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SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to the Free Mind Podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm joined today by Matt Burgess, assistant professor in the department of environmental studies here at CU. Matt is a faculty fellow at the Benson Center, a faculty affiliate in the department of economics, and an institute fellow at CU's cooperative Institute for research and environmental sciences. In 2020, he won Heterodox Academy's Open Inquiry award for his advocacy of viewpoint diversity on climate change and other environmental issues. Our conversation today explores the state of political polarization and free inquiry in higher education. We discussed the Polarization dialogue series Matt runs on the CU campus, the causes of polarization nationally, and the future of academic freedom on campuses, whose mission is to seek the truth. Matt Burgess, welcome to the Free Mind Podcast.

MATT BURGESS: Great to be here. Thank you so much for having me, Shilo.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. I've wanted to have you on for quite a while. And the reason is because you run this wonderful series on the CU campus called the CU Reducing Polarization Dialogues. And it's a series that has been recognized by Heterodox Academy and other terrific organizations for contributing to depolarizing dialogues on campus and bringing folks from different viewpoints together. And so I wanted to get some insight from you on some of these hot topics that are in the national media and certainly hotly debated on campus, free speech, academic inquiry, free inquiry, these sorts of things. Let me start by asking you the following question. So you've created the Reducing Polarization dialogue series on campus, presumably in response to a need. Why is polarization a problem on campuses in higher education? MATT BURGESS: Yeah, that's a great question. Well, polarization is a problem, a huge problem in society in general. And one of the things that I encounter a lot in my research is just so I'm an environmental scientist, environmental economist, for those who don't know. One of the things I encounter a lot in my research is that we need to get really big things done. We need to, if we want to get to net zero emissions by 2050 in the US, just the electricity part of that means building twice as much new, renewable electricity as there today is total electricity. That's a big thing we need to get done. Divided societies don't get big things done. Divided societies are societies that countries like Russia think they can challenge and stand up to on the world stage, for example. 

One of the things I've also come across in my reading in my research is that divided societies are also especially bad in terms of political will at dealing with inequality. So anybody who's concerned about inequality should be concerned about polarization. So it's this huge problem in our society. And universities should be a place, especially public universities, where we're bringing people together from different backgrounds, from different walks of life, where we're teaching them civics, where we're teaching them how to have difficult conversations, and have constructive disagreement, and to pursue truth fearlessly, because that's what we need to do to understand the problems that we're trying to solve. So universities should be this linchpin of our efforts to depolarize. And they're not fulfilling that role currently at the national scale. 

So if you look at the fraction of Americans of different political persuasions that think universities are good for the country, the fraction of Republicans and independents falls off a cliff in about 2015. And so that's not good. Universities are becoming just one more piece of this polarized landscape. And so, but even before I became a faculty, I was aware of what Heterodox Academy was doing. I was concerned about these trends that were pretty clear, in my opinion, of where a lot of these trends were coming from in terms of the broader polarization. Maybe we can get to that later. 

And so I knew that I wanted to do something around polarization and around Heterodox Academy in particular, when I became a faculty member. And I thought CU was a particularly good place to do it because we've got basically the Chicago principles, which I think were put in place right around the same time that I started, in 2018. We're in this purple state where there's actually quite, I think, a rich history of pragmatic, moderate politicians from both sides of the aisle. So you don't think about Governor Polis, Senator Cory Gardner, our current Democratic senators, Hickenlooper and Bennet, Jason Crow, et cetera.

And so if there was a place in the US where we might be able to start seeds of moving things in the right direction, I might pick Colorado to be that place. And if there was a school that I think, if it really leaned into it, could be a leading school in terms of the campus side of that, I think it could be CU. And so I think it was a nice synergy of place, but also what I wanted to do. And then in terms of why the polarization dialogues in particular, actually the original idea was I had been talking to two of our regents, one, a Democrat Regent, Leslie Smith, and one, a Republican regent, Heidi Ganahl, just about polarization in general. 

And we had a couple of meetings with folks from CSTPR, which was the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research and series, and then some people from the Benson Center at the time about what can we do on campus around polarization? And I also invited all the Heterodox Academy members from CU at the time. And so we had this idea of let's organize a public dialogue workshop type event and invite some of the politically affiliated student groups, like the campus Democrats and the campus Republicans to have a dialogue. And I had been talking to some folks from the CU dialogues program about doing that.

