The increase in political polarization is having a significant impact on college campuses. For Debra Mashek, professor of psychology at Harvey Mudd College, whose research lies in understanding human relationships and all of its complex layers, this is an opportune time to address this divide.
Mashek has been appointed the inaugural executive director of Heterodox Academy (HxA) in New York City. Beginning July 1, 2018, Mashek will take a leave from Harvey Mudd College to lead the nonprofit organization in its mission to increase viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding and constructive disagreement at colleges and universities.
Mashek believes that now is the time to act.
“Over the past couple of years, colleges—especially small liberal arts colleges—have seen an increase in ideological polarization, tribalism and hostility,” says Mashek. “Students and professors talk about ‘walking on eggshells’ in their conversations both within the classroom and beyond. This state of affairs really concerns me; core academic values of constructive disagreement and open inquiry are at stake.”
As the first executive director of HxA, Mashek intends to build networks of engaged scholars and teachers, and develop and distribute new tools that will make it easier for them and their constituencies to effectively defend core academic principles. Mashek plans also to promote the vital need for viewpoint diversity in higher education and raise awareness about what’s at stake for research and education if polarization and orthodoxy—rather than improved constructive disagreement—continue.
“Heterodox Academy is on a mission to cultivate the habits of both heart and mind that enable colleges and universities to realize their twin goals of producing the best research and providing the best education,” says Mashek. “I care deeply about students, faculty, staff and administrators. They will be able to solve the world’s most pressing problems if they listen to one another and work together.”
For two decades, Mashek has studied how people form relationships with each other and the challenges associated with building relationships. In her research group, students examine the complexities of these connections, focusing on team functioning, inter-institution collaboration and relationship processes in romantic partnerships.
Raunak Pednekar ’17, one of her students who actively seeks out heterodox perspectives, introduced Mashek to HxA.
Mashek says, “Inherent in the Harvey Mudd mission is a celebration of viewpoint diversity—and Mudders get that the world’s most complex problems demand nuanced, multi-dimensional solutions.”
Mashek credits the College with helping to prepare her for leadership roles. In 2011, she served as associate dean for faculty development, a role she held for three years. Later, at the behest of the deans of the seven Claremont Colleges, she directed grant-funded efforts to better leverage the colleges’ collective academic potential. She was then asked to launch the new Office of Consortial Academic Collaboration, which serves the five undergraduate colleges and the two gradate institutions in Claremont.
“Each of these roles helped me realize the importance of valuing the needs, interests and talents of others and the necessity of an unrelenting commitment to the end goal, especially in the face of challenge,” says Mashek. “All of these experiences landed me at a point in my career where I can help create positive change in academia. I hope to make Harvey Mudd College proud as I endeavor to be part of that change on the national stage.”