Campus Free Speech Culture is informed by Administrative Policies and Fortitude
Polarization has dominated our culture in recent years. The paramount virtue for many these days is loyalty to their respective tribal identities, and nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses. Every so often, we hear about speakers being disinvited at the behest of an angry student mob. These incidents, however, are no aberration. Rather, dissenting student groups and professors alike face increasing hostility for espousing unpopular views. This dynamic is, of course, antithetical to the entire purpose of higher-education. At the heart of the problem lies pusillanimous school administrations unwilling to push back against the demands of the loudest, most outraged groups on campus—which ultimately gives these groups an outsized influence on affairs.
This phenomenon was affirmed in a recent survey conducted by RealClearEducation. RealClearEducation reached out to 72 political and academic experts to ask about the state of free speech and open inquiry on college campuses. Despite reaching out to experts across the political spectrum, the overwhelming majority of respondents were conservative. In this survey, the experts were asked to identify universities that are notably committed or are hostile to the protection of free speech on campus. These results should not surprise anyone following the controversies on college grounds.
The University of Chicago was recognized, by some margin, as the best climate for free speech. This was to be expected, given that they are one of the few schools that both articulate and enforce a clear and unambiguous standard for permissible conduct. This standard is founded in what many call “The Chicago Statement.” Included in this statement is the laudable mission of guaranteeing “all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” In fact, they underscore how it is not the role of the university to “shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” Pursuant to this commitment, the administration at the University of Chicago has informed their incoming freshman classes that they do not support “trigger warnings” and intellectual “safe spaces,” two commonly used mechanisms designed to stifle discourse.
In sharp juxtaposition, many institutions have subordinated an interest in free speech to meretricious standards like “inclusion” or “safety.” Among these universities, according to the RealClearEducation survey, are Yale, Harvard, and Williams University. These universities have garnered media publicity for conduct which include concerted efforts to pressure professors into resigning, working with the administration to remove unpopular faculty members, and canceling speakers amidst student protests.
Although it is most prevalent in liberal institutions, viewpoint suppression is not a uniquely liberal phenomenon. In the survey, Liberty University was recognized for its harsh treatment of ideological diversity. Last year, it was reported that Liberty University officials had extensively interfered with the editorial process at Liberty Champion, a student-run newspaper, in an effort to weed-out articles that were critical of the administration. Liberty’s intolerance toward criticism reflects the behavior of its controversial president Jerry Falwell Jr., who has been known to block dissenting students on Twitter.
Critics often obscure the issue of viewpoint diversity by pointing out that private institutions have no legal obligation to protect free speech. This, however, misses the point. While there is no legal obligation, there are inherent and unequivocal virtues in a culture that embraces free speech and dialogue. In fact, it actually does the students a disservice to shelter them from unpopular viewpoints.
One of the respondents of the survey, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at New York University, often laments the maladies of an environment that doesn’t value “antifragility.” He states:
“When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to stay ‘emotionally safe’ while protecting them from every imaginable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient.”
This, of course, is entirely true. The central purpose of higher-education should be to inculcate timeless skills into their students—navigating disagreement and learning to live in a pluralistic society are just two of them.
In the end, it requires institutions to withstand the temptation of capitulating to the demands of outrage mobs. Their long-term objective of fostering intellectual development is far too important.