And so we were going to try to do that. I think it was going to be in the fall of 2020, and then the pandemic started. And so we said, "Well, maybe we shouldn't be trying to plan a big in person event." So that was where the idea of doing it on Zoom came. And then we were thinking, "Well, if you're going to do it on Zoom, that's actually pretty cheap. It's not like you have to only do it once. Why not just make it a weekly thing?" And so that's where the doing it weekly came from, and then Fridays at noon was just a time that I thought people could make. 

And actually it was a real, it was a stroke of luck that we ended up doing it online, because I actually think it worked a lot better online than it would've in person, partly because the continuity allows trust to build between people in the group. But also we just got amazing participation from different folks, including some quite senior folks that I just have a hard time imagining would be able to make it to a specific room at a specific time once, let alone every week. 

We have anonymity, so I can't name names, but we've had people at the vice chancellor level, we've had regents. We had one participant who was a former congresswoman, a Republican, and then all other walks of life on campus. So we've had freshmen, we've had faculty, at all junior, mid-career, and senior levels. We had a lot of staff from different parts of the university, too, et cetera, and different political persuasions, but also other kinds of other kinds of backgrounds. We had to work a little bit to get a critical mass of what you might call conservatives or Republicans. Again, we don't ask people their ideology, but I think we've got a pretty healthy dynamic of political diversity in these discussions.

SHILO BROOKS: Well, yeah, this sounds terrific. And I do want to talk to you a little bit more about, later on some of the causes of polarization, some of the reasons behind this, but since you're describing the dialogue series right now, can you walk us through what a typical meeting might look like? How does this thing work? What sorts of questions are you asking? How are people engaging with each other? Take us into the room as it were, what does this thing look like inside?

MATT BURGESS: Yeah, sure. So the topics are all chosen to do one of two things. Either they're chosen to focus on some issue of the day, and certainly not shying away from the controversial issues of the day. So we've talked about policing and race. We've talked about the 2020 election. We've talked about January 6th, just three examples. Or, so either it's some issue of the day or it's a topic that's designed to, or I should say inspired by the science of how people reduce polarization and how people work together across difference. 

So for example, every academic year, the first dialogue is always a topic that's something along the lines of what aspects of your background, or upbringing, or experiences have shaped your political worldview? And the point of that is to basically get people talking about where they're coming from and how they've come to have the worldviews that they've had as a way of building understanding and empathy across the various people in our group. 

Another one we've used a lot, usually at the beginning again, of the academic year, to foster intellectual humility is we ask people, "What's something you've changed your mind on recently?" Those are the two types. And then what does a typical dialogue look like? So there's a topic that I send out to the group in advance. And then I'll usually start with maybe a two minute introduction of the topic at the beginning. And then depending on the size of the group, if the group is fewer than about a dozen people, then we'll just stay in one big room and I'll go around the room and ask people for their thoughts. And then usually there ends up being a back and forth. 

And so I just moderate it to make sure everyone gets to speak, to monitor that people are roughly sharing the floor, et cetera. And then if we have a larger group, then we'll break out into breakout rooms. You usually have about four to five people. So you'll have breakout rooms of four to five people discussing the topic. And then at about 15 minutes to the end, so 12:45, we'll bring everybody back into the main room and will ask if people are willing to report back interesting ideas that they heard in their breakout room.

SHILO BROOKS: Right. And I've read some of the descriptions you've given of these dialogues. And it sounds to me like nobody ever got in a fight, the police didn't have to be called, nobody was escorted out of the room, that lo and behold civil discourse prevailed. Is that right?

MATT BURGESS: That's absolutely right. And I think it really illustrates the fact that Twitter is not real life. And I think one of the things, maybe we'll talk about this later, that I think really contributes to some of the polarization on campus and in the media is that we react too unthinkingly and unflinchingly to whatever the Twitter outrage of the day is, when most people, A, don't care and B, dislike the talking heads on Twitter and what their preoccupations and means of discussing things are. So that's the first thing is that more generally, people on campus are really craving the type of dialogue that we have in that group and that you have in this podcast. 

One of the other things that I've done on campus related to free inquiry is I developed this course called sustainable economies, that brings all different ideas together about what a sustainable economy is, and starts off with a whole spiel about open inquiry, and how that works, and why it's important. And again, if it's controversial, I haven't heard it. What I have heard is students saying, "Boy, I really appreciate that this class runs this way, and it really opened my mind to hear different perspectives on these issues." And so I think there's just really an appetite for this kind of thing that this fills.

SHILO BROOKS: Well, this is interesting to me, because we seem to be saying two things, and I want to clear it up. One is there's a real polarization problem on campus. On the other hand, you're saying, "Well, when I do these dialogues and I teach this class, it's not polarized at all. It's not hostile at all." Let's get deeper into this question of polarization, where is all this coming from? Where exactly is this at on campus? What is its nature? Because it seems to me like you're doing a lot of good work to defuse the bomb. And when you get people in the room, the bomb is defusable. So what is the cause of this and where is this happening? Is it outside the classroom?

