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NYU prof speaks on need to restore viewpoint diversity in higher education

American higher education is a sinking ship, says Jonathan Haidt.
November 9, 2017

Comparing higher education in America to the Titanic is a risky move when you’re speaking to a crowd of college students and professors, but that’s exactly what Jonathan Haidt did Thursday evening at Arizona State University.

Referring to what he views as an alarming decline in diversity of viewpoints on college campuses across the nation, the New York Times best-selling author of “The Righteous Mind” said, “This is an extremely dangerous situation for higher education. American higher education could be a sinking ship.”

Haidt visited ASU’s Tempe campus to contribute to an ongoing discussion about free speech on campus with his talk, “America's Escalating Outrage: Why Is it Happening, What Does It Do to Colleges and How Can We Reverse It?”

The talk marked the final event of the fall 2017 semester series “Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity in Higher Education and American Society,” sponsored by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, and co-sponsored by the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

The series continues Jan. 26, 2018, with a visit from Robby P. George (Princeton University) and Cornel West (Harvard University) for a dialogue about free speech.

Haidt, a social psychologist and the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, conducts research on morality, its emotional foundations, cultural variations and developmental course.

“There’s been a sea change in the academy in the last two or three years,” he told the audience Thursday. “It’s like someone reached in and changed the way we interact with each other.”

The ratio of professors who identify as left- vs. right-leaning has skyrocketed in recent years, with a 2016 poll putting it at 17 to 1. According to Haidt, that’s “a terrible state of affairs” as it affects research and civil discourse.

When you’re not challenged by different viewpoints, he said, “You get stupid. You get lazy. You believe things dogmatically.”

The co-founder of Heterodox Academy, “a politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists and other scholars who want to improve … academic disciplines and universities,” Haidt said the trend on college campuses is a reflection of the culture war that has dominated American politics of late.

“America had the weirdest political season in history,” he said. And it all began around 2014, thanks in large part to social media and the ease with which fake news and propaganda flow there. And as incendiary as those headlines can be, we love to read them — it’s neurological.

“The more angry you are, the more pleasing it is to read fake news,” even if you might doubt it, Haidt said. This all goes back to fundamental human nature. We’ve evolved to be tribal, to align with one side or another. We see it most obviously in the passionate sports fan.

But sometimes passion can be dangerous. As passions rise, Haidt explained, so does the ability to believe the worst about the other side. What has resulted in America is a deeply divided nation, in which both sides believe so fiercely in their convictions that they view the other side as not just wrong but fundamentally evil.

That division has reared its ugly head in academic institutions, which have become so left-leaning that even professors who identify as liberal report feeling as though they have to walk on eggshells so as not to offend students lest they cry, “Microaggression!”

“That is one of the worst ideas ever to come out of psychology,” Haidt said. “It has no scientific validity.”

What’s worse, it creates an environment where nobody learns anything.

“What is a safe space?” he continued. “It’s a way of saying, ‘No collisions, because that would hurt people.’ No, it helps them grow. Without collisions, what are you doing in college?”

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. Haidt believes there are things those in academia can do to foster an environment where students are taken out of their comfort zone and challenged to think in order to grow. Namely, welcome and seek out viewpoint diversity and don’t be so quick to judge.

“Give the most charitable reading of what others say and do,” he said. “This is what’s disappeared from the classroom. Don’t look for ways to be offended. If we do that, we can actually talk to each other.”

Haidt ended his talk with an invitation to visit his website,, where you can take a survey to get insight into your own sense of morality, and you can take the “outrage reduction pledge”: 1) I will give less offense 2) I will take less offense 3) I will pass on less offense.

Video by Jamie Ell/ASU Now

Top photo: Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business, talks about political discord within society at ASU's Student Pavilion on Thursday. Haidt says that as passions rise, groups believe the opposing sides to be getting worse and worse. The solution is to encourage listening and understanding opposing viewpoints. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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Young people learn how to create change at ASU event

Obama Foundation trains young people in how to create change at ASU event.
November 12, 2017

Obama Foundation training day teaches participants to collaborate and be inclusive to solve problems

To create real change, include everyone. That was the message sent to a group of young people who attended the Obama Foundation’s training day for civic engagement on Saturday.

The daylong event, held in partnership with Arizona State University, gathered 150 people ages 18 to 24 from the Tempe area at the new Student Pavilion building on the Tempe campus.

The young people talked about identity, shared their stories with each other, mapped out their strengths and met community leaders who already are working for change. The day involved several workshops that gave them practical skills for identifying and solving problems in their communities.

Randy Perez, an ASU student who is pausing his studies while he works for the Obama Foundation in Tempe, addressed the group, telling them how he pored over the more than 450 applications to be part of the event.

“Something I picked up on was what I’ll call the inspiration gap,” said Perez, who is working on a public policy degree.

