By Peter W. Wood
Tuesday, February 8, 2017
President Trump has wondered aloud—or at least tweeted—about the possibility of cutting federal funding for universities that fail to safeguard free speech. In the wake of the riot and arson February 1 that led the University of California at Berkeley to cancel a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, President Trump tweeted, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
One telegraphic question does not a policy make, but it does raise a matter worth thinking about. For several years the nation has witnessed an accelerating decline in respect for and protection of intellectual freedom in higher education.
Suppression of Thought and Speech Is Rampant
Some of these stories make headlines. When major colleges and universities “disinvite” prominent national and international leaders after tapping them to give commencement speeches or major addresses, people notice. News also travels in the wake of professional provocateurs such as Yiannopoulos, who intentionally set out to anger the already angry left and often succeed in rousing intemperate reactions to their childish taunts.
In other cases, videos of campus “social justice warriors” in action have captured such outrageous behavior that the public has been rightly alarmed. Professor Melissa Click at the University of Missouri yelling “We need some muscle over here!” The mob of Yale University students surrounding and taunting Professor Nicholas Christakis. The Black Lives Matter protesters rampaging through the library at Dartmouth. These are among dozens of live-action representations of what “protest” at American colleges and universities has devolved into. All too often that protest is lawless, ignorant, and contemptuous of the rights of others to express—or even to hold— contrary views.
Beyond the disinvitations, protests, and now anarchist violence at Berkeley are deep and less visible layers of suppression of thought and speech. Declining to appoint faculty members who have failed the Left’s ideological litmus tests seldom can be captured by camera or headline. But such accumulated non-appointments by the tens of thousands has given us today’s all-leftism-all-the-time campus.
Likewise, filtering out candidates for college presidencies who have failed to take loyalty oaths to progressive orthodoxy has ensured that the leadership of higher education is politically single-minded. The shaping of college curricula is too far down in the weeds to receive much public attention, but curriculum is precisely where many campus protesters acquire their sense that respect for the rule of law is an impediment to the pursuit of power “by any means necessary.”
The list goes on. A “new civics” that elevates political activism over intellectual inquiry has become institutionalized on many campuses, often via programs run by the dean of students. Advocates of the idea that manmade global warming is an existential crisis have succeeded in shutting off debate on a whole range of related issues by declaring that any opinion other than their own is anti-science “denialism.” Look for a political or social issue on which Americans are divided in their opinions, and the odds are good that on college campuses you will find near unanimity of opinion conforming to the ideas of the progressive left.
The Left Has Captured Academia
This is plainly not because the progressive left has a monopoly on the best reasoning, the highest principles, or the most compelling evidence for the validity of its positions. Mostly it is because the progressive left has captured higher education.
This victory was the result of decades of hard work in taking control of colleges and universities department by department, appointment by appointment, budget by budget, decision by decision. Conservatives occasionally burst out with fierce complaints over higher education’s low academic standards and high politicization. The result of these complaints has been typically minor concessions and slowdowns in the program of full-scale capture.
A French revolutionary, Pierre Vergniaud, marched to the guillotine, appears to have coined the idea that revolutions devour their own. The progressive left may be at that moment now. In the last few years, more and more progressives have found themselves accused of thought crimes. Perhaps most famously, the feminist Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis was “investigated” by her university after some students took umbrage at her article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which she took exception to some of the sexual harassment rules she had in general previously championed. Kipnis is not alone in her predicament. Inquisitions of this sort became common enough in recent years to prompt the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to issue its own report warning of the danger.
Many college presidents have responded weakly to the campus disturbances of the last few years. Many preemptively surrendered to the radicals. Brown University’s commitment of $100 million to appeasement is probably the most spectacular such capitulation, but it is part of a widespread pattern that goes deep into the details of college life.
I’ve been paying close attention to a case at little Springfield College in Massachusetts, where a handful of radical feminist administrators are waging a bureaucratic war on a male English professor who has a scholarly and pedagogical interest in “men in literature.” He lives in a regime of what can best be described as Kafkaesque torment, in which his rights to free expression are stripped away, he is put under surveillance, ordinary faculty privileges are revoked, and no one in authority is willing to say why.
We know why. The provost let slip at one point that his scholarly and teaching interest—“men in literature”—is itself a form of “sexual harassment.” So if President Trump is serious about “free speech” on campus, he has a much bigger problem than Berkeley’s impotent response to the 150 masked anarchists who set fires at the Yiannopoulos event. The suppression of free speech goes down almost to the molecular level at today’s colleges and universities.
The Debate Over How to Restore Freedom of Expression
So what is to be done? There are promising state-level initiatives. Stanley Kurtz, and James Manley and Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute, have recently offered model state-level legislation for protecting campus free speech. There have been stirrings of support for the 2015 “Stone Report” from the University of Chicago, which reaffirms at least part of the doctrine of academic freedom.