MATT BURGESS: Yeah. I'm really glad you asked that. And actually one of the things your listeners may not know is in the past year or two, I've started researching as a major part of my research group's research program, "How do you reduce political polarization, especially of climate change as an issue?" And so through that work, I've read a lot of the literature on where polarization comes from. And here's as concise of a description of it at the national level as I can come up with. There's this great report that came out in 2018 by a group called More in Common. And the report is called Hidden Tribes. Where they try to classify, based on opinion polls, different political clusters of Americans. And there have been other, Pew, I think, did a more recent one along similar lines. And the answers they get are pretty similar.

And so the crux of it is there's a group of about 8% of Americans on the left extreme that separate themselves very clearly on certain issues in opinion from everybody else, that Hidden Tribes calls the progressive activists. And then there's a group that's about 16 or 15% of Americans on the other side that has a similar separation. And the Hidden Tribes calls those groups the wings. And they call everybody else the exhausted majority. I think that is basically what this comes from, is the vast majority of Americans, and in my experience, the vast majority of students at CU don't like this polarization stuff. But a lot of where we've gotten to in the media, and in the public discussion, and to some extent in the political apparatus has to do, I think with this really interesting asymmetry in, where each of these groups on the wings derives quite a lot of power from, and quite a lot of ability to chill the exhausted majority's public thinking and speech, but in really different ways.

So start with the right. 15 or 16% of Americans doesn't sound like that much, but if you think about what fraction of Americans are registered Republicans, I can't remember exactly off the top of my head, but I want to say it's something like 34%. So 16% is actually a pretty big fraction of 34%. It's about half. And it's a half that disproportionately has higher voter turnout in the Republican primaries. And so the right extreme is a really formidable force in Republican primaries and intra party Republican politics. I think we see that with some of the stuff going on with Trump in January 6th, for example. And so if you're going to be a Republican politician and you're a moderate, you have to somehow get past that block, and then still be able to pitch yourself as a big ten person. And so that creates incentives to pander to that extreme, especially in primaries. 

But that extreme on the right has virtually no power outside of that. They have no power in newsrooms, except the newsrooms that are specifically tailored to their audience. They have almost no power in big tech, in HR departments, and universities, mainstream media, et cetera. So they have this outsized power in Republican partisan politics and virtually no power everywhere else. And the latter part of that contributes to their sense of alienation, which I think sometimes makes them more radical in Republican politics. 

On the other side, it's almost the exact opposite. So 8% is actually not enough to do damage in primaries. And you see that, for example, moderates like Biden when the presidential primary progressive activists candidates lost primaries in Minneapolis and New York, Eric Adams is a moderate, progressive activist candidate. And I'm using the term in the sense that Hidden Tribes does not, a generic description of a literal activist, progressive activist candidate lost a mayoral race to a literal write in candidate in Buffalo. They lost a race for district attorney to a Republican in Seattle. So they are just horrible at winning elections. So they don't have anything like the power inside Democratic primary politics that the Republican extreme has.

But also in contrast to the Republican extreme, they have enormous power in HR departments, and universities, and big tech, and newsrooms. And so that makes people who are worried about being called a nasty name on Twitter by progressive activists, sometimes feel pressure including politicians to pander to their worldviews and their priorities. But at the same time, if they do that too much, it hurts them electorally. And the other thing that's really interesting is the progressive activists can make so much noise that they can negatively brand the Democratic party without the Democratic party even necessarily having to adopt their positions.

A good example of that is defund the police, which, as far as I know, very few actual Democratic congresspeople supported. There were a handful that did, but as far as I know, most did not. And yet that still was a ballot box issue for them in 2020, as the famously leaked recordings came out of moderates chastising the more progressive wing for supporting that, because people in universities and people in these advocacy groups that are associated a lot with Democratic partisan politics made a lot of noise about that position. And there were a few progressive governments in cities that made some steps to enact that position. And so that was enough to hurt the brand, even though, again, the vast majority, as far as they know of congress people on the Democratic party did not adopt that position. 

The other thing, the last two pieces of data that I think are really interesting and important for understanding polarization, and maybe also how to fix it, is that both of these extremes, people, I think would be able to guess this about the Republican extreme, but people are often surprised to hear this about the Democrat extreme. Both of these extremes are disproportionately rich, they're disproportionately white, and they're disproportionately educated. And I think there's this narrative, especially on the left that you, "Well the moderates are disproportionately rich, white people protecting their privilege." And the truth is actually exactly the opposite of that, and Pew found the same thing.

