John Tomasi, Heterodox Academy

Not All Great Minds Think Alike

Grant Title
Discovering, Distilling, and Distributing the Best Foundations for Intellectual Pluralism
Legal Organization
Heterodox Academy
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 July 2023
End Date: 30 June 2026
Grant Amount

Great Minds Don’t Always Think Alike.

Higher education in the United States is at a crossroads. Will it maintain its legacy of open inquiry as the path to discovering truth and generating knowledge? Or will it become permanently sidetracked by rigid beliefs and a narrow scope of debate?

Before it’s too late, action needs to be taken to safeguard the values of academic freedom that have long assured American higher education’s success, says John Tomasi, D. Phil., the inaugural president of Heterodox Academy.

Founded in 2015, Heterodox Academy is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization with more than 6,700 faculty, staff, and student members, most in the U.S. Its mission remains : to advance the principles of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement to improve higher education and academic research.

“Heterodox Academy began when a group of college professors noticed something wrong in higher education,” Tomasi reports. “Students, faculty, and administrators were hesitating to express certain ideas because they feared social and professional retaliation. Paradoxically, this trend of hostility to diverse perspectives and beliefs is occurring at a time when campus communities have become more diverse than ever.”

Hostility to diverse perspectives and beliefs is occurring at a time when campus communities have become more diverse than ever.
John Tomasi

That paradox is core to the current situation across today’s campuses. Humans have a long history of struggling to deal with diversity. And the more important the topic, the harder it becomes.

“Some topics are easy to talk about. Even in the most ideologically and demographically diverse contexts, we are able to dialogue constructively about unimportant topics — the weather, trendy restaurants, Netflix,” Tomasi notes. “But differences of opinion become more challenging when the topic matters. This is why campus controversies today tend to focus on difficult issues like racial justice, gender equality, and religion.”

Facing such thorny topics, many campuses have become hotbeds of hostility. However, lack of debate can be as harmful to education as toxic conflict. The bedrock idea of HxA is to fix the problem from within by providing professors with tools, resources, and a supportive network. With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, it’s launched a three-year project to provide the resources professors need to confidently articulate and practice intellectual pluralism — in their classrooms and throughout their campuses.

A Focused Investigation

Integral to this project is creating and sustaining an intellectual think tank: six people conjoined in New York City for intense investigation. In addition to a full-time director and an editorial staffer, two visiting professors and two postdoctoral scholars from the humanities or social sciences are rotating in and out each year.

A lack of debate can be as harmful to education as toxic conflict.

Their mission is to examine why intellectual pluralism is at risk and identify ways to defend it. To confront the challenge, each selected scholar conducts a research project and writes about the findings. Additionally, they’re responding publicly to current events in higher education, asserting their views in prominent venues and publications such as “The Chronicle of Higher Education.” With collaboration and debate a key dimension of the think tank’s work, weekly workshopping sessions are supplemented by meetings with outside scholars invited in for information and discourse.

A key output will be an annotated bibliography of scholarly resources focused on intellectual pluralism. It will be freely available on the HxA website, part of a rich repository of resources there.

In addition, several surveys are being planned to better understand professors’ needs and identify opportunities for new research.

“New questions always arise, and intellectual work is never complete,” Tomasi acknowledges. “However, after three cohorts of visiting scholars, HxA will have a comprehensive database of research in pertinent fields. We’ll also have robust systems for maintaining that database and a wide range of external-facing writings, tools, and resources.”

We’re finding ways that allow people to disagree better and experience all the rewards of them doing that.
John Tomasi

Learning to Disagree Better

Many people are pushing for change in higher education. But Tomasi asserts that change can’t come through individual activism alone.

“One of the great lessons of American history,” he argues, “is that, without the right institutions in place, diverse societies will be at war. However, if you can devise the right kinds of institutions, you can take differences and magnify them to the benefit of everyone. Finding those institutions is the secret sauce of liberal societies. It’s the secret sauce of universities, too. And that’s the project that we’re engaged in. We’re finding ways that allow people to disagree better and experience all the rewards of doing that.”


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