Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, is about to do something daring, but also necessary.
Jacobs is teaming up with a former Minnesota Republican congressman and lobbyist, Vin Weber, to host not one but a series of conservative speakers in hopes of nourishing a diversity of ideas on campus that he says has been missing for too long.
"The conversation at the University of Minnesota is just too narrow," Jacobs told an editorial writer. "There are lots of questions that just never get raised, and for me, it's really about the questions. People in a community look to the university for that, and it benefits everyone to bring people engaged with the big questions of our time and explore all sides."
By way of example, he points to a presentation late last year by Nikole Hannah-Jones, lead author of the 1619 Project, itself a daring attempt by Jones and the New York Times to reframe U.S. history through the lens of enslaved Africans and the systemic racism that followed their arrival. The project was a controversial one, and some of its facts and premises have been challenged, but it jarred many into thinking differently about American history, reexamining events, discussing history not as some long-dead assemblage of dates but as something vital that continues to shape who we are and how we think.
Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work, had been invited late last year as a speaker at the university's Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series. Some were dismayed that despite the controversial nature of her work, no one ever followed to present a different viewpoint. Jacobs, who holds the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies and who has published 16 books on politics, asked a dean about doing so. "I got no response," Jacobs said. "None. When I see a perspective that is given a platform but other perspectives are not, that concerns me. Where's the conversation?"
The U is hardly the only university suffering from what Jacobs calls a "conformitarian spirit." The Higher Education Research Institute reported in 2017 — the first year of Donald Trump's presidency — that first-year college students were more polarized than at any time in the previous half century.
This may well be due to the increasingly polarized nature of adult society, where ideology has seeped into every aspect of culture, and hyperbole and overreaction have become a way of life. But colleges have a particular mission. They are there to challenge students' thinking, their perceptions, their beliefs, to broaden their horizons and experiences. Rigorous intellectual curiosity should be the hallmark of a good university education.
To that end, Jacobs said he and Weber will moderate a series that deliberately features a conservative point of view, which he hopes will provoke piercing questions, wide-ranging debate and ongoing discussions as students are confronted with differing perspectives.
The first speaker, Jacobs said, will be Ramesh Ponnuru, editor of National Review, a conservative magazine founded in the mid-1950s to showcase conservative commentary. He will set the tone for the series by speaking on restoring intellectual diversity on campus. But following that, Jacobs and Weber plan to welcome speakers on more specific topics such as education, climate change and environment. Their first guest after Ponnuru will be Aimee Guidera, the Virginia secretary of education, speaking on parental rights and a conservative but data-driven approach to schooling.
Weber told an editorial writer that "this is all about how we create more ideas. On national security, on China, Ukraine, debt, taxes, energy. We want to figure out what's important right now, then find the best people to talk about those topics." The speakers, he said, "will be people we consider smart, responsible, leading conservatives."
That in itself may be a tall order given that the Republican Party appears to remain firmly in the grip of MAGA types embodied by Trump and like-minded others. There has been precious little attempt on the right, it must be said, to include opposing viewpoints, from the transgender lawmaker in Montana who literally was banned from attending floor sessions to the parents who got a Florida principal fired because his students were exposed to images of Michelangelo's immortal sculpture of David (who, for the record, is nude).
Understanding and acknowledging opposing viewpoints is the mark of a civilized society. It is why this Editorial Board remains committed to publishing a diversity of viewpoints, no matter how reviled some of them may be. We commend Jacobs and Weber for their efforts.
Weber did not underestimate the difficulty of the task, and acknowledged that the conservative intellectual universe is considerably smaller than in its Reagan-era heyday. "We want speakers who have ideas," he said, "not who want celebrity."
"We want to lower the volume of the rhetoric, put a spotlight on intelligent people and conversation and marshal facts," Jacobs added. "We need reasoned conversation and that must include conservative voices because they too have important ideas and research."
It is also, perhaps, the only way to move toward a greater understanding of one another and the common ground that can be found there.