And if that seems counterintuitive to you, think about who got Biden elected in the primaries? It was predominantly poor and African American voters who got Eric Adams elected. Which district does Ritchie Torres, who's a kind of progressive, kind of moderate politician, but certainly who pushes back against some of the unpopular progressive activist positions, what district does he represent? He represents literally the poorest district in America, in the South Bronx. And he had a fawning profile of him in the New York Times authored by Brett Stephens.

Interestingly, I read somewhere that AOC disproportionately won rich white voters in her primary against Crowley, and he disproportionately won poor non-white voters. I can't remember the exact source of that, so there's a chance it's wrong, but it would certainly fit with all the other patterns I just described. Again, think about, to bring back to defund the police example, I saw Reverend Al Sharpton on MSNBC calling that a latte liberal policy that white people come up with in the Hamptons that would harm the African American community. And I'm sorry to say that he was right on the latter part, or if you look at what's happening with crime, and capital flight, and other issues that have objectively not made the lives better for those marginalized communities. 

The last factoid that I think is really important for understanding our polarization that's also counterintuitive to elites is the median voter in America is relatively economically progressive and relatively socially conservative. Elites tend to delude ourselves into thinking that it's the opposite, that the median voter is the economic, conservative, social liberal, but it's actually, there's hardly any people who fall into that latter category. And they're mostly elites who are deluding themselves. And so that's important for understanding, for example, people can think whatever they want about why sometimes it seems like the Democrats are talking about economics and the Republicans are talking about critical race theory in some news cycles, but politically it makes perfect sense. And if you look at presidential elections, presidential elections that are predominantly fought on economics, like 2008, like I would say, 2020, Democrats have a natural advantage and elections 2016 that are primarily fought on culture, Republicans have a natural advantage because of that dynamic.

SHILO BROOKS: Right. This is a really interesting set of facts you've just presented. One question I have for you that came up in the course of your remarks is we began by talking about polarization on campus. In your remark there, you mentioned that you had a difficult time getting conservatives into the groups. Whenever we began to talk about polarization at the national level, you were then able to talk about the way the left and the right both operate in the way they behave in certain results and elections and these sorts of things. But I want to come back to campus real quick, because is it true that campus is polarized in the way you've just described the nation being polarized? Or is it a monoculture? Because you've said a moment ago, "Well, I had problems getting Republicans in our group, and not only that, HR departments and faculty largely lean to the left." So I'm curious whether polarization as such, it's certainly a national problem. You've proven that point. Is it a problem on campus or has in a way the ship already sailed there? You see what I mean?MATT BURGESS: Yeah. That's a great question. I think the answer depends a little bit on which campus you're talking about and also which level. If you're talking about, for example, the student body, are you talking about undergraduates? Are you talking about graduates? What discipline are you talking about, et cetera? I think the answer's a-

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, all of it.

MATT BURGESS: ... little bit different in each of those contexts. So let's just start with the demographics. At public schools like CU in purple, we're bluish, but still purplish, also, states we do at the level of the entire campus have a reasonable level of political diversity. Young people in general skew a little bit left. So there's a little bit of a left skew there. Colorado skews a little bit left these days. So that creates a little bit of a left skew. There's political sorting by discipline. So there's probably a stronger left skew in environmental studies, which I teach in, than there is maybe in engineering, but you could find, again, I don't ask my students what their political persuasion is, but I would be willing to bet that I have Republicans in all of my undergraduate classes, for example. So in terms of the demographics, I'd say the undergraduates at public schools like ours are not so skewed compared to the national population of young people.

Faculty are very skewed and extremely skewed in some disciplines. So if you're talking about the humanities, the social sciences outside of economics, some surveys find that it's 60 to one or more Democrat to Republican. There's a colleague of mine, did a survey of climate scientists, this wasn't the main point of the study, but, but in the survey sample that they had, I think they had more climate scientists in this other category that included Marxist and anarchist than they had Republicans. So there's a huge skew. And there was another study that Heterodox Academy, I forget if they did it or if they just promoted it, but that I saw through them that found that among English faculty in the US, Marxists outnumber Republicans by a ratio of two to one, which, sidebar, is interesting, if you think that communism is the only thing that killed more people than fascism in the last 100 years, and it wasn't close. And we're super scared of anything that could even be loosely tied in any way to anything that sounds fascist. That's maybe a whole nother conversation. 

