- The University of Colorado Boulder launched a program in 2013 to bring conservative professors to its ultraliberal campus.
- The first person tapped, Steven Hayward, stirred up controversy during his yearlong position, but administrators didn’t mind.
- Other liberal colleges have begun to adopt similar programs to diversify thought on their campuses.
When Steven Hayward stepped onto the University of Colorado Boulder campus he saw event postings for the transgender community. He saw ads for vegan and gluten-free products.
This was 2013, and to him this was the lion’s den. He started documenting his findings on Facebook, like a conservative anthropologist. “Whoa. What’s this crunchy sound ringing in my ears?” he wrote next to a photo he took of a woman he perceived to be dressed in a bizarre fashion. “Yeah, this is a look I haven’t seen before.”
Hayward called Boulder a “self-generated bubble” and mocked administrators for advising professors to address students according to their desired gender pronoun. Boulder administrators said nothing. They wanted him there.
A year earlier they’d recruited Hayward, a conservative academic, precisely because his views challenge the campus’ predominant orthodoxy.
Alumni had been complaining that the school lacked political diversity. Some thought conservative students felt unwelcome. Administrators responded, and Hayward’s position as the school’s first “visiting scholar in conservative thought” was born.
So Boulder began to look for someone on the right who’d come teach on its campus. It even took out advertisements in conservative magazines. The school now welcomes a new professor each year.
What’s developed is a kind of affirmative action for conservative professors that’s starting to spread across the country.
Other schools with a leftist reputation, like Wesleyan University in Connecticut, are following Boulder’s lead, as liberal colleges across America are increasingly seen as hostile to conservative speakers. Opponents point to incidents of violent confrontations between students and invited speakers as evidence the First Amendment is under attack.
Many students had no idea who Hayward was when they signed up for his classes.
“A lot of students don’t read the papers, they don’t know what’s going on, so they signed up for my courses and they didn’t realize who I was,” he said. When they finally realized, many told him they couldn’t tell he was a conservative.
That’s by design, according to Hayward who taught courses in constitutional law, political theory, and environmental studies while at Boulder.
He said he doesn’t inject opinion into his courses and provides his material “straight up.” And he was well received on campus when he first got there. “Most everybody I met with was perfectly friendly,” he said.
But not everyone was happy about his presence, according to Robert Pasnau, director of the Center for Western Civilization. “There was a lot of suspicion, but that’s eased a fair amount.” Pasnau, who oversees the conservative thought program, told Business Insider.
The program was a brand-new experiment, and existing faculty members weren’t sure what it would develop into. There were worries that the visiting scholar would narrowly push conservative ideals to the exclusion of everything else.
While in his classroom Hayward instructed students without revealing his personal ethos, outside of the classroom was a different story.
Hayward had attended his first faculty meeting at Boulder, and then documented his thoughts in a 2013 blog post titled “Off on a Gender-Bender,” where he mocked gender self-identification.
“I had kind of wanted to pick a fight with the identity-politics crowd who I think — increasingly recognized by liberals — are wrecking universities and stifling discussion,” he said, referencing his blog post he had written about gender identification, which upset some students.
He pointed to what he called the “special studies” fields on campus — like ethnic and gender studies — which he believes are “badly politicized” fields lacking serious scholarly thought.
“I went to some of the women studies department lectures and, frankly, found them appallingly lightweight in their intellectual level,” he said. “Part of me also thinks, let them have these separate studies department and they can all work at Starbucks when they get out with their degrees.”
Students and professors called Hayward a bigot and said his beliefs did not equate to the type of diversity the school needed. But the outrage was short-lived. Hayward was brought to campus to shake up the status quo.
Administrators at Boulder have deemed a certain amount of controversy to be acceptable.
“It’s all part of the process,” Pasnau said. “As this program goes forward we will attract visiting scholars of all kinds and some will no doubt say some controversial things and stir up some trouble. And I think up to a certain point, that’s OK.”
Where are the conservatives?
Boulder isn’t alone when it comes to a lack of ideological parity. Many researchers point to a dearth of conservative professors as cause for concern.
“The professors are much more homogeneous, and I think that in a way is the bigger problem.” Jon A. Shields, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, told Business Insider.
Shields, who coauthored the book “Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University” with Joshua M. Dunn Sr., said it’s difficult to know at the individual school level which colleges have strong ideological diversity.
Except at Boulder, the numbers are fairly clear. In 2013, members on the University of Colorado Board of Regents commissioned a study of ideological diversity at the school.
Students and faculty for the entire state college system were overwhelmingly liberal, the study found.
Boulder students and professors were even more liberal than the University of Colorado system as a whole. When asked how they describe their political philosophy, 53.1% of students called themselves liberal, 18.1% moderate, and 20% conservative. For faculty, 60.3% called themselves liberal, 15.4% moderate, and 8.4% conservative.
The findings at Boulder seem to be in line with — if not slightly more extreme than — national findings.
“It’s still not great, but we keep marginally improving the representation of racial and ethnic minorities,” Shields said. “But even while getting more of gender and ethnic diversity, there’s been a decline in political diversity.”