“A lot of you said, ‘I’m looking to be inspired to do this work.’ It’s not my job to inspire you. It’s all of our jobs to inspire each other.”

In one session, the young people were asked to reflect on themselves by Steve Becton, associate program director at Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit that engages people on the topics of race and prejudice.

“We all have blind spots,” Becton said. “What you have to be is critically conscious. You’re not so much questioning everybody else, but you’re questioning yourself. Your biggest project is yourself.”

ASU student and peer adviser Odessa Clugston works with her group on how they perceive themselves during a session at the Obama Foundation's training day on Saturday on ASU's Tempe campus. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Odessa Clugston, a senior at ASU, was one of 24 peer advisers for the training, a group that spent weeks preparing for the day — including learning how to form a team, lead seminars and work on self-reflection.

“I think working on yourself is the hardest one, right? Knowing our own biases,” said Clugston, who is majoring in justice studies and political science and is working on addressing homelessness in Maricopa County.

“For me, being sustainable is a blind spot. I value the environment but don’t always recycle so I’ve been working on that.”

Another powerful exercise was meant to create empathy. The young people were paired and, led by facilitators from the Narrative 4 nonprofit, each told a three-minute personal story that was then retold by their partner. An African-American woman described her white partner’s experience of being disciplined in high school for sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the white woman described her African-American partner’s realization that a racially insensitive comment she received came from a lack of understanding, not malice.

In the afternoon, the participants worked on identifying assets — strengths in themselves and in their communities.

“Instead of ‘This is what my community doesn’t have,’ look at what it has,” said Ruthie Moore, a youth council director with Mikva Challenge, the nonprofit organization that led several of the workshops.

She asked the young people to consider the motto of the day: “One voice can change a room.”

“What if we put together more than our voices? What if we put together our assets? Assets help us take action,” Moore said.

The group texted their responses, creating a colorful word cloud on a giant screen, which included determined, diplomatic, resilience, library, public transportation, ASU. The word cloud was another lesson for the future changemakers — in how presenting information visually creates a bigger impact than just speaking.

All of the activities built a framework for learning to take action. The young people chose from a list of Phoenix-area problems, such as homelessness and food deserts, and created a storyboard, listing symptoms and causes, identifying decision makers, brainstorming solutions and agreeing on a first step. They gave one another feedback and envisioned what would happen when the problem is solved.

Among the key points that were emphasized: Be as inclusive as possible by taking a nonpartisan approach.

“Without a broad-based coalition, change can’t happen,” said Josh Prudowsky, chief program officer for Mikva Challenge.

Many of the young people at the training day have already identified community issues they want to address. Brandon Vaca, a psychology major at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, said his high school didn’t fully prepare students for college, so he wants to work with teenagers on college readiness.

“I want them to understand that college is an option. I never saw the bigger picture of how important college is until a few years after high school,” said Vaca, who will transfer to ASU next fall.

He said that networking with the other civically engaged young people in the room was one of the best parts of the program.

“I really liked getting to know all these other people,” he said.

Megan Tom, a senior at ASU, is Navajo and wants to help prepare tribal leaders to work together to preserve the environment. She attended the Obama Foundation training day to ensure that there was a Native voice at the event.

“I wanted to support any Native students who were here, as well as voicing the Native perspective because this is a prestigious opportunity and it’s something I believe can help ensure that indigenous voices are maintained in the civic-engagement dialogue,” said Tom, a senior majoring in English literature with a minor in public policy.

The Tempe training day was only the second one for the Obama Foundation. The first was last month in Chicago, and David Simas, the CEO of the foundation, said he was pleased with one marker of that day’s success: A survey done before the session found that one-third of the participants knew how to take steps to make changes in their community, and a survey after the training showed that 91 percent knew what to do.

“Today we give them inspiration, some skills and some connections that then begin to answer that question, ‘Do you want to get involved?’ This is the way to begin,” Simas said, adding that the foundation will refine the training-day format based on feedback from the Tempe group.

Former President Barack Obama showed up at the Chicago training last month, surprising the group. At Saturday’s ASU event, the day started with a video of Obama giving the same message he gave to the South Side young people:

“When I left the White House, I thought, ‘What’s the single thing I could do that would be the most impactful in this next phase of my life?’

“I realized that the best way for me to have an impact is to train the next generation of leaders so that I can pass the baton, and all of you can make change in your communities, in the country and in the world.”

Clugston, the peer adviser, said that when she learned about the training opportunity, she applied immediately.

“I want to be in community involvement for the rest of my life,” she said, and the Tempe training day was just a start.

“It’s about continuing to mobilize and never giving up hope that things could be better.”


Top photo: Facilitator Charles Miles (left) of the nonprofit group Narrative 4 concludes a session during the Obama Foundation's training day event at the Student Pavilion on ASU's Tempe campus Saturday. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now