So anyway, the faculty, it's extremely well documented that they're very left skewed. I haven't seen data on this at our school, but I'm sure it's the case at our school like it is everywhere. However, even still the majority of faculty, I would say, are part of what Jonathan Haidt would call the liberal left, as opposed to what he would call the illiberal left. So the really strident progressive activists that want to shut down speech, I would say they have a lot of power on every campus, but at a lot of campuses and in a lot of disciplines, they are numerically still a minority, like a little bit less of a minority, but kind of the progressive activists in America as a whole.

And then Sam Abrams, who's a professor, I want to say, at Sarah Lawrence, who's done some work at Heterodox Academy and AEI, he's found that administrative staff are even more politically skewed than faculty are. And I haven't seen data on this, or maybe I have, and I can't remember the specific source, but my strong impression, just experientially, is that in certain disciplines anything ending in studies, for example, graduate students are also extremely skewed politically to the left, maybe even more so than faculty, maybe either comparably so, or more so than administrators. But I suspect that varies by discipline. 

And then the thing that's worth mentioning is there are some disciplines that are less skewed, like engineering and economics are two examples, but even in those disciplines, it's three or four to one Democrat-Republican, as opposed to 60, 70, 80 to one. So there's no discipline that I'm aware of where there's a Republican skew among the faculty. 

SHILO BROOKS: This is an interesting set of observations you've made, because if it's right, what you say, then the undergraduates are really the last bastion, in a way, on campus of a kind of plurality or viewpoint diversity. They're the one group you said is not radically skewed. And especially at a public university like ours, where we draw from the public of the state or surrounding states, I can't help but wonder what the effects would be of a skewed administration and a skewed faculty on a diverse undergraduate body when it comes to exploring or thinking through the truth seeking mission of a university. In other words, how is the pedagogical task of the university carried out adequately and in good faith when the university itself is unable to represent viewpoints or make arguments for viewpoints that a large majority, if you're right, of its undergraduates, hold? Is this what is responsible for, as you said some time ago, independents and conservatives both have a certain skepticism about the university, I assume this would be the cause, or at least would play into that skepticism in some way.

MATT BURGESS: Yes. To put it as succinctly as I can, the opinion problems among conservatives and independents are caused largely, if not almost entirely, by those groups perceiving that the progressive activists are in charge on campus, regardless of what their demographics are among faculty, or administrators, or whatever, their interests, more often than not, win the day in terms of major decisions. And also that senior administrators and faculty are afraid to piss them off. And I think that you could argue as a steel man, I think you could argue that some of the sensationalist coverage of certain campus incidents on outlets like Fox News contributes to that. But I think that there's a large enough grain of truth to that perception that progressive activists are in charge on campus, that if I were universities looking to improve this problem, I would work on what can we do to reduce the perception that this group has a monopoly on big decisions? At the very least a veto, maybe, on big decisions. People don't want to piss them off.

To your question about concerns about the students and the educational mission, I would split the concern you articulated into two separate ones that are slightly different. One is a concern that students are not going to be exposed to a range of views, in a range of perspectives, and maybe even a range of methodological or philosophical approaches to different issues on campus. And I think that's absolutely a very valid concern. And I think it's a concern, to the extent that there are moderate, liberal faculty that self censor a lot, I think it's maybe even more of a concern than the demographics of the faculties would otherwise suggest. Because there's lots of evidence that moderate faculty self censor a lot.

The other concern is that, yeah, I hear from conservatives a lot is that the liberal faculty are going to indoctrinate the students and turn them all into liberals. And Heterodox Academy has done some studies on that question. And as far as I've seen the evidence suggests that if we're trying to indoctrinate students, we're not very good at it. Because as the studies that I've seen show that students' political views are quite stable across their time on campus. So students that come in liberal tend to leave as liberal, students that come in as conservative tend to leave as conservative. 

So are we disproportionately exposing students to ideas that are disproportionately liberal? Are some faculty doing so in a way that intends to indoctrinate them or teach students that is the one correct view? I don't doubt that happens, but I haven't seen much evidence that convinces me that it's working. Where I would look, where I would be more concerned for evidence of that is in K-12, where there's also a big ... Education schools are one of the most skewed in terms of faculty. And they're the ones setting standards for teachers. But I haven't seen a study that looks carefully at that, either. 

