As a new school year begins, it is hard to tell whether the campus free speech and free expression controversies are receding, or whether the ideological conformity of most college campuses is simply settling down to a new level of enforced censoriousness. There is no central clearing house or database on campus speech controversies, so we have to go by anecdotes. Philadelphia-area schools have become one of the ground zeros in the struggle over free speech on campus. Several of the examples are worrying less as indicators of misplaced or exaggerated student outrage than of administrative bias and cowardice.
University of the Arts’ Camille Paglia is taking fire from students for controversial views she has been expressing for more than 30 years. Despite her feminist bona fides and self-identification as a transgender person, students say her deviations from rigid identity orthodoxy are grounds for firing. Paglia is used to it and will survive just fine. But more significant are the cases of Villanova University professors Colleen Sheehan and James Matthew Wilson, and Penn Law’s Amy Wax.
Last spring, Sheehan and Wilson wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Villanova’s search for classroom “bias” critical of “diversity” on campus amounted to a “mole hunt” that chilled academic freedom. Sheehan and Wilson were quickly denounced, not only by faculty or students, but also by Villanova’s president and provost—not exactly an expression of support for academic freedom, let alone free speech.
And Penn Law’s Amy Wax, because of her controversial comments at a recent conference in Washington, has been placed on another year of earned academic leave, which puts off for now the question of whether she will be allowed to return to teach. Penn students were already angry with Wax after her 2016 transgression of defending … middle–class bourgeois values. Now her comments on restricting immigration have drawn a second direct public rebuke from Penn Law’s dean.
This all follows on the experience of Samuel Abrams, a political scientist at Sarah Lawrence College, who wrote in the New YorkTimes (not exactly a right-wing outlet) that college administrators were actually more ideological than the faculty, and that their administrative power poses a much greater menace to free expression than radical professors or oversensitive students. This generated outrage from some faculty and students (along with vandalism of Abrams’ office door), but it was the oblique suggestion of Sarah Lawrence’s president that Abrams ought to seek employment elsewhere that should set off alarm bells for academic freedom and administrative support for independent views.
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College campuses have always been hothouses of political controversy and sometimes disruptive protests. It bodes ill for higher education, however, when administrations pay lip service to academic freedom while ratifying the ideological doctrines that justify the persecution of dissenting views. The most egregious recent example comes from Oberlin College, where the dean of students, drawn from the gender studies department and sporting a record of highly ideological publications, took a direct role in organizing and supporting a reckless and unfounded student protest against tiny Gibson’s Bakery in downtown Oberlin. How does an obvious ideological combatant get such an important administrative post at a premier college?
In this case, the extreme political activism of an administrator may end up costing Oberlin College more than $30 million in damages from the libel judgment Gibson’s Bakery won in court. Other college administrations may not learn from this case, however, and continue to lend their institutional weight on the side of ideological outlooks that seek to constrict freedom of expression on campus. The result will be a stifled intellectual campus climate reflected in a recent survey which found that a staggering 73 percent of Republican-leaning college students censor their opinions in the classroom. Numbers like this are a sign of an institution that is closing minds rather than opening them.
It bodes ill for higher education when administrations pay lip service to academic freedom while ratifying the ideological doctrines that justify the persecution of dissenting views.
Why is this important? Perhaps it is just a few isolated cases of over-zealous, ideologically biased administrators and faculty. But we think not. We believe that two trends are producing the constant conflict over campus free speech that we see in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The first is the overwhelming support by most administrators and many faculty for diversity as the most important objective in higher education. Currently on display in the Harvard admissions case, most colleges and universities agree that they should use the skin color of high school applicants to create just the right balance of racial groups in class. But it goes beyond admissions.
Administrators believe that their institutions should use race and gender as one, if not the primary, factor in hiring and promoting faculty, rather than research productivity and teaching quality. They seem to believe that schools should even teach diversity in curricula and the classroom, rather than, as it was once thought, showing students the best that has been thought or written.
This attitude will eventually undermine what has made our nation’s colleges and universities the best in the world. If research quality is subordinated to diversity, our universities will no longer excel as they could in the production of ideas and scientific advances. Diversity is not the same thing as truth; it is not an end, just a means. If teaching diversity supersedes instruction in the best ever thought or written, our students will leave colleges and universities unprepared for the world and perhaps even worse off than when they left high school. Colleges and universities should focus on what they were created to do – advance and teach knowledge – and leave the social engineering to someone else.
A second trend that has contributed to the free speech controversies in Philadelphia and elsewhere is the sad infantilization of the student body. Perhaps it comes from the constant attention and care that students have received from helicopter parents. Or perhaps it comes from the changing culture in K-12 education. Or maybe it is the way that universities have come to market themselves as lifestyles, complete with multiple food choices and hotel-like dorms.
But whatever the reason, students themselves have come to believe that they should not have to experience anything they find “offensive.” They seem to think that colleges and universities should be therapeutic environments where everyone agrees on the same values, unpleasant ideas are nowhere to be found, and no serious debate takes place. Administrators take advantage of the sheltered nature of undergraduate life to subordinate the constant questioning and debate that is the heart of the intellectual enterprise, and thus critical to the success of the university, to their allegiance to diversity.
We may only be at the beginnings of reversing this movement against free speech and inquiry on college campuses. One important response is to bring attention and, perhaps, ridicule, to the extreme examples of pro-diversity, anti-free speech policies at places like Penn, Villanova, and the University of the Arts. The remaining faculty who believe in the spirit of free inquiry and debate must redouble their efforts to defend the original purpose of the university, even though it could lead to personal and professional ostracization.
But ultimately the alumni and surrounding communities must make their wishes known. They can stop donating funds and supporting colleges and universities that will not stand up for the right to speak, debate, and think for one’s self. Only then can we begin to turn the tide on our nation’s campuses.
Steven F. Hayward is currently visiting professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at University of California Berkeley and a visiting lecturer at Berkeley Law. His most recent book is “Patriotism is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments That Redefined American Conservatism.”
John Yoo, a Philadelphia area native, is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Law, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His most recent book is “Striking Power: How Cyber, Robots, and Space Weapons Change the Rules for War.”