It's not all bad news on intellectual diversity

Published May 9, 2024

By Robert Hunter

Several years ago, I attended a North Carolina State Bar Dinner, where Judge Allison Duncan, then active on the US Fourth Circuit, spoke on diversity and equality of opportunity. She argued that diversity of viewpoint is needed for a strong academic system and that diversity of immutable characteristics does not equate to a vigorous intellectual ecosystem. This premise has been recently enacted by the Supreme Court in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. vs. UNC (2023), which has adopted a color-blind approach under the 14th Amendment to federally supported schools and universities. This is the same approach that North Carolina lawyer Albion Tourgee argued for the plaintiffs in his famous brief in Plessy vs Furgeson (1896).

Despite Duncan’s warnings, a recent article from the Carolina Journal outlined the lack of viewpoint diversity at law schools across the nation, including top schools in North Carolina. Law school observers understand that existing faculty usually reflect a “progressive” bent and tend to populate the teaching profession with like-minded souls. This follows a familiar trend where faculty governance of institutions can be an echo chamber to the detriment of the institution. An example of this is the expelling of Benjamin S. Hedrick by the UNC Faculty in the 1850s for the crime of supporting John C. Fremont, a Republican for president.

Contrarian professors can broaden the minds of young students. Dialectic learning using the Socratic method — the traditional teaching method — requires both a thesis and an antithesis for students to learn the mechanics of critical thinking. Without balanced discussion, students can become forces to revolutionize society rather than to reform society.

The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a primary example, showing how the Russian revolutionaries changed the czarist courts. As recent history shows, the absence of legitimate countervailing voices can lead to indoctrination rather than education, with disastrous results. The current debates over antisemitism and Palestinian rights underscore the need to teach respectful discourse on public issues without ideological blinders. 

Commitment to intellectual diversity is not merely an exercise in checking a faculty member’s voter registration but examining the body of their academic work to ensure a commitment to teaching diverse theories. I agree with Jim Martin, former North Carolina governor, that to ensure diversity of viewpoint, change is needed in the state college system. State-sponsored public forums are constitutionally bound to provide viewpoint diversity. Shurtleff vs Boston(2021).

As for private institutions, supporters of viewpoint diversity should attend a school that champions it. This both satisfies their wants and puts positive pressure on other institutions. When consumers are given better options, as simple economics tells us, existing institutions are forced to adapt.

New intellectually diverse options are in the offing. The University of Austin, a new school poised to compete with the Ivies from its inception, is betting on the intellectual diversity principle. In North Carolina, the new law school at High Point University is establishing an institution committed to intellectual diversity. Their law school faculty page shows the broad range of federal and state judges, lawyers, and academics from all political and philosophical views. Congratulations to former Chief Justice Mark Martin for championing this approach.

One hopes our other institutions of learning are paying attention to this debate and broadening their offerings.

Justice Robert Hunter is a retired North Carolina appellate jurist. He currently practices law and serves as an arbitrator in Greensboro.