And then the other thing that I think, in terms of broader campus polarization, I think the demographics of campus are such that the left extreme is more of a potent force on campus than the right extreme. We've had controversial conservative speakers, fellows in the past. And I don't think they really have a major impact on the overall dynamic and feeling of campus. Sometimes they say things that piss people off, and people get mad at them, and deans make statements about them. And then life goes on. I don't think that it really has an impact outside of the incident. Although, as I said earlier, that the right extreme certainly has a major impact in our politics nationally. So in terms of left extreme, I would say I'm cautiously optimistic about some schools, including public schools like ours, because there's a couple of just big weaknesses that the left extreme, I think, has that I think are probably going to eventually limit the power that it has, whatever you want to call their ideology, to do a complete takeover of small liberal arts colleges in the Coast like Evergreen, maybe, but schools like ours.

Okay. The first of these big weaknesses is the relative unpopularity of the ideology nationally. And people like John McWhorter have written about how maybe there's parts of this ideology that are literally a religion, if that's true, I don't think there's much evidence that religion has been very effective at generating a large number of converts. I think the election results that we've seen, for example, in 2020, in the primaries that we mentioned, I'm talking about ballot, mostly, in 2020, I think show that if changing hearts and minds is not working nationally, and so that's, I think, going to mean that appeasing this ideology on campus is going to clash pretty hard with maintaining enrollment in a lot of schools pretty soon. And you see that in dramatic fashion in Evergreen State, for example, which has, I think, lost half its enrollment since it blew up in 2017.

And then the second thing is there are elements of the narrative of this ideology that I think people are sympathetic to, but I think are becoming fairly transparently, not accurate. So one of the narratives is, "We are a movement that is fighting the power that is sticking to the man, that's fighting the system, that's breaking down the power structures." And yet this is a ideology that's in charge in big tech, and newsrooms, and corporations, and media, and the apparatus, to some extent, of one major party. And so can you really be on the side of all those big power brokers and still be against the system and fighting the man? It doesn't really make sense to me. 

The second thing, as I mentioned earlier, is that this ideology disproportionately appeals to rich white educated people, which undercuts the idea that this ideology is the way to make our campuses more diverse. And so I think that will start showing up in enrollment. A joke that I've told students before, in regards to some of these viral campus blowups is ostensibly, they're on behalf of the marginalized and against conservatives, and yet, why do they always seem to happen at campuses that have almost none of either of those groups? They happen at these super elite, rich liberal colleges, where there are almost no marginalized people and almost no conservatives. They never happen at community colleges, because people are trying to get a job. And they have more pressing concerns than what Erica Christakis thinks, whose jurisdiction Halloween costumes Erica Christakis thinks is it?

And then similarly, and I wish this last thing wasn't true because there's real harms, but the extreme parts of this ideology that are unpopular are harmful to both the groups that are supposed to be at the center of this ideology. So again, look at what's happened with crime, and divestment, and capital flight, and food deserts as a result of the unrest of the last year in poor African American communities in cities.

And secondly, and relatedly, I think, this ideology harms the adherence of the ideology emotionally. So Jonathan Haidt's book, and Greg Lukianoff book, The Coddling of the American Mind, talks about how elements of this ideology are, if you were to design a way of thinking that mimicked the thought patterns of anxiety, of depression, and encouraged and exaggerated them, you could hardly do better than some of the elements of catastrophism, and mind reading, and labeling, and basically some of the habits of mind, see maximum offense everywhere, assume everyone has bad intentions, or assume that no matter what their intentions are, you can be super harmed by anything anyone says. 

These are, as Greg Lukianoff points out, he's written about how he suffered from major depression years ago, and cognitive behavioral therapy helped him recover from that. And he says the things that we're teaching our young people are exactly the opposite of what cognitive behavioral therapy teaches people. And unfortunately, you're seeing that in statistics, right? So for example, the major depression rate of teen and young adult girls has doubled in the 2010s and gone up by another 50% since then. Now, it's not just this ideology that's doing that, it's also things like Instagram and other aspects of the online culture, and the pandemic, certainly. But I don't doubt this ideology is a factor. 

The other statistic, which is really scary is if you look at there was a Pew study that came out, I think just before the pandemic in 2020, that found that among women under 30, who are white and identify as liberal, the fraction that report having been diagnosed with an anxiety or depression is over half. And that's also the demographic that is the most that is most interested in this ideology. It skews white, it skews educated, it skews affluent, it skews young, and it skews female. An ideology that draws its moral authority from helping marginalized groups of people, but actually seems to hurt them a lot, as John McWhorter has written about in the book, Woke Racism, but also that makes his adherence miserable. I just can't see that. I don't see a political path for that ideology in the long run.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. So there's no real future for it. And the other thing, you refer to the thing as an ideology, which I think is correct and fitting, but it's odd to me that an ideology as such would even have a place on campus. In other words, a higher education institution is about ideas. What ideology means is that you have an idea which has ascended to the level of truth, such that the question is closed. Whatever it's an idea about is no longer an open question where other ideas are welcome. And so it just occurs to me that ideology as such is antithetical to the truth seeking mission of the university, insofar as it supposes questions to be closed. And I hope that can't survive on campus. I very much hope you're right.