But at Boulder, figures for underrepresented minority professors look even starker. Of the 2,181 faculty in the fall of 2016, 97 were Latino, 31 black, 11 American Indian/Alaska Native, eight were one or more race, and four were Asian/Pacific Islander. The four groups together represent 6.9% of professors.
Racial and ethnic minority representation at Boulder isn’t far off from the figures at American colleges nationwide where 9% of faculty are black or Hispanic, according to the US Department of Education.
While at Boulder, Hayward invited speakers to campus he believed would help add some balance to what students learned. One was Charles Murray, a social scientist who has been called a racist for his work “The Bell Curve.”
Years later, Murray would become a flash point on another campus: Middlebury College in Vermont.
A recent speech there was shouted down by protesters, and when Murray and Middlebury College professor Allison Stanger left, a mob circled their car, rocking and jumping on it. Stanger was physically attacked and her neck was injured.
It wasn’t like that at Boulder.
“I had Charles Murray come and speak and had an audience of 300 and it went off fine,” Hayward said. “There was no fuss like there was at Middlebury.”
In part, the difference in reaction may be due to external political factors, according to Murray who has seen student reaction escalate since the presidential election.
“The advent of Trump has really energized a lot of students to take any opportunity that becomes available to demonstrate how angry they are,” Murray told Business Insider.
He remains unconvinced that programs like Colorado’s are the best way to improve the state of American colleges.
“I would much rather that administrators come down very hard on professors that let their views influence how they grade students, influence how they set up the syllabi for their courses,” Murray said.
Still, Murray believes that Boulder’s program helps to break down pervasive stereotypes about conservatives.
“The advantage of having a Steve Hayward at Colorado is not that he is presenting a conservative perspective, but that he is letting college students see that you can have a conservative who is not a monster, who doesn’t want to starve welfare children, who is thoughtful and also funny and good natured and a good teacher,” he said.
The Office for Civil rights makes this same argument in support of racial diversity in higher education.
A life-altering experience
At Boulder, the supposed benefits of conservative professors on campus aren’t just hypothetical.
Frank Beckwith, the school’s most recent visiting scholar, left a mark on the students in his class. “It was a real privilege to audit his four classes. Actually a life-altering experience,” Nancy Kinne told Business Insider.
Beckwith came from Baylor University, a Baptist university in Waco, Texas, to Boulder to teach courses about philosophy, religion, and law.
“All my life I would wonder what some of the most intelligent people I knew would say,” about religion, Kinne said. She sought information, but was never satisfied with the answers. Beckwith offered a place, free of judgment, to ask those questions, she said.
She learned so much from Beckwith’s philosophy and religion class that she took it twice — once in the fall and again in the spring. Under Beckwith, she said she learned a great respect for the Catholic religion.
“I realize that 10% of faith is something that you don’t argue. It opened that whole thing for me,” she said.
Beckwith, too, talked about the influence he’d had on students. He read a note he received from a student after the semester ended:
“I have come to believe that one of the duties of citizenship is to listen to points of view unlike one’s own. Liberal Democrat that I am, you made the job a pleasure. You also taught me that kindness, courtesy, and humility would at least get an audience to listen to you in a way that criticism never can.”
“It kind of chokes me up to read it,” Beckwith said.
Others following Boulder
As Boulder’s program gains recognition, schools elsewhere are beginning to play around with the concept.
At Wesleyan University, a school known for liberal activism, its president hopes to bring some ideological diversity to his campus with an “affirmative-action program for the full range of conservative ideas and traditions.”
“I think that in places like Wesleyan and Northeast highly selective colleges and universities that the press likes to focus on, there are … biases against conservative ways of thinking,” Wesleyan president Michael Roth told Business Insider.
To remedy the problem, Roth is planning an endowment that will fund visiting faculty and speakers, much like the program at Boulder.
And beyond diversifying the professoriat, Wesleyan will carve out space for conservative students too. During the upcoming school year, the school will have 40 veteran students on campus, according to Roth. While veterans don’t uniformly lean right, many do, making these recruits a good proxy for injecting some conservative students on campus.
Still, individual rights and free speech aren’t rapidly deteriorating on college campuses, despite what groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), may say, according to Roth.
“I think the critique of political correctness is completely overblown, so I’m in this opposition where I think these guys who run around screaming fire, literally from that organization, that free speech is under duress are vastly exaggerating a problem on campuses,” Roth said.
“There’s much more diversity of thought at Wesleyan now than it was in the ’70s, and we could never have done the things that we’ve done with military and with conservative thought when I was here in ’70s.”
Diversity of thought takes hold
For his part, Hayward has moved on from the progressive Boulder campus to the University of California at Berkeley, another bastion of liberal academia. Though not as formalized a program as Boulder’s, Hayward said he was brought to Berkeley with a similar goal of diversifying thought there.
His successor this year at Boulder appears ready to carry his torch.
“I’m the example of the in-your-face belligerent [conservative],” Robert Kaufman, Boulder’s incoming visiting scholar of conservative thought, told Business Insider.
Kaufman, who moves to Boulder on August 10, isn’t worried about being the token conservative on campus.
“When people say, ‘You better watch it,’ my response is, ‘I don’t worry about me — I worry about Boulder.’”