CU Boulder tapped for new network to promote positive culture change through viewpoint diversity, open inquiry, and constructive disagreement
CU Boulder has been chosen by Heterodox Academy (HxA), a nonprofit that works to increase the values of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement across higher education, to be a part of HxA’s new campus community network.
The network’s goal is to change campus culture and institutional practices by empowering HxA members to promote those HxA values. CU Boulder is one of 23 universities (chosen from 43 applicants) across the United States and Canada—among them are: Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University and McGill University.
The president of HxA, John Tomasi, said CU Boulder “stood out to us as a great example of HxA's values in practice, and a receptive environment to building a strong campus community. Boulder already has active HxA members on campus with a strong interdisciplinary focus. We can't wait to see their contributions in this new capacity."
Each campus community will be led by HxA member co-chairs who may be faculty, staff or graduate students at the university. The co-chairs at CU Boulder are Matthew Burgess, assistant professor of environmental studies; Peter Newton, associate professor of environmental studies; and Pilar Sattler-McQuillan, a staff member at CU Boulder.
While it is still early in the planning process, Newton says CU Boulder’s HxA community may include at least four types of events and activities:
Events that model the values of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement. “This might include dialogues, debates, panel events, speakers and seminars that tackle contemporary topics in a way that demonstrates the practice and utility of these values,” Newton says.
Events that explicitly discuss the importance of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement.
Social events for new and current HxA members to get to know each other and to share ideas.
Contributions to the development of university policies that support HxA values. “For example, those that build on CU Boulder’s already-strong policies on academic freedom, political non-discrimination and free expression,” Newton says.
Newton says that all members of the campus, including faculty, staff and students, will be welcome to attend HxA events and activities.
Sattler-McQuillan says she’d like to see “a student community of practice, an initial cohort to hold regular conversations using my dialogue methodology, which promotes open communication across differences of all kinds. Also, we want to orient students to use this approach with their respective groups and in class.”
Burgess wants CU Boulder programs to achieve a visible presence on campus where students, faculty and staff promote the HxA values.
“I also want us to provide students, staff and faculty with tools to help them promote those HxA values in their departments and classrooms,” Burgess says. For example, HxA has developed a Best Practices Guide (which Burgess helped create), syllabus suggestions and other tools. “Finally, I want us to role model what a healthy campus climate could look like, rather than simply criticizing what’s wrong with the current climate.”
All three of the co-chairs are HxA members who say they believe strongly in HxA’s vision of creating colleges that welcome people with diverse viewpoints.
Newton, who joined HxA in 2020, says he did so because it aspires to improve universities “in a constructive and principled manner. In my view, universities should be places for students and faculty to explore ideas—including those unfamiliar to us, or with which we disagree—and to engage in discussions using evidence, reason and critical thinking.”
Newton says he’s concerned by trends on college campuses, including at CU Boulder, that seem to indicate that open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement are being challenged or eroded.
It seems unlikely to me that a university will flourish to its greatest potential if it’s characterized by a climate where many people feel reluctant to express sincerely held views or are afraid to engage in difficult conversations about complex topics.”
He points to a March 2021 campus survey which found that 60% of college students expressed reluctance to discuss at least one controversial topic (i.e., politics, religion, race, sexual orientation and gender).
At CU Boulder, the latest campus climate survey found that 21% of undergrads disagreed with the statement, “I am comfortable expressing ideas or opinions in class without fear it will affect how people in the class treat me.” And 21% only somewhat agreed.
“It seems unlikely to me that a university will flourish to its greatest potential if it’s characterized by a climate where many people feel reluctant to express sincerely held views or are afraid to engage in difficult conversations about complex topics,” Newton says.
Burgess says that while he believes CU Boulder has some of the problems that HxA was founded to address, he also feels the university is a leader in working on those problems. “The chancellor’s State of the Campus speech shows that our university leaders take these problems seriously,” Burgess says. “Our free expression and political non-discrimination policies—both passed by 9-0 bipartisan votes of the regents—show that the regents are serious, too.”