MATT BURGESS: Yeah. Right. A couple of points on that. I think you're absolutely right that a university cannot have an official ideology or even an unofficial ideology at the level of institution. So the University of Chicago, I think, outlined this quite well in their Calvin principles, where they say something to the effect of, "Universities absolutely do have a role in pushing major conversations forward in terms of advancing ethics on social, and cultural, and political issues. But the appropriate unit for that effort is individual students and faculty. And that effort can't succeed with full freedom if the university itself is involved in these things." And so that report calls for universities as institutions to be politically neutral and to not get involved in any political issue, except ones that directly impact their funding. Like CU certainly could go to the legislature and advocate for themselves. So I agree with that. And I think universities should adopt that.

And then at the level of individual faculty, I actually don't have a problem with individual faculty and individual students who want to be activists. I think that's part of the free inquiry, free expression campus. We just can't have whole disciplines, whole departments, whole schools that have an official ideological position that no one can challenge. It's like where the word heterodox in Heterodox Academy comes from is the idea that as individuals, we're not going to be perfectly unbiased, balanced truth seekers, but by having a diversity of viewpoints and approaches together, we will be, because we'll challenge each other. So that's what I see as the ideal on campus.

Now, I have to say though, that Jonathan Haidt, in terms of the history, sometimes this issue is portrayed as, "Well, we used to have this ethic and now increasingly we don't." In favor of whatever you want to call, The Hidden Tribes was calling the progressive activist ideology. But Jonathan Haidt has pointed out in a couple of interesting talks that actually, if you go far enough back in history, most universities were religious. And they pursued truth to the extent that it didn't clash with the religious doctrine that they were in. 

And then at some point there was a split, or as Haidt calls it a schism, where some schools decided, "Okay, we're just going to be truth seeking schools." And some schools continued to be religious schools. And he's called for that basically now we should have a second schism, so schools that are behaving as though their primary mission is to advance whatever you want to call this ideology, they should just admit that publicly. And students who want that can go there, and faculty who want to do that can go there, et cetera, and schools that want to be truth seeking should go the other way, and maybe adopt something like Calvin principles.

But the main thing is just schools should choose, people should vote with their feet, and everybody should be honest about what they're doing. I think that's a fine aspirational goal. I don't expect that any school's actually going to announce publicly that they're no longer about truth seeking, but I do think that the people voting with their feet is already happening. If you start having enough of these kind of viral incidents where some company or campus becomes completely ungovernable, and you're like, "Okay, well, where did the people who made that ungovernability happen go to school? Well, I'm not sending my kids there.." I think that happened at Evergreen, University of Missouri, which had a big viral incident in 2015, I believe. Shortly after that they lost, I think 20% of their freshman enrollment. And interestingly, they lost 40% of their African American enrollment, which again, speaks to the idea that being ideological is actually not the way to boost diversity on campus. 

And so to bring this full circle in an optimistic sense, another reason, the flip side of my saying that the unpopular parts of this ideology are self-defeating in terms of what they do to their adherence and to the people they're supposed to be helping, I think the flip side of that is campuses are definitely not going to drop their desires to become more diverse and more inclusive, nor should they. But the mission of having more open inquiry, having a better climate for where people don't feel they're walking on eggshells, having more ideological pluralism, I think those are 100% aligned with the objectives of being in more diverse and more inclusive campus. 

And I think we're going to start to realize that, and that's where I think we're going to see some of the tide turning, because again, even conservatives on campus, when you can find them on the faculty, they're all for making our school more accessible to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For example, I believe he's the president of Purdue, Mitch, is it? What's his last name? Is it-

SHILO BROOKS: Mitch Daniels.

MATT BURGESS: ... Daniels? Yeah. 


MATT BURGESS: He's a Republican who occasionally makes statements or invites speakers that pisses off the talking heads on progressive Twitter, but he's kept tuition at Purdue under 10 grand for his whole time. And so actually find me somebody who's done a better job concretely at making their school accessible to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I think there's lots of error. Another way to think of it is the median voter is economically progressive. There's very little appetite in broader society for this kind of performative identity balkanizing type discourse. We have these existential problems, but we're going to focus on small, accidental offenses as their solutions. That's a little bit contradictory with the idea of existential problems, isn't it? 