I have sought the endorsements of college presidents for a more robust “College and University Presidents’ Intellectual Freedom Commitment,” so far without success. My 2016 booklet, “The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom,” offers a short overview of the important differences between First Amendment rights, academic freedom, and intellectual freedom. The AAUP, which once could be relied on for care and precision in enunciating what academic freedom entails has, alas, become little more than a rubber stamp for campus advocates of progressive politics.
Public concern over the suppression of academic freedom on campus could take shape in many ways, of course. I meet with a wide range people who are eager to act. First, there are libertarians who in the name of the First Amendment would sweep away all restrictions on speech. I ask, “But what about the restrictions needed to maintain a coherent curriculum and rightful intellectual authority? What about the need to distinguish the pursuit of truth from the promulgation of opinion?” The First Amendment may be blind to these matters, but higher education cannot be.
Second, there are Tea Party-ish conservatives who see the nation’s tradition of ordered liberty as imperiled by those who reject the foundational ideas of order. They view much of American higher education as turned against what is best in American culture and society, and have little allegiance to “academic freedom” for its own sake. I ask, “But what will sustain those principles of ordered liberty if we give up on higher education? The pursuit of truth requires a context, as does the transmission of civilization. How to maintain either without free intellectual inquiry?”
Third, I meet conservative political activists who are ready to adopt the tactics of the academic left to promote their own agenda. To them, intellectual freedom means little other than the opportunity to fight back in kind: suppress the Left and champion the Right. I ask, “Don’t you recognize that you are buying into the corruption of higher education? Wouldn’t the nation be better served by colleges and universities that strive to be above the political fray and provide neutral ground where the full range of ideas can be debated?”
Fourth, I encounter advocates of more strenuous intellectual doctrines, who see the need to draw distinctions between permissible and impermissible forms of expression in higher education and who debate how to draw these lines. Do we let apologists for hostile foreign powers occupy prominent faculty positions, relegate them to the category of invited speakers, or bar them altogether? I ask, “Do these debates get us anywhere in dealing with the crisis at hand? Intellectual freedom is dying on campus. Can we afford a long discussion of whether Yiannopoulos is the cause or the symptom?”
Of course, I encounter plenty of liberals as well. The view that prevails among them is that the real threats to academic and intellectual freedom come from the religious right, big energy companies, capitalists in general, technocratic administrators, and all the other groups I’ve mentioned. I ask, “Do you have some cases in mind illustrating censorship originating from any of these sources?” What follows is either awkward silence or vehement denunciation of President Trump.
Here Are Two Potentially Fruitful Suggestions
What avenues do we really have, apart from state-level initiatives? The two that seem worth pondering are congressional action and “dear colleague” letters.
Congressional action would take the form of a bill that would emphasize the importance of intellectual freedom at colleges and universities that receive public money. This would be a very hard bill to craft, especially in light of the skill with which the academic left typically inverts the purpose of legislation. Title IX was passed to end sexual discrimination in higher education, but through the magic of President Obama’s Office for Civil Rights, Title IX became the instrument for imposing radical sexual discrimination on higher education. Could we craft an intellectual freedom bill that will not, in the fullness of time, be interpreted as a mandate for intellectual conformity?
Perhaps we could give it a try, but realizing that any threat to cut off funding entirely to offending institutions will make the law a dead end. What’s needed is a set of basic incentives to foster intellectual diversity and disincentives for violating intellectual freedom. Above all, the interpretation of the law has to be kept out of the hands of squirrely law professors and government bureaucrats, who will render it comatose at first opportunity. Oversight needs to be vested in a bipartisan national commission.
A “dear colleague” letter would emulate the form of Barack Obama’s action through the Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Justice, in which some thread of jurisdictional authority is traced to existing law to “advise” colleges and universities how that law would be interpreted. This was one of the ways Obama grabbed power for himself with direct congressional approval. Like many others, I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. But it may be the only short-term tool President Trump has to cut funding for colleges and universities that suppress free speech.
If he were to go this direction, he would need to find a law open to aggressive interpretation. Possibly the First Amendment could lend itself to this purpose, but for a variety of reasons, it would be better to find some provision in the Higher Education Act that gives warrant for protecting intellectual freedom.
That’s the lay of the land. In the meantime, the “Resistance” to President Trump is likely to take us further and further into censorship, suppression of free inquiry, public disorder, and the hollowing out of faithful public purpose in higher education. Our colleges and universities are indulging them. They seem to be doing so with no recognition of their actual peril—peril not from Trump but from loss of their legitimacy as institutions in our free, self-governing republic.
A simpler solution would be for college presidents and trustees to uphold the principles on which their institutions were founded. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will happen. More likely they will wait to see what President Trump will do and then complain about it.
That means those of us who care about free expression in higher education need to come to grips with our choices right now. Let’s start with the idea that academic freedom is inseparable from the responsibility to give those we disagree with the opportunity to speak and to be heard. A university that fails at something so basic really does forfeit its claims on public support.