Dartmouth and other elite colleges used to lead the way in unifying the country by refereeing intelligent debates. As World War II-generation faculty retired in the 1990s and Baby Boomers replaced them, colleges switched from refereeing to taking sides.
They should get back to refereeing.
Colleges have helped polarize American society by teaching students to consider classroom questions as political debates rather than academic debates. Academic debates call for hearing and understanding the opposing viewpoint. Political debates strive to discredit and vilify the other side. Political debating is what candidates do during elections. It’s toxic and polarizing, and it has found a place in debating on college campuses.
Harvard Business School professor Arthur Brooks led a 2019 workshop at Bowdoin College, where I worked as the head coach of track and field for 34 years. Brooks had just published Love Your Enemies (Broadside Books, 2019), and he made a wise presentation about the importance of trying to understand and think well of people with different viewpoints. At the end he asked if people at the college tried to understand and have friendships with conservatives. One of the college’s assistant deans raised her hand. “How can we respect people with conservative views when they are trying to take our rights away?” she asked with obvious sadness. It was discouraging to hear.
If she was talking about abortion rights, shouldn’t a college education help a person understand that both sides think they are advocating for rights rather than taking them away? Perhaps the people who vote in favor of rights for the not-yet-born are too generous in the way they assign rights—but isn’t there something admirable about it as well?
It’s possible the assistant dean was accusing conservatives of trying to take away rights that had been voted into place for minority groups that she believes have been systemically disadvantaged. Affirmative action is one example. It can help an underrepresented group gain representation. Conservatives contend that having the same standards for everyone motivates the best efforts of Americans, including those in underrepresented groups. Is affirmative action helpful or hurtful to minorities? Recent court cases have claimed that there is systemic bias in some Ivy League admissions decisions against Asian Americans because they have been educationally and economically successful. Do American colleges spend too much time talking about race and not enough time talking about culture? It’s an interesting academic debate if you don’t vilify the other side.
My memory of studying and debating cultural and political issues as an undergraduate at Dartmouth was that when fair academic debates considered immigration, abortion, school choice, religion, welfare, racial equality, and the environment, a healthy thing happened: Students ended up siding with some people on one issue, and then with different people on the next.
Another amazing thing happened: We learned to understand and respect the points of the other side. People who want greater spending on welfare programs are generous, maybe too generous. People who want less spending think welfare programs increase dependency and poverty. It was and still is an intelligent debate with good points on both sides.
When Dartmouth and other elite colleges describe themselves online, they claim to host an educational experience that values and includes diverse viewpoints. According to Dartmouth’s mission statement: “Dartmouth embraces diversity with the knowledge that it significantly enhances the quality of a Dartmouth education” and “Dartmouth supports the vigorous and open debate of ideas within a community marked by mutual respect.”
Classroom conversations in social science programs have sometimes worked to eliminate conservative perspectives from academic debates by claiming that conservatives violate the “mutual respect” part of the mission. In his 2017 research paper, “Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence,” professor Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University noted that, “On many campuses, calls—and, in some cases, demands—from college students to formally address faculty member and fellow-student microaggressions are mounting.” Some students and professors who like to combine academics and politics create pressure on residential life administrators, faculty leaders, and college presidents to form policies and de-facto policies that clash with academic debating traditions. Requiring mutual respect creates rules against microaggressions and hate speech that restrict what can be said about immigration, welfare, education, and crime. The policies make debates start three giant steps to the left.
Campus discussions about racial equality are not balanced to include the views of conservative people of color. The three diversity, equity, and inclusion training programs required at Bowdoin and our conference of 11 colleges are also used at Dartmouth. The programs added up to 18 hours of Zoom time and did not spend a single minute describing the election of Barack Obama or any positive news about racial harmony.
I complained about the one-sided nature of critical race theory presentations that were given in mandatory Bowdoin athletic department Zoom meetings. I volunteered to lead a session on the colorblind view of race relations with a Black alumnus. But attendance was optional, and the athletic director told me I could not use an important word: “ ‘Colorblind’ is offensive to some African American members of our department.” How can there be a discussion of both sides of when the key word of the one side is deemed too offensive?
In 2019-20 two students and I formed a debating club called the Merciless Debate Society. We wanted to help students hear both sides of current cultural debates. While speaking at one of our forums on how best to reduce poverty, I noted that research suggests that having fathers involved in families is important to the effort. A student spoke up to say she was raised by a single mother and my comment was offensive. An article in the next issue of the student newspaper quoted an unnamed student as saying the Merciless Debate Club debates were “racist.”
Dartmouth’s admissions office lists eight core values of the College: “We build a diverse community of faculty and students and leverage that diversity to enrich and deepen the education of our future global citizens.” It could be that Dartmouth is inadvertently biased in its academic department hiring because few of the deans or professors at Dartmouth define themselves as conservatives. Wellesley College professors’ contributions to political candidates in 2020 went to the Democratic Party at a rate of 100 percent. Dartmouth was right behind, with 99 percent of political contributions going to Democrats in 2020, according to True North Reports. The percentages of conservative students, deans, and professors are embarrassingly low at most elite colleges. As the Wellesley faculty demonstrates, conservative employees have been nearly eliminated at smaller colleges, where it is easiest to intimidate minority viewpoints.
During my first 30 years at Bowdoin, I was reported to the administration once by an anonymous student for something I said to the team. In my final four years as a college coach, I got reported once each year to the administration. I interacted with an average of 100 male and female student-athletes per year using the same character standards I had been using for the previous 30 years. I was reported for not respecting diversity, not taking sexual harassment by students seriously enough, not taking anti-hazing training seriously enough, and trying to explain to a student who requested that the team go through anti-homophobia training that I thought our team already had enough mandatory training sessions. After administrative reviews and interviews, I was warned and cleared by the “thought police” all five times.
At Bowdoin, conservative students and employees usually decide to stay in the closet. I was close enough to retirement that I was undaunted. I was still committing microaggressions and getting reported for them all the way through the month I announced my retirement.
Colleges should have the courage to discourage political debating attitudes in classrooms and orientation sessions. Restore the brilliant American tradition of academic debating. Academic debates help us sort out our differences and remain friends. If Dartmouth academic and residential life leaders insisted on academically-oriented debates, the College would once again be a leader of unifying what Justice Stephen Breyer identified as this vast, multi-cultural melting pot experiment called America.
Peter Slovenski is coauthor of Old School America (TowleHouse Publishing, 2004), which was dedicated to Dartmouth English professor Jeffrey Hart ’51. Peter.email@example.com