But the flip side is that there's this huge political constituency for economic progressivism and more unity, which again, as social science research is really clear, is what you need to have political will for economic progressivism. And so I think that there's, there's a virtuous cycle that could be started once we see that a lot of our goals in terms of what we actually want our campuses to look like, we want environments where people feel at home, where people are happy, where people are mentally healthy. We're doing a terrible job at improving our students' mental health, where students from economically disadvantaged and otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds can succeed. And those are not controversial objectives. 

So I think about there's questions of values and questions of strategies or facts. I think on the big questions of values, what are the things we would like to do? What are the ways we would move the needle? I think there's actually quite a lot of agreement on campus as to what we want to do. And the disagreements come down to, I think, methods and approaches. And I think the evidence is very clearly on the side of approaches that would also be good for pluralism, and heterodoxy, and open inquiry.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. you make this case in a very persuasive way. And in a way you sound optimistic about the future of campus, and-


SHILO BROOKS:  ... higher ed, and polarization. Let me ask you this, though. And I know our time is running short, here, but just it seems to me that this case has to be made to other faculty, administrators, maybe even students. That's a tall order, because as you've said, there's one or two Matt Burgesses on a state university campus of 30,000 people. How do you make the case? What does that practically look like, boots on the ground, making the case to people? Because it's not just about informing them, it's also, in some cases, about changing their minds. They might well disagree with you. So I'm curious, I'm hopeful, just as hopeful as you are, on the other hand, I see the intractability in a certain way of certain aspects or facets of our institution. So how do you go about making the case?

MATT BURGESS: I don't actually think you need that many voices making the case, but I think they need to be making the case in ways that convey empirically testable predictions, that then will be tested by reality as it evolves. For example, I think that departments and campuses that go down this road of being ideological in this particular ideology, A, will lose enrollment numbers. That's a testable prediction. And if it starts happening and chancellors and deans have heard me make it, or if people like me make it, they might think, "Oh, shoot, maybe there's something to this." And no dean wants to lose their enrollment, and same thing, donors. And then the second thing is that if our goal is to have a student body that is diverse in every way and mentally healthy, it is not going to do that.

And I think there's already some data on both of these points at various schools. And I think it's only become more clear to schools and departments the further down this road they go. And so then the question is how quickly would deans and leaders be willing to react to it? But again, I think the vast majority of deans and leaders are not dyed in the wool, true believers. And so as soon as they start to see ... A way I think about it is if a certain movement is obnoxious, but claims to be helping a really important cause, at some point, if you see that they're not actually helping the cause, then they're just obnoxious. It becomes, I think, quite easy to have a spine, which I think is what needs to happen.

So I would say I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm quite optimistic, I think, about our school. If I had to bet on who's going to figure this out first, I think there's every reason to think it could be us if we get serious about it. I think there maybe are some small liberal arts schools in New England that are going to be in big trouble. But overall, and the other thing is, and I say this to Republicans, because some Republicans want to get rid of academic freedom, because they don't critical race theory, or they want to defund universities, or whatever. And what I say to Republicans about that is, "You're making the same logical error that the defund the police people are. Universities are just such an important institution to a advanced 21st century society that you're not going to get rid of them and you're going to dramatically weaken the country if you try."

So what I think a better approach Republicans could take would be, if they're concerned about these issues, is increased funding with strings attached. Because again, it's not going to help their cause if faculty think, "Well, our research budget is going to get cut in half if we vote Republican, and it's going to be doubled if we vote Democrat. And yeah, maybe there's some of these issues on campus that we don't like, but we don't want to lose all the research funding."

If Republicans start being the party of, "Look, we want to increase our investment in funding because we want to be leaders and that's part of our national pride, but you have to stick to the true seeking mission." Then I think that will change the political dynamics for both voters and faculty who will see like, "Okay, I believe." I think a lot of faculty see these trends and think, "Well, boy, I really think universities are important. And I really believe in what I'm doing. And I don't want to vote for somebody who's going to blow it up. But I'm also concerned." And so I think we need politicians to give us something to support that fits both of those things.

SHILO BROOKS: Well, look, Matt, this has been a real pleasure and I just want to say to folks out there, if you're a CU community member look up Matt's CU Reducing Polarization dialogue series. If you're not, think about starting a similar series in your community, at your school, at your church, whatever the case may be. I think you're onto something here, Matt, and I really do appreciate your conversation with us today.

MATT BURGESS: Thank you so much, Shilo. It's a pleasure to be on this. I appreciate what you're doing with this podcast. And we'll talk soon.

SHILO BROOKS: The Free Mind Podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. You can email us feedback at freemind@colorado.edu or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson.