Higher ed's echo chamber
College students only seem willing to hear viewpoints that affirm their own

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Article Highlights

  • Students and faculty at Smith College rejected an opportunity to hear from one of the most accomplished women in the world

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  • The "echo chamber effect” is when we are only willing to listen seriously to viewpoints that affirm our own

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  • Colleges, as open-minded academic institutions, have a responsibility to guard against an “echo chamber effect"

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  • To have productive dialogue, we need to acknowledge that well-meaning, intelligent people can disagree on issues

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On May 12, in the wake of protests by students and faculty, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew as Smith College’s commencement speaker. An online petition had urged the college to reconsider its invitation to Lagarde, contending that the IMF “has been a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world’s poorest countries.”

Admittedly, one could argue that commencement speakers need to have thicker skin. Any public figure will necessarily draw strong criticism from some corners, and one does not get to a position of power by shying away from controversy. When I was a graduate student at Stanford University, I attended commencement in 2002. At that ceremony, Condoleezza Rice – who was national security adviser to President George W. Bush at the time – delivered her address even as students held up protest signs.

 But it is disturbing that a large number of students and faculty members at Smith rejected an opportunity to hear from one of the most accomplished and powerful women in the world today. As Smith and other institutions have repeatedly pointed out, issuing an invitation to give a commencement address does not imply an endorsement of the speaker’s views. Rather, commencement speakers are invited because they are interesting and smart, and have played key roles in shaping our society.

Some have argued that such incidents highlight the left-wing bias on college campuses. As my colleague Kevin Hassett has documented, commencement speakers at the top schools overwhelmingly tend to be liberal, with conservative speakers often becoming the target of protests. For example, another controversy erupted recently when students and faculty at Rutgers University protested the selection of Condoleezza Rice; this time, Rice withdrew.

Of course, the IMF (where my husband is a senior economist) is hardly a bastion of right-wing sentiment. While Lagarde has been active in French center-right politics, her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was a French Socialist, and her current second-in-command, David Lipton, has served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations. Indeed, the IMF’s views on economic issues are quite moderate and tend to reflect those of the average academic economist. The organization consistently advocates income redistribution, Keynesian stimulus and carbon taxes.

But the more serious concern here is what Cass Sunstein, professor at Harvard Law School, has called the “echo chamber effect,” a phenomenon that occurs when we are only willing to listen seriously to viewpoints that affirm our own. In doing so, we become even more extreme in our views, demonizing those with whom we disagree and refusing to make even the slightest effort to see their perspective. Colleges and universities – institutions that are supposed to be at the forefront of open-minded academic inquiry – have a special responsibility to guard against this problem.

While most of the recent commencement controversies have involved protests from the left, the echo chamber concern applies equally to the right and the left. When I taught at a small liberal arts college, I often crossed paths with liberal and progressive faculty members who truly believed that anyone who disagreed with them must be either evil or stupid. And I’ve frequently crossed paths with conservatives who believe the same. The liberals demonize conservatives as unsympathetic, anti-science bigots, while the conservatives demonize liberals as envious, anti-American guiltmongers.

But to have a productive dialogue, we need to acknowledge that well-meaning, intelligent people can disagree on a wide range of issues, that there is genuine uncertainty about the right way to handle most economic and social problems, and that our own views could very well be wrong. We need to be willing to extend gestures of respect and goodwill, and to listen thoughtfully, to people who disagree with us.

Former Smith president Ruth Simmons, who replaced Lagarde as Smith’s commencement speaker, appropriately chose to emphasize the value of free speech and diversity of opinion in her address. “The collision of views and ideologies is in the DNA of the academic enterprise,” she said, later adding, “I am an admirer of Christine Lagarde. I hope you will invite her to be a part of this discord in the future and that she will accept your invitation.”

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Sita Nataraj

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