorities, there is another kind of diversity we often forget: viewpoint diversity,” Dunn said in his opening remarks. “In today’s increasingly polarized political climate, having people on campus with different perspectives is more important than ever.”

Dunn, the co-author of “Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University” with Jon Shields, said that less than 13 percent of college faculty identify as conservative, and in the humanities and social sciences, it’s five percent. In research for the book, they interviewed 153 conservative faculty who shared they weren’t comfortable sharing their political ideology for fear they wouldn’t be granted tenure or experience harassment.

“Ideally, students would learn the best arguments of both the left and the right, and not the watered-down and inflammatory versions you hear on cable news or read on social media,” Dunn said. “But today, it’s quite possible to receive an education, and an elite one at that, and never be exposed to major conservative ideas. Ideas that have, for better or worse, profoundly influenced American politics.”

Dunn connected the current political climate in Washington, D.C., to the same shift on college campuses. Colleges have long been a place for respectful discussion and often are the first place where students hear different views. But disruptive protests and threats of violence against students and teachers across the political spectrum have increased in recent years.

“This is what’s happening on our campuses, places where the next generation of leaders is learning to interact with others,” Dunn said. “If it’s happening there, can we be surprised at what’s happening in Washington, in corporate board rooms and or even our own neighborhoods?”

Dunn shared the friendship of Robert George and Cornel West, two professors on opposite ends of the political spectrum, who taught a course together and toured college campuses. “The only sad part of their story is that it is so rare,” he said.

Dunn also outlined the danger of confirmation bias, the natural tendency to seek information that we already agreed with, and echo chambers that make confirmation bias worse. In a study of citizens from Boulder and Colorado Springs, two cities historically on different sides of political issues, researchers found that when groups of people discussed issues only within their communities, their views became more extreme.

He encouraged the development of a Fulbright-style program among universities to expose faculty and students to other viewpoints. A program at CU Boulder, the Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy, already exists. The Heterodox Academy, with thousands of faculty members, believes that viewpoint diversity makes its members better scholars.

Dunn closed his presentation with the “odd couple” relationship between Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Like George and West, they toured the country to debate the issues. When Scalia died, Ginsburg wrote about her “best buddy” and when they disagreed, it made her opinions better because Scalia would point out the weak spots in her argument.

“We all need friends like that. We can’t really do our jobs as citizens without them,” Dunn said in closing. “In the end, what happens in the ivory tower doesn’t stay in the ivory tower because today’s student is tomorrow’s leader. A diversity of ideas will make us better leaders, neighbors and voters, but only if we have a chance to hear them.”

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