Can Deregulation Restore Campus Free Speech?

Published April 17, 2017

National Review

Peter, thanks for your thoughtful critique of my piece, “Understanding the Campus Free-Speech Crisis.” You call for our elite colleges and universities to be disciplined by the market, rather than by legislation designed to protect freedom of speech. The case I made in my piece is that while market forces are effective in most sectors, the academy is protected from market pressures by massive government financial assistance and by tenure.

People have been talking about the higher-education bubble for some time now. Well, it hasn’t burst yet. And why should it when federal and state governments pump massive amounts of money into the system? In fiscal year 2013, the federal government sent $137 billion into the academy in student loans and other assistance under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. Combined state and federal aid to higher education makes up well over a third of public college and university budgets. Rather than make college “more affordable,” schools have used that money to raise their already inflated tuitions. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) is proposing some potentially helpful changes to this system at the federal level. Yet even if these changes are adopted, federal aid is certain to remain massive in scope. That is precisely why NAS has suggested linking Title IV assistance to the protection of campus free speech, an idea I elaborated into a detailed proposal. (And by the way, while it doesn’t constitute a formal endorsement of every element of the NAS’s legislative proposal, over 100 educators, including many prominent conservatives familiar to NRO readers, have signed the NAS letter on amending the Higher Education Act, which includes the proposal on campus free speech.)

So long as that massive federal infusion of money through Title IV of HEA exists, colleges will remain powerfully insulated from market pressures. You note that many alternatives to the elite left-liberal institutions of higher education are available, often at a surprisingly reasonable price. That’s true, and many of those alternative schools are excellent, although quality and commitment to traditional liberal education among some of the alternatives can be uneven. In any case, the alternative menu hasn’t produced an exodus from the dominant schools. And it certainly hasn’t sufficed to secure free speech at the vast majority of colleges and universities. Nor do I believe that your excellent ideas on accreditation reform will escalate market pressures sufficiently even to slow, much less head off our rapidly metastasizing free-speech crisis.

There is a great deal of justified concern about religious liberty these days, not only at private religious colleges but for religious students at public and private secular colleges as well. You may be concerned about the effect of legislation on private religious colleges, but please note that neither my state nor my federal proposals—nor NAS’s—apply to private religious schools.

You’re mistaken when you say that I never mention the role of college and university administrators. I had plenty to say in my piece about administrators: their tendency to cave in to anti-free speech demonstrators; the decreasing pressures on them to defend free speech; and how administrators are nowadays sometimes allied with disruptors. In fact my state proposal is designed to work by bringing pressure to bear on administrators, pressure not primarily from legislators but from trustees.

Although you’re right to point to the growing importance of administrators, this hardly cancels out the role of tenured faculty. Tenured faculty have consistently driven the attacks on campus free speech, both through their teaching and through their ability to hire like-minded non-tenured faculty. After all, the leftist administrators you’re worried about were taught by faculty radicals.

I’ll let the semi-literate and now notorious Wellesley student editorial damning free speech make my point: “We have all said problematic claims, the origins of which were ingrained in us by our discriminatory and biased society. Luckily, most of us have been taught by our peers and mentors at Wellesley in a productive way.” Yes, those tenured Wellesley mentors, and the junior faculty they hire, are “productive” when it comes to churning out students who neither understand nor accept freedom of speech.

The tenure system has been grossly abused to create a de facto intellectual monopoly on campus, and the campus free-speech crisis is simply incomprehensible without understanding the faculty’s central role. Moreover, the tenure system is specifically designed to insulate faculty from market pressures. Abuse of the tenure system not only killed campus free speech and the marketplace of ideas, the resulting tenure-protected intellectual monopoly virtually guarantees that nothing will change in the absence of intervention from the public by way of its elected representatives.

By the way, I don’t agree that the campus free-speech crisis is largely limited to elite campuses. That may have been true some time ago, but the problem has spread to a far wider range of schools. Shout-downs, thefts of student newspapers, free-speech zones and the rest are now regular features at the non-flagship campuses of many state systems. They just don’t get as much publicity. I agree that there are some great alternative schools out there, and at a reasonable price. But the crisis of campus free speech and the broken marketplace of ideas now reach far more widely across the academy than you may think.

The idea that accreditation reform (which I favor) will do anything of significance to stop these campus shout-downs any time soon (or even later) is not credible.

You say that anti-Trump campuses won’t be “intimidated” by reforms backed by Trump and the Republicans. But if contemporary experience of the academy says anything, it’s that administrators will do nothing to jeopardize their Title IV funding. That’s the federal gravy train they cannot do without. Threaten their Title IV eligibility, and you’ll rapidly see a remarkable number of administrators turn aficionados of John Stuart Mill.

You defend the tenure system—the antithesis of the market. Yet you rely on the market in other respects. I don’t believe this contradiction will hold. It would have when the tenure system was a bulwark of the marketplace of ideas. But now that tenure has been abused to create an unbreakable intellectual monopoly, we conservatives have to face the fact that the campus free-speech crisis is largely immune to market pressure. This is not a surrender of conservative principle but simple recognition that market forces have been structurally subverted in this sector. We won’t win until we admit how badly we’re losing.

Again, I agree that there are still some great schools out there and that we should work to buck them up. (And my proposals exempt private religious colleges.) Market forces within the academy also can and should be strengthened. Important exceptions notwithstanding, however, we are losing our most fundamental freedom on a generational level. We’re on the edge of the abyss; the foes of freedom are protected by tenure and ensconced in the seat of cultural power; and tweaking the accreditation system and hoping for the best 20 years from now won’t do. Stronger medicine is required.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at [